When Marina asked British skipper Ian Walker to describe a typical day for his Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew competing in the Volvo Ocean Race, he began by telling us that there was no such thing…
You have to be prepared to deal with anything and the only certainty is uncertainty,” says Walker who recently led his team to victory in the opening leg of the 2014-15 edition of the 39,000-mile race around the world.
The double Olympic silver medallist knows better than most, exactly how unexpected events can turn out to be. Just hours after starting the previous edition, his jet black Abu Dhabi sponsored Volvo Ocean 70 was dismasted on the first night of the opening leg from Alicante to Cape Town. The snapped mast – the result of a faulty fitting – forced him out of the leg and snuffed out any chances of overall victory.
That night was, he says, the lowest point in his sailing career, but happily, exactly three years to the day later, and after more than three weeks at sea, Walker steered Abu Dhabi’s second VOR entry across the finish line in Cape Town in first place. The opening leg win confirmed the team’s status as pre-race favourites but Walker is quick to play down such accolades.
Volvo Ocean Race FAST FACTS
- Known as ‘the Everest of sailing’, the Volvo Ocean Race has grown from its origins in the Whitbread Round the World Race 1973.
- The race is 38,739 miles around the globe, across five continents and 11 ports.
- The race starts in Alicante in Spain and finishes in Gothenburg in June 2015.
- There are seven teams taking part in the 12th edition, including Team SCA, an all-woman entry.
- Each boat has taken around 36,000 man hours to complete.
- The next two editions of the race will only feature the new Volvo Ocean 65 design.
“You just never know what is going to happen in this race,” he explained. “We are well prepared and well funded for sure and that makes us strong contenders – but you can’t take anything for granted when you are talking about forty thousand miles of ocean racing. You just have to take it one day at a time and deal with whatever comes your way.”
Crew for the Volvo Ocean Race
Just eight sailors (and one non-sailing on-board reporter) make up the crew of the new breed of one-design identical yachts introduced for the latest Volvo Ocean Race and that means there’s plenty for everyone to do. Walker’s crew are split into two four-man watches, alternating in a non-stop, four-hours-on, four-hours-off, rotation. Walker and his navigator, fellow Brit Simon ‘SiFi’ Fisher, are on opposite watches but confer on strategy as they cross over.
“It’s all about keeping the boat moving as fast as possible all the time,” Walker explains. “In previous races there were more crew, so you could afford to have a person dedicated solely to navigation. This time around we need everyone to sail the boat – so that means SiFi and I spend more time on deck than previously.”
On long ocean legs the concept of night and day soon disappears as the sailors’ minds and bodies quickly adapt to the watch system and they can sleep at any time of the day – even when they are tossed around by waves in their narrow netting bunks cantilevered off the inside of the yacht’s carbon hull.
“At the start of the leg it’s often hard to get to sleep,” Walker says. “Then, after a couple of days of the
watch system, you get so tired you can sleep through anything. Your ‘day’ could begin in daylight or darkness. Either way it generally starts with being shaken awake by one of the opposite watch. If you are lucky there will be a hot drink waiting for you in the galley area for you to slurp on. Depending on the how hungry you are, you might make yourself a freeze-dried meal.”
Unlike most other teams, Walker’s men manage their own individual eating schedules, rather than opting for a communal cooking pot approach. Making a freeze-dried meal is as unglamorous as it sounds – tear open the sachet, empty the powder into a bowl, pour on boiling water and stir well – however, it can prove challenging in bumpy conditions, when you need both hands to prevent yourself from being flung across the steeply heeled cabin.
“Volvo boats are generally pretty wet to sail, so once you have struggled on your wet weather gear, it’s time to climb out on deck to see what the weather has in store for you,” says Walker.
“You could be stepping into champagne sailing conditions, or onto a bucking bronco of a cockpit as the yacht pounds upwind over big waves, or into a whirlpool bath of swirling white water as the boat tears downwind burying its bow in the wave in front.”
Whatever the weather, after a quick briefing from the on-watch crew you step in to steer, trim sails or man the handles of the ‘coffee grinder’ pedestal winches that control the sails. Over the next four hours you and your watch buddies rotate through those three roles and your only focus is sailing the boat as fast as you can.
When it comes to boatspeed, Walker and his crew never, ever compromise – even if it means getting everyone up in the middle of the night in howling wind and driving rain for a major course change or to switch sails.
So the ocean miles roll by: hour-by-hour, watch-by-watch, day-by-day and week-by-week. It can sound monotonous and sometimes it surely is. In reality, though, the sailors are doing what they love to do and the heat of the competition leaves little time for boredom.
“You have to have the right people around you,” Walker sums up. “When you are racing around the world you need choose guys you can get along with. This race can be incredibly tough at times, but we are also lucky enough to enjoy some truly incredible sailing. We want to win and so we take it all very seriously, but we have a lot of fun along the way, too.
“The great thing about this race is that, win or lose, if you complete it, you will have sailed around the world – and that’s a major achievement in itself.”
Ian Walker Profile
Boat Position: Skipper
Date of Birth: 25/2/1970
Hometown: Warsash, Southampton, UK
Top sailing achievements
2012 – Volvo Ocean Race, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing – 5th
2004 – Olympic coach to Shirley Robertson – Gold
2007 – America’s Cup Team +39 Challenge
2001 – America’s Cup GBR Challenge – Skipper
2000 – Olympic star class (Helm) – Silver
1996 – Olympics 470 class (Crew) – Silver
Cambridge University graduate Ian Walker is one of Britain’s most successful sailors, with two Olympic silver medals, two America’s Cup campaigns and two Volvo Ocean Race campaigns to his name.
A father of two from Southampton, Walker took the silver medal in the 470 class at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and followed that up four years later in Sydney with another Olympic silver, this time in the Star class.
He went on to lead the 2002 British America’s Cup team and coach the British Olympic Yngling crew team to gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Other career highlights include racing as tactician for the Italian +39 America’s Cup campaign, winning the 2006 TP52 World Championship, and heading up the Green Dragon challenge for the 2008/09 Volvo Ocean Race.
As skipper of Abu Dhabi’s debut Volvo Ocean Race campaign in 2011/12, Walker led the team to a number of notable successes including victory in the Rolex Fastnet Race, three Volvo Ocean Race in-port race wins (including one in front of 23,000 race fans in the UAE capital), and a memorable victory in the transatlantic Leg 7 from Miami to Lisbon.