Friday, 14 January 2011

VOR: Stooping to Conquer - Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing out Training

Image copyright Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing.

by Stuart Alexander

Another day at the office means a trip from the hotel which is home, to the Abu Dhabi International Marine Sports Club for Ian Walker, the man who is spearheading Abu Dhabi's latest major sporting initiative.

Upstairs, the circular office is reminiscent of a harbour master's building, with a view over the marina and the bay.

On the ground is a workshop container, mercifully now fitted with air conditioning, and a sail loft marquee, fitted with the appropriate sewing machinery.

The area, which may be used by the other teams when they visit the stopover in January 2012 to house their containers and lift the boats out, leads to a pontoon dedicated to berthing the training boat, the former ABN AMRO TWO.

Once the holder of the world record for miles sailed in 24 hours, and still the pride of its designer, Juan Kouyoumdjian, it has been reliveried in royal blue.

The ground floor clubhouse has a conservatory-like extension at the water's edge. It is a popular spot, especially for young families, with a surprising number of the mums or young ladies taking time for a meeting with friends also puffing contentedly on the hubble- bubble or hookah water-cooled pipes prepared by the staff.

Picking up the contemplative mood, Ian Walker knows that his latest campaign is well on track. With Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, Ian has been able to make some important crew appointments, the design of the new yacht is roaring ahead at Farr Yacht Design in Annapolis - "we have asked Farr to pack into three months what could take up to a year" - the boat will be built at a first class facility in Italy, and it will incorporate the latest in mast and rig design.

Walker is upbeat. "I think the race is cool, you're really achieving something. I enjoyed the last one, the soul of the race infected me quite a lot," he says. Having won two Olympic silver medals, in the 470 in 1996 and the Star in 2000, and then being the skipper of Britain's last tilt at the America's Cup, Ian Walker has seen most of the peaks in the world of sailboat racing.

"In the Volvo Ocean Race everyone has their story, from the front of the fleet to the back. It extends beyond the sailing community and appeals to the non-sailing public, which makes the whole thing stack up a lot more," he says.

It is also something he wants to win. The path, he says, ended up in Abu Dhabi. Not that he is in any way talking down the last race when he skippered Green Dragon's Chinese-Irish collaboration. "I think we did a good job last time and achieved more return for a given investment than some of the better-funded teams. It was tough, but it was worth doing."

Image copyright Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing.

This time it is different and that starts with being able to build a no-compromise boat. Jason Carrington - "one of the world's top yacht builders" - will oversee everything at the Persico facility in Italy, the same one that built the Prada America's Cup boats. And he will have alongside him New Zealander Mark Somerville, who built the Oracle tri-maran which won the America's Cup in February 2010 in Valencia.

Persico is a "hugely impressive", large industrial tooling company and the decision to build the boat from a female mould will, says Walker, greatly improve the accuracy of the boat and will build in a lot of detail. "We expect to achieve a tolerance of plus or minus half a millimetre," says Walker.

What is new is that, as well as using rigging from the Valencia-based Future Fibres, the mast will be built by Future Masts, with Persico making a significant financial investment in the new company.

Which leads to a worry. Not about the boat, not about the mast and rig, but the sails they will carry. "This race is almost certainly going to be all about the sails," says Walker. "Sails are a massive, massive issue."

Image copyright Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing.

As part of the bid to cut costs, teams are restricted to building 15 sails for training and 17 for the race. "There is a real problem for everybody in producing just 17 sails to get you round the world," says Walker. "No-one is going to want to get to China or New Zealand and find they have only three left.

"We are all assessing how the new 3Di sails will work out, we know that the Kevlar and aramid sails can suffer bad degradation from ‘gassing', and it would be a difficult gamble to rely on ‘Cuben Fibre', however reliable they have been for some of the round the world multihulls."

The way in which the crew is selected is proving slightly easier, but also has its complications.

One key appointment is of Jules Salter as navigator. One of the watch captains will be New Zealander Craig Satterthwaite, while Justin Slattery will be on the bow and Simon Fisher, SiFi, has joined the sailing team possibly the race team, as a crew who can also back up Salter, having been navigator on Telefónica Blue last time. That means he also has experience of racing a Farr-designed Open 70.

As for the other five, it is one of the stated aims to have some Emirati representation on board. Applications from over 80 people are being sifted, a short list will be tested, and two will be chosen to go on expensive training sails. Walker chose a Chinese media crewman last time and it greatly enhanced the interest in China.

There is also a requirement for three under-30s, Walker wants to have at least two more fast helmsmen in the armoury, and the team may need to be able to call on people who are fully qualified to take over in case of injury or where specialist skills are needed to suit particular legs.

Carrington will manage the shore team, many of whom will progress from building the boat to maintaining it.

"For the first time, I feel that we have had time and that we don't have to run at a million miles an hour every day to get where we need to be," says Walker, adding: "And I really like living here."

"Stooping to Conquer" appeared in Issue 36 of the Life at the Extreme magazine

Volvo Ocean Race