The first thing Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s navigator Simon Fisher did when his team won opening leg of the Volvo Ocean Race was consort with the opposition.
While his team-mates celebrated their victory, Fisher headed to Spanish team MAPFRE, where he was reunited with wife Maria and one-year-old son Alexander, whose first birthday took place during the voyage. “This race is different for me because it’s the first one I’ve done as a father. My wife understands because she works as part of the on-shore crew for another team so its part of our family life,” Fisher told Sport 360.
“We don’t think of it being too strange but I guess for people on the outside, it could be.”
For spectators, almost everything about the Volvo Ocean Race is peculiar. For eight three-week periods over the course of nine months, the crews make their way around the world in tough conditions. They only sleep for three-and-a-half hours at a time, eat freeze-dried food and share tiny spaces but the reward for being the best at that is immense, as Fisher and Azzam team-mates are discovering.
They arrived from Alicante in Spain to Cape Town in South Africa first and used the extra days to enjoy the sights at what Fisher has called one of his favourite stops. “We went to Cape Town to see the penguins, and in Simon’s Town we have done lots of animal oriented, kiddy things for my son,” he said. “And then we got back into preparing. We feel like one of the stronger teams but we know we have to take it one leg at a time.”
After being part of three other races and plenty of disappointment, Fisher hopes this time will be different and believes it can be because of the regulation changes. For the first time in the race’s 41-year history, the boats are standardised as part of an effort to save costs, lower the barriers of entry and level the playing field.
“At the start, you know you’ve got the tool to win,” Fisher said. “Rather than trying to optimise the boat, we’re all just learning to sail one boat as fast as we can. That makes a difference because when someone is going faster than you, you know they are doing something better than you. Nothing else.”
Previously bigger budget teams could afford better boats. Now every team spends €5 million (18.4m AED) to purchase the boat and then pays €1.5m (5.5mAED) to be part of the boatyard – the shared service centre at each port. A dedicated team of on-shore workers attend to all the boats using a shared pool of spare parts. There are two boatyards in operation and they leapfrog each other through the race.
While the one in Cape Town was in operation, the second one was set up in Abu Dhabi and the Cape Town one will move on to Sanya while the Abu Dhabi one will go to Auckland.
During the first leg, no major damage was done to any of the boats but Fisher expects that to change as the race goes on. “This wasn’t a particularly tough leg on the boat. There will be others where things will get more smashed up.”And he would know.
In the last race, Abu Dhabi’s mast broke on the first day, “a fairly catastrophic” occurrence which cost them any chance of winning. This time, there were no concerns in that department thanks to what Fisher believes is a more robust boat which he intends to look after as best as possible, because that will be crucial if they are to win the race.
“It’s been built a little bit stronger. Last time, the builders had to push the limits of structure versus reliability and were always walking the line of it can go faster but you might break,” Fisher said. “It’s quite nice now that we don’t have to push it as hard in that respect. Obviously, if you don’t look after things, they might break but we know how many miles each of the pieces have to go before we replace them.”
So do all the other teams which has created an enhanced form of camaraderie in the already close sailing community. “The pool of sailors who do the race tend to be the same so you know each other very well. With the one-design format, people aren’t trying to guard secrets quite as frantically,” Fisher said. “In that way, it’s been quite a friendly race.”
It needs to be because there are times when the other sailors are all each other has. “When you are racing in the Southern Ocean, you’re as far away from land as you can be. The closest people to you are the other competitors,” Fisher explained. “It makes for an interesting dynamic because the guys you are trying to beat, might end up saving your life.”
That’s exactly what happened on Fisher’s first race in 2006, when he was part of the ABN Amro II team. Two days after a member, Hans Horrevoets, died after he could not be resuscitated after falling overboard, Fisher’s boat had to rescue crew from the HMS Mersey, which was sinking. “It was a pretty traumatic few days,” Fisher remembered. “Some of the best moments of my life have been in this race, but also some of the worst.”
This time, Fisher is hoping for a lot more of the former especially because he is part of a crew of old friends. Skipper Ian Walker picked his mates from people he has sailed with in the past. Three of the current crew, including Justin Slattery and Fisher, were part of Walker’s Green Dragon team in the 2008-9 Volvo Ocean Race and both Slattery and Fisher were also part of the 2011-12 Abu Dhabi team. Being so familiar with each other is what Fisher believes is their biggest advantage.
“Everybody knows each other really well and actually it makes it quite easy because we’re in each other’s pockets all the time. There’s no hiding from anyone. We even share beds because one person gets up and another gets in it,” he said.
“Everyone is very professional but it definitely helps that we’re all friends. With this one-design stuff, the racing is so close and so intense, it's actually quite nice for everyone to have a laugh and keep the level of pressure down. You need a certain atmosphere to make it bearable. If everyone was really intense all the time, it would be a pretty stressful three weeks.”
Not that Abu Dhabi have had much to be anxious about so far. They took the lead early on in the first leg and held onto for most of the way and were similarly dominant during the Cape Town in-port race. Starting downwind, they pulled away from the chasing pack and saw off challenges from Team Brunel and SCA to finish first as well.
The pressure is on them to pull off a repeat in the second leg, which takes them to their home port in Abu Dhabi. There will be still be seven legs after that, so Fisher knows there is a long way to go before he can really start celebrating but he believes this time, he may have reason to. “We are thinking about winning but we have to take it a leg at a time,” he said. “It’s what I’ve been working towards for over a decade so if it happens, it would be incredible.”
Beach Touch Rugby is set to debut in the United Arab Emirates next month as part of the much-anticipated Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) Stopover Destination Village activities on the Corniche Breakwater.
lf you are not aware of the sport, it is the on-sand version of touch rugby (the world’s most popular non-contact sport), which originated in Australia.
A series of tournaments for both adults and children will run over eight days of competition being organised by UAE Touch, the UAE’s international recognised Touch body and in association with the Federation of International Touch – the sport’s world governing body.
A squad of internationally qualified professional coaches will be on hand to guide and supervise.
Inter-school matches will tap off on December 14th to 18th on the beach adjoining Abu Dhabi Sailing & Yacht Club with up to 500 youngsters expected to participate.
“Competitions will be held for primary kids of ‘Under 12’ and secondary students ‘Over 12’ age groups,” said John Larkins, President, UAE Touch. “We’re receiving a tremendous response with schools keen on joining in a first-time event.
"On first hearing, there may not be an instantly recognisable association with a headline sailing event but the fact is both these sports deliver community-based health and fitness opportunities for youngsters.”
On December 21-23, the Stopover will host Beach Touch Open Days for youngsters during the day time and special sunset versions for adults (over 18).
“It’s going to be a tremendous sight with up to 200 sports-keen people a day out on the beach getting exercise as the sun goes down against the superb back drop of Abu Dhabi Corniche and in fabulous temperatures of around 25 degrees Celsius,” said Larkins.
On December 26, there’ll be a one-day, open invitation tournament for all ages.
All participants will receive Volvo Ocean Race Abu Dhabi merchandise. Teams of a minimum of four players and a maximum of eight can enter by emailing: [email protected].
The Volvo Ocean Race Abu Dhabi Stopover will centre around the Corniche breakwater Destination Village and feature three weeks of sailing action, water-sports, entertainment and family fun.
Up to 175,000 visitors are expected to attend.
The Stopover opens on December 12 with the Arabian debut of BBC Worldwide’s highly acclaimed ‘Blue Planet in Concert Live’, which will be performed on a 10-metre wide screen placed on a purpose-built, floating stage in the waters off Abu Dhabi’s Corniche accompanied by the 75-piece, National Symphony Orchestra, Abu Dhabi led by celebrity guest conductor George Fenton.
The village closes on the evening of 3rd January when the awe-inspiring race fleet of Volvo Ocean 65s, including the Azzam yacht sailed by Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing – the emirate’s very own race contender, departs for its next endurance sailing leg to Sanya, China.
Ian Walker skippered Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing to victory in the Cape Town in-port race on Saturday after yet another close finish.
The UAE capital’s sailing club already leads the pack for the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race title after claiming victory in Leg 1 last week.
While in-port races do not count towards the leg wins, in the event of a tie the team with the most wins will be named champions.
As winds swayed between 12 and 20 knots and rain clouds threatening throughout, tricky conditions at sea meant the fleet divided their respective paths from an early stage.
— Volvo Ocean Race (@volvooceanrace) November 15, 2014
Walker’s decision for a port line early in the sprint for the first mark paid off as Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Sweden’s all-women Team SCA raced clear.
Just twenty minutes into the race, the Abu Dhabi team looked like they had the win under their belt after close rivals, Team Alvimedica, suffered a tear in their jib.
Alvimedica triumphed in the opening in-port race in Alicante on October 4.
The battle for second was fierce between SCA and Netherlands’ Team Brunel after the latter made the most from a burst of pressure midway through proceedings.
A problem with a gennaker failing to unfurl kept Brunnel at bay, with skipper Bouwe Bekking and his crew making one last effort to catch Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing out in front.
But Walker and his team were prepared for the challenge and crossed the line ahead of Brunel in second and SCA in third.