Over 25 days and countless sleepless nights of intense sailing, and it came down to a dogfight at the very death.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam negotiated some tricky wind patterns from behind Cape Town’s beautiful Table Mountain, but finally edged Chinese rival Dongfeng in a thrilling finish to the 6,487-nautical-mile first leg of the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) yesterday in South Africa.
The two boats had broken away from the rest of the fleet over the last couple of days, but some audacious sailing from Dongfeng meant that, despite leading, Azzam were never comfortable; their lead during the final stretch never went over three nautical miles.
Ultimately, they crossed the finish line 12 minutes ahead Dongfeng, in 25 days, 3 hours and 10 minutes. It was so close, the Azzam did not begin to relax until they were a mile from the finish line.
It was a particularly poignant moment for Adil Khalid, the Emirati sailor on board, who wasted little time in unfurling a UAE flag as teammate Justin Slattery confirmed to the crew from the bow that they had crossed the finish line.
"It's amazing, it was a great race," Khalid told The National. "It was really tough, a very long race and really, really close. We were next to each other for most of it.
“Just the last 10 days were so tough. At the equator we were so happy, and then we suddenly saw Dongfeng right behind us. Last night, they were only four miles behind us and that really pushed us all – we all just thought we had to do it.”
Though this is only the first of nine legs, the result – and race itself – confirmed the notion that Azzam are serious contenders for the overall title.
The duel with the Chinese boat heated up over the last 24 hours and skipper Ian Walker and his crew were all on board, without sleep, for the last 10-hour stretch. Walker looked weariest, having refused to sleep for much of the final three-day dash.
"It's quite emotional, which I didn't think it would be," Walker said to The National. "Those last couple of hours, Dongfeng threw everything at us. We've had people ride on our heels for the last 10 days or so.
“Then over the last 4-5 days, it got really intense. Despite getting the lead, we could never extend it.”
It marked Azzam’s second leg victory in two VOR competitions, and helped wipe away memories of their start in the 2011/12 event, when a broken mast six hours into the first leg ended their hopes.
“We’ve had a lot of fun through the leg,” said Walker, who also captained the boat three years ago.
“It is always easier when you’re winning, and you’re only really tested when things are not going well. It’s been incredibly hard and involved a lot of risk.”
It came down, ultimately, to exactly the kind of racing Walker loves. One observer, a former sailing partner of Walker’s, said the “cat-and-mouse” nature of match racing is what drives Walker best, holding his nerves and controlling the tension.
But they still could not shake off skipper Charles Caudrelier and the Dongfeng crew, who tried every move they could in a bid to chase down the leaders.
Dongfeng’s second-place finish is a remarkable story in itself, given that twice their progress was slowed through damage to the boat; first through a smashed rudder and then through a shattered padeye, which caused other damage, including a broken wheel.
“It’s impressive [what the crew has achieved],” said Caudrelier, a Frenchman. “It is a bit frustrating as well, but it is a fantastic result for us. Azzam were fantastic throughout. The one-design boat has changed the game and it was crazy to see a fight like this after 25 days of sailing.”
Walker and his crew now will receive two weeks of much-needed rest before the fleet sets sail on the second leg, to Abu Dhabi.
The second stage starts on November 19, with an in-port race four days earlier. Khalid flew home to Abu Dhabi for three days before heading back.
The remaining five boats in the fleet are expected to finish the first leg at intervals over the next three days.
The experienced Dutch boat, Brunel, are in third place, having built a considerable lead over Vestas Wind.
The all-women’s crew of SCA is at the back, over 400 nautical miles behind Azzam when they finished.
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