For nearly nine months they have lived and breathed one of the most epic challenges sport has to offer. After nine legs, 38,739 nautical miles, 255 days and enough freeze-dried meals to last a lifetime, the 12 Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing sailors captured the ultimate prize, winning the Volvo Ocean Race.
Their triumph can be put down to one attribute in particular – experience. Before the race seven of the eight sailors on board had been in one previously.
At the same time, you cannot be successful without a special bond being created on board, and when you spend time with this group, one thing is abundantly clear – strip back the punishing conditions, lack of sleep and steely determination to capture sailing’s most prestigious prize, their voyage has been a case of eight friends spending time together at sea.
“I look back on it and I want to go again,” on-board reporter Matt Knighton tells Sport360 in Gothenburg.
The accomplished American photographer and film-maker had more reason than most to feel like the odd man out. As the OBR he is not allowed to sail the boat or assist in any way. His job is to snap, record and report. But he doesn’t feel left out. He is right in the thick of it, observing the friendships forged in the harshest of environments, documenting the ingredients key to Abu Dhabi’s success.
“I was intimidated coming in with how close everyone was,” admits the 31-year-old. “Everybody on this boat is a legend in the sailing community. There’s a lot of experienced guys but all that disappears when you see how they all relate to each other. Everyone’s best friends and you forget about how many Volvo Ocean Races this team has won, how many Olympic campaigns they have behind them or America’s Cup experience.”
Pitman and boat captain Daryl Wislang can relate. He was one of the last members to join Azzam, missing much of the group’s training regime, but his transition was seamless.
“The guys had been together for some time so it’s always quite difficult to come into a group that’s been together six months, but I felt really welcome,” he said. Skipper Ian Walker sums the atmosphere aboard Azzam nicely.
“It’s not like we’re on a picnic but if you’re going to spend a lot of time with people you might as well do it with people whose company you enjoy,” he said.
Another key to ADOR’s success was the time spent together prior to the race. The majority trained together six days a week since February 2014. During that time they covered 19,000 nautical miles, half the distance of the actual race.
“Without that bond it just wouldn’t have worked,” said bowman/helmsman Luke Parkinson, 25. “We’re sailing around the world. You’re going to eat, live and breathe with these guys for nine months so if you don’t get along you’re not going to enjoy it.”
Roberto Bermudez de Castro, the 45-year-old trimmer/helmsman who has sailed five previous VOR’s, said the bond went beyond the men on board. It included the whole team; the shore crew, people who handle logistics, even the girls who prepare the food. All were glued together.
— AbuDhabiOceanRacing (@ADORlog) July 2, 2015
“Sailors are part of it but you need a really good team. It’s been all of us together,” he said.
Australian Phil Harmer claims that glue is as strong now as it was at the start of the race. The 36-year-old has been victorious in the last two VORs, having won with Groupama in 2011/12, although he claims this one was sweeter.
“We’re friends now just like we were on day one, if not stronger. The gel we had as a bunch of friends as well as a crew was the difference, not our sailing ability,” said the trimmer/helmsman.
One man in the shadows who has held the team in place more than most is the team’s performance manager, Neal McDonald. He and Walker put the team together, and while the race was nine months, the journey to success has been far more arduous.
“This is a two-year campaign. For some it’s been six or seven years,” said the VOR veteran, who also stood in for the injured Harmer on leg three. “It’s a continuing relationship, like a marriage. You can’t just push it aside and say ‘let’s go home, we’ll talk about it tomorrow’. You can’t walk off the boat. It’s not like a football pitch where after 90 minutes you don’t see each other until the next week. It’s day in day out.”
There were crucial moments along the way to victory. ADOR winning the opening leg from Alicante to Cape Town, fending off a late fight back from Dongfeng Race Team. Claiming a vital victory on leg five in the treacherous Southern Ocean. Dongfeng breaking their mast on that same leg also turned the tide, handing Walker’s men the initiative.
But what the cameras, newspaper columns and four hourly positions reports don’t show you are the little moments that underpin Abu Dhabi’s triumph, shared only between a crew bonded closely by a special brotherhood.
“There’s tons of laughs, a lot of mickey taking, a lot of banter. It can be a bit brutal at times. I’m usually the one taking the brunt of it and I’m in charge,” said Walker.
Parkinson smiles as he recalls Wislang, navigator Simon ‘SiFi’ Fisher or even himself falling down the hatch in the middle of the night. He was also given the nickname ‘Labrador’ during training, due to his boundless energy, insatiable appetite for hard work and, well, his insatiable appetite.
“When we were offshore I would eat the rest of everyone else’s meals or whatever they wouldn’t eat,” he said. “Then we’d be doing circuit training and the guys would be having a break and I’d be kicking a rugby ball or still running around, like a Labrador would, so it very quickly became a nickname.”
— Azzam Live (@AzzamLive) July 2, 2015
There was the Lorient departure on leg nine. The race was won and the team started to relax. Maybe a bit too much. Wislang recalls: “We’d been out to lunch before we left and we’d eaten prawns. On the boat the amount of methane we had on board, if you’d lit a match downstairs (in the sleeping quarters) the boat might have blown up. Moments like that that are hard to put into words but there’s been a lot of humour.”
Rounding Cape Horn is a massive achievement for any sailor and a big milestone in any VOR. Seeing it for the first time on leg five was a big moment for Parkinson and Knighton.
“Everyone had been through the washing machine for a week and then you see land and we were all on deck together, so that was something special, something we’ll never forget,” said the Aussie. “We really loved rounding it and breaking out the cigars, that certainly stands out,” added Knighton. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but even during trying times, the camaraderie was evident.
“One thing stands out. The way they finished in Lisbon when the chips were down and they didn’t have a good leg. They got off the boat smiling. It would have been easy to be down there, that was a very proud moment for me,” said McDonald. “I didn’t really doubt it before but from that moment I had zero doubts that they would wrap it up.”
Sir Ben Ainslie has paid tribute to Volvo Ocean Race winners Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and revealed that Ian Walker has had a huge impact on his career.
– VOR: Putting sailing on the UAE map a greater triumph for Ian Walker
– VOR: Walker hails fellow crew members after ADOR’s victory
– 2014/2015 Volvo Ocean Race: A race we’ll never forget
Ainslie and Walker have a lot in common. For starters, they are two of Britain’s most successful sailors. Both have won multiple medals for Great Britain at Olympic Games. Ainslie has five, four of them gold, while Walker has two, both silver.
Both were team-mates for Team GB at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and four years later at Sydney 2000. Walker was adding to his haul of accolades in Sweden last weekend.
The 45-year-old has been at the helm of ADOR as they trawled through the most dangerous environments on the planet over the last nine months to win the VOR, becoming the first British skipper to win the race in its 41-year history.
Ainslie was also picking up another accolade in Gothenburg, accepting the prestigious Magnus Olsson Award, bestowed upon the sailor who has made the biggest contribution to the sport in the past year.
Ainslie is the most successful Olympic sailor in history but he paid tribute to his compatriot for shaping his path to glory.
“It was absolutely fantastic to see Ian Walker leading Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing to winning this race,” said Ainslie, 38.
“I’ve known Ian my entire career. As I started out in Olympic sailing, he was really an inspiration for me, being that bit more advanced in the Olympic programme.
“To witness his determination in his third Volvo Ocean Race to come through and win it with a really solid group of guys was great to see. Hats off to them for a fantastic achievement.”
Ainslie also tweeted his congratulations to Walker and co earlier this month when they finished third on leg eight of the VOR, from Lisbon to Lorient, which handed ADOR victory.
“Huge congrats to @ADORlog and Ian Walker on winning the #VolvoOceanRace,” said Ainslie, paying tribute to his friend.
Four-time Olympic gold medallist Ainslie followed Brazilian Torben Grael, the winning skipper of the 2008/09 VOR, as recipient of the prize. After his superb effort in 2014/15, perhaps Walker will be in line for next year’s award.
— Volvo Ocean Race (@volvooceanrace) June 22, 2015
Walker and his men returned to home shores on Monday as the ADOR crew arrived in Abu Dhabi to present the VOR trophy to His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan.
Big things were expected of the Emirati-backed team, and they delivered in fine style, smashing records along the way.
They hauled in a record-breaking amount of trophies, bagging the IWC Schaffhausen 24-hour Speed Record Challenge and the Roaring Forties Trophy for the shortest elapsed time sailed between the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, in addition to winning the overall race and in-port series trophies.
On-board reporter Matt Knighton also collected the award for the best OBR at an awards dinner in Gothenburg on Saturday.
“We made a really good plan, and we carried out that plan,” said Walker. “We were confident going into the race, the boat was in great shape, and we arrived in Alicante probably better prepared and better trained than most teams.”
Walker said the record-breaking trophy haul was a testimony to the dedication and professionalism that “runs the length and breadth of the entire ADOR squad”.
He said: “It’s the perfect way to round off what has been a fabulous around-the-world adventure. I can’t say enough about how superbly every single member of our squad – on and off the yacht – has performed and they should all be very proud of what we have achieved.”
Sultan al Dhaheri, acting executive director of TCA Abu Dhabi, who travelled to Gothenburg to watch the conclusion of the VOR and was on-board Azzam for the in-port race, was delighted with the result.
“The team has proudly represented our country as we competed against the best sailors in the world, and we have strengthened our position as a sailing nation in front of a global audience,” said Al Dhaheri.
“I hope all the ADOR fans here, back in Abu Dhabi, as an official destination partner, and around the world join me in congratulating all the members of our victorious team.”
Ian Walker and his victorious Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew have the chance of a rare double tomorrow when they attempt to win the Volvo Ocean Race In-Port Series Trophy.
Only a victory for ADOR’s nearest competitors, Team Brunel, and a last place finish or a failure to complete the course, can deny Walker’s men the silverware.
The Emirati boat has already sealed the overall offshore trophy with five points to spare after finishing fifth in the ninth and final leg from Lorient, France, to Gothenburg, Sweden.
The offshore and in-port double is not unique in Volvo Ocean Race history – Mike Sanderson’s ABN AMRO ONE achieved it in 2005-06 – but victory would be another major feather in the cap for a region, which only entered the 41-year-old event for the first time in 2011-12 under the Abu Dhabi flag.
Walker, 45, typically, was taking nothing for granted in the final press conference for the nine-month race today.
— Volvo Ocean Race (@volvooceanrace) June 25, 2015
“We try to win everything we do,” he said. “Basically, we just have to make sure we don’t finish last. But it’s a pretty tight race course and there’s plenty of trouble out there if you’re not careful.”
The in-port race, which concludes the triennial event, will also resolve some unfinished business in the overall competition as a tie-breaker.
Team Alvimedica’s Leg 9 win in Gothenburg from Lorient, via a manic pit-stop in The Hague last week, drew them level with MAPFRE on 34 points, in joint fourth place overall.
The Turkish/American team currently stand two points ahead of the Spanish crew, but that advantage could easily be swept away on a tight, challenging Gothenburg course.
MAPFRE were boosted by an eve-of-race visit to the boat in Gothenburg from His Majesty King Juan Carlos of Spain today. He will be an onboard spectator with the Spanish flag-bearers in tomorrow’s race – if the weather is good.
— AbuDhabiOceanRacing (@ADORlog) June 26, 2015
“I haven’t sailed for four years and I’m really looking forward to it,” he told reporters.
Team SCA, presently fourth behind Team Alvimedica, and, less likely, sixth-placed Dongfeng Race Team, also have outside chances of a top-three podium place in the in-port series if results go their way.
The action will start at 1300 local time (1500 UAE time) and so far the forecasters are predicting strong enough winds to offer the prospect of a fitting finale to a memorable and extraordinarily close-run event all round.