Ian Walker has achieved more in sailing than most people dream of, but even he admits he is star-struck by new team-mate Neal McDonald.
McDonald, 51, is a veteran of five previous Volvo Ocean Races and has stepped on board Azzam to fill the void left by Australian trimmer and helmsman Phil Harmer for the third leg of the race.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing admitted earlier this week that it was not a change they made lightly, but were rather forced into due to a wrist injury Harmer sustained as well as a mystery illness he succumbed to on the last leg which saw him drop 10kgs.
Walker said: “Anyone who’s spent time with Phil here in Abu Dhabi knows he’s not ready to get on the boat. Even having said that it was a difficult decision because not only is he one of our best trimmers and helmsman, but he’s also my watch partner. I rely on him quite heavily because we spend 24 hours a day together.”
With every cloud comes a silver lining though, so it seems. Briton McDonald has already been working closely with the team as their performance manager, debriefing the sailors once they step foot on dry land.
“We couldn’t ask for a much better replacement,” added Walker. “Neal’s been my sailing idol from a young age and there’s nobody more I respect in the world than Neal.
“He will bring something new. Of course we’re going to lack some things Phil had but for sure we’ll gain in some areas as well.
“I’m very positive about it and personally I’m looking forward to sharing a watch with Neal and learning more from him myself.”
On what is renowned as being a tricky leg from Abu Dhabi to Sanya, fraught with hazards, Walker admits McDonald’s experience will be key.
The boats will need to navigate the 500nm Malacca Strait dividing the Indonesian island of Sumatra and Malaysia.
The 500nm stretch of water, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, narrows to 1.5nm at its most narrow point.
“You have some difficult judgements to make, particularly with shipping in the Malacca straits.
“This is an experienced game so I’m sure he’s going to help us out, as long as his eyesight’s holding up,” joked Walker.
ADOR got off to a fine start after leaving Abu Dhabi on Saturday afternoon, shooting into an early advantage in the midst of thick fog.
— AbuDhabiOceanRacing (@ADORlog) January 3, 2015
The low visibility made for tense action with Walker and navigator Simon Fisher reading the shifting breeze to perfection on the first lap, timing their tack to make the best of a windshift that propelled them into a commanding lead at the first turning marker.
They consolidated their advantage around the rest of the inshore course to lead the fleet at the final turning marker and off on the way to Sanya.
The VOR is a squad event these days, with Dongfeng up front about their intentions to rotate their team throughout the nine months of the voyage in order that every sailor has a leg off.
Team SCA and Mapfre have also rung the changes, but while squad rotation may be in fashion, it’s not something all teams are keen to embrace.
Walker has described himself as ‘romantic’ and ‘old fashioned’, revealing that the old school sailor inside him only considered someone who had only sailed every leg of the race could truly say they had sailed around the world.
The break for Harmer will, however, finally give him chance to hopefully get to the bottom of his illness and injury issues, while the team have already announced that McDonald is only stepping in for leg three and will give way to Harmer in China.
Team SCA led virtually from start to finish to romp to a convincing victory in the Volvo Ocean Race In-Port Race in Abu Dhabi on Friday after a lack of wind nearly forced a postponement.
The third race in the series began 1hr 40mins behind schedule – another 20 minutes and the action would have been scrapped for the day – because of the missing breeze.
Finally, at 1540 local time/1140 UTC, race officials judged that the breeze had picked up enough for a viable race and the women of Team SCA never looked back.
They took a starboard course early on and by the first mark in the 3.2-nautical mile (nm), two-lap race, had established a 50-metre lead and they continued to build on it from then on with a display of consummate in-port sailing.
In the end, it almost looked easy as the Swedish-backed boat crossed the line, 1min 28secs ahead of second-placed Team Brunel (Bouwe Bekking/NED).
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, who won the corresponding race here three years ago, again finished on the podium in third, 43 seconds further behind.
Ian Walker’s crew lead the overall standings by two points from Team Brunel with Team SCA now in third.
The win is doubly sweet for the first women’s crew to contest the Volvo Ocean Race in 12 years.
Skipper Sam Davies (GBR) and her crew had shown with their third place in the Cape Town In-Port Race that they have the pace to compete with their male rivals, but two sixth places in the opening two offshore legs had raised questions in some quarters about their competitiveness.
They certainly answered those in the best possible way with Davies making way for Carolijn Brouwer (NED) on the helm to steer them to this triumph in the trickiest of conditions.
"There's no 'woman of the match', it's the 'women'!" smiled Davies, back on the dock. "We're a team, and we did it together.
"We're really happy, and it's a great way to boost the whole crew's morale before we leave tomorrow for Sanya."
Indeed, this was certainly no one-woman victory, and all 11 crew proved what great strength-in-depth the team has even with their powerful bowman Sophie Ciszek (AUS) missing through a back injury, which needed surgery over Christmas.
As her crew-mates crossed the line, nobody was more excited than the temporarily sidelined Australian.
Ciszek, who watched the race from the deck of the SCA pavilion in the race village, said: "Yeah, it was frustrating because I wasn't out on the boat but, wow, it was the best thing ever because they won the race!
"It can only get better, and we're one step closer. They did really well.
"There's been some big changes. We had a big debrief (after finishing sixth in Leg 2) but it's really good to turn it around and win the in-port."
Volvo Ocean Race Results & Standings
Abu Dhabi In-Port Race result: 1 Team SCA (Sweden) 1 pt, 2 Team Brunel (Netherlands) 2 pts, 3 Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing 3 pts, 4 Dongfeng Race Team (China) 4 pts, 5 Team Alvimedica (Turkey/USA) 5 pts, 6 MAPFRE (Spain) 6 pts.
Overall standings in the Volvo Ocean Race In-Port Series: 1 Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing 6 pts, 2 Team Brunel 8, 3 Team SCA 10, 4 Team Alvimedica 12, 5 Dongfeng Race Team 13, 6 MAPFRE 16, 7 Team Vestas Wind 20.
Team Vestas Wind has announced that the team will re-join the Volvo Ocean Race before the end of the competition in June.
The Danish-backed team announced at a race prize-giving ceremony on New Year’s Day that it would make a comeback before the end of the race in Gothenburg.
On its Twitter account, Vestas CEO Morten Albaek said: "I'm proud to announce that we'll be back in the @volvooceanrace".
Vestas captain Chris Nicholson had said at the Abu Dhabi skippers’ press conference on Tuesday that the team would announce a decision on its future within a week.
The Australian said at Thursday’s awards: “This gives us the opportunity to perform one of the biggest comebacks in sailing and prove to the world who we are.”
The defiant skipper added: “We'll rebuild our boat just as we rebuild our hopes and dreams.
“This experience could've defined us. We could've allowed it to impact our campaign, our future, our lives. It won't.”
Nicholson alluded to the possibility that he will not change any of his personnel when the team do eventually re-enter the VOR.
“If I had to relive this all again I wouldn't want it to be with another bunch of guys. Today we stand together, united and real.”
Vestas, backed by Denmark’s Vestas Wind Systems, recovered the $6 million boat in better-than-expected condition from the reef near the Cargados Carajos Shoals in the Indian Ocean where it ran aground on November 29.
When Nicholson returned to the reef with a salvage team in mid-December, they discovered that the boat was reparable.
They cut off the keel, removed the mast and rigging and floated the hull off the reef, then placed it on a nearby Maersk cargo ship bound for Malaysia.
The team’s Volvo 65 vessel hit the reef, around 230 nautical miles off the coast of Mauritius, at a speed of around 19 knots.
Vestas now plan to rebuild it at an Italian shipyard and re-enter the race as it approaches the homestretch in Lisbon sometime in late May.
Speaking at the press conference earlier this week, Nicholson had thanked the sailing community for the support they had received from around the world.
“It’s given us hope for the future,” he had said.
“We use that hope to keep the programme moving. Our main aim is to be back and that’s always been the ultimate goal.”
Vestas and its crew of nine was sailing north through the dark near the end of a leg two storm when it hit one in the chain of islets.
The crew eventually abandoned ship, sheltering on the islands while the US-led Team Alvimedica diverted to the area to provide communications and support.
It was revealed in the aftermath of the incident that human error had led to it, with navigator Wouter Verbraak admitting he made a mistake with routing software.
The impact spun the boat around, sheared off the rudders used for steering and left the hull at the mercy of the waves, which pounded it against the reef, destroying much of the stern beneath the waterline.