UAE entry needs to keep going steady to win Volvo Ocean Race

Any mishap on the last oceanic leg could cost crews dearly as race enter last 4,000 miles

Justin Slattery of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing inspects the end of the prod during leg six from Itajai to Newport. Photograph: Matt Knighton/Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race via Getty Images.

As the Volvo Ocean Race begins its final oceanic leg this weekend, Ireland's Justin Slattery stands on the cusp of a second victory in this 39,000-mile contest on board Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing.

The Emirati entry tops the leaderboard with a seven-point lead over Dongfeng, the Chinese boat skippered by Charles Caudrelier that barely eight months ago was contemplating a steep learning curve as a first time entry.

Slattery on the other hand is on his third circumnavigation with Ian Walker, the British double Olympic Silver medallist who cut his teeth in ocean racing as skipper of Ireland's Green Dragon project eight years ago.

That campaign marked entry into the ocean racing school of hard knocks and a series of lessons that Walker regards ruefully. If Green Dragon was a slow boat with limited funds, what followed three years later only improved in terms of funding, a series of mishaps saw his team vastly underperform in what was to be the last time the open-ended 70-foot rule was used to design the competing yachts.


The current event has switched to one-design and the playing-field has been levelled to one in which the contest is down to player skills and experience.

For Slattery, a win this time would be a new achievement. He won before when he sailed as bowman on Mike Sanderson’s all-conquering ABN AMRO campaign in 2006.

Combined experience

But it is the combined experience of Walker, Slattery and all the veteran talent on-board that means nothing is being taken for granted when the transatlantic sprint from Newport, Rhode Island, to Lisbon starts on Sunday.

The team’s strategy has been to achieve a podium result in every leg, taking wins where possible but also allowing for the inevitable mistakes along the way. “In order to win, first you have to finish” has been a Walker-mantra learnt the hard way.

On paper, the Abu Dhabi team has only to finish within two places of Caudrelier and not worse than fourth for the remaining three legs and the race is theirs by the time the fleet reaches Gothernburg, Sweden. at the end of June. On paper.

In reality, a similar fate that has put Dongfeng so far behind the leaders could still befall Walker’s team and managing that risk is taking centre stage.

Less than two months ago, on the final approach to the infamous Cape Horn, the mast snapped on Caudrelier's boat. On board for just one leg in this edition of the race, Ireland's Damian Foxall was preparing for his eighth passage around the landmark.

But it wasn’t to be as the team limped through the Beagle Channel to Ushuaia where the boat retired from the leg and motor-sailed to Brazil, this incurring eight points for the stage and breaking the tie between them and Walker’s team.

It was the competitive nightmare scenario for any crew and may yet prove to be the defining moment of this race.

Bounced back

The team bounced back in the race to America last month and in a thrilling finale after 5,000 nautical-miles of racing won the leg into Newport by three minutes.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing placed second and the tension between the two skippers was broken on the dockside when Caudrelier and Walker embraced on the dockside.

A consummate sportsman, Caudrelier later described Walker as a worthy overall leader though stopped short of conceding the race.

Nevertheless, behind the scenes feelings run deep in the team that the loss of their mast in leg five may cost them the overall win.

Walker counters that mast breakage has always been a risk and cites an example of Ken Read’s Puma team in the last race who would have won were it not for a mast breakage.

The nightmare outcome remains as real for any of the teams with just over 4,000 miles left to sail. Aside from a mast breakage, a collision with a whale or a shipping container are both very real risks.

And the key to victory: steady as she goes.

David Branigan

David Branigan

David Branigan is a contributor on sailing to The Irish Times