[Source: Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing] In the dark of night in Lisbon, Portugal, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, the Abu Dhabi-backed outfit in the Volvo Ocean Race, was the shining star as it became the first Arabian team to win a leg in the gruelling round-the-world sailing odyssey, after a highly tense Leg 7 battle that went right down to the wire.
Widely regarded as one of the Everest of Sailing’s ‘blue ribbon’ legs, this year’s 3,500 nautical miles Trans-Atlantic crossing from the USA to Western Europe has been one of the most thrilling in the 39-year race history. The six-strong fleet exchanged blows from the very offset to the closing stages.
It was the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi)-backed outfit, skippered by double Olympic medal winning Briton, Ian Walker, that snatched the history-making win, after defending resolutely to hold off a late surge by French outfit, Groupama, to finish five-and-a-half minutes ahead after more than 11 punishing days at sea.
Speaking dockside, a visibly emotional Walker – who has been a mentor to the team’s young Emirati star, Adil Khalid, the first Gulf national to take part in the race – said the win was a huge relief.
“This is a big outpouring of emotion. It’s been a tough, tough leg. We had such high hopes coming into this race but we’ve been struggling for pace. We have such skilled people involved with us, both on the shore and in the sailing team, but we weren’t getting results leg in leg out. It’s brutal but now we’ve won a leg it’s all worthwhile,” said the 42-year-old father-of-two from Southampton, UK.
“For all the people who follow the team in Abu Dhabi, and around the world, this victory is for you. Our yacht is called Azzam, which means determination in Arabic, and we hope we have proven that the whole team has as much determination as anyone out there. This is my second Volvo Ocean Race; that means I’ve sailed about 70,000 miles around the world and I’ve never won a leg. To clock up that many miles around the world is a lot of effort. To win a leg was a personal and the whole team’s goals for this race, and it feels great.”
Walker was also full of praise for 23-year-old Khalid, who notched up the race’s first Atlantic crossing for a Gulf national in style.
“Let me tell you that this leg, more than any leg, Adil came of age. Adil sailed the boat as well as anyone we could have put on the boat. He’s now won the transatlantic, he’s sailed across the Pacific, he’s sailed most of the way around the world, and that’s a tremendous achievement,” added Walker.
A beaming Khalid, the young Olympian who beat off more than 120 hopefuls for a spot on the team, dedicated the win to the people of Abu Dhabi.
“It’s a great day for Abu Dhabi, and we hope to be able to do this on the remaining legs also and make Abu Dhabi proud of us. It’s such a great feeling, everyone dreams of representing their country, it’s so great to be waving the flag and being here right now. This is for all our fans back home and around the world,” said the wide-grinned youngster.
Having left Miami, USA two weeks ago, after soaring to victory in the stadium-style In-Port Race, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, sailing its Azzam (determination) race yacht, lived up to its namesake from the offset.
Despite the fleet sailing straight into the Gulf Stream and a tropical depression, before being forced to head north to dodge a high pressure system blocking the direct path towards Lisbon, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing held its nerve with navigator Jules Salter picking the perfect path through shifting breezes and swirling Atlantic currents to a low pressure system that powered the team to within a couple of hundred miles of the finish.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, which led from day six of the leg, didn’t have it all its own way. On more than one occasion, the chasing pack pushed Abu Dhabi to the limits, sometimes closing its lead down to less than a mile. In the final 24 hour stint, it looked like Groupama might roll the team to spoil the party, but some deft tactical manoeuvres and gritted resolve from Abu Dhabi ensured the outfit weaved through the unpredictable waters of the River Tagus up to the Lisbon finish in first, sparking wild celebrations that were further boosted by a booming firework display.
Faisal Al Sheikh, Events Manager, TCA Abu Dhabi, which was also behind the United Arab Emirates’ capital hosting the race earlier in the year, said the win was another important chapter in the emirate’s long sailing history.
“The determination shown by the team is incredible and epitomises everything we have hoped to achieve from day one. Abu Dhabi has a deep-rooted and very proud sailing heritage that stretches back many centuries when Emiratis, sailing traditional dhows, would ply the ocean waves, forging routes that are still used today. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing has continued that tradition with this win, and we hope that it will inspire future generations of young sailors to take up the sport and keep our relevance on the global stage, both competitively and as a world-class winter watersports destination, alive,” said Al Sheikh.
On the shore, jubilation was running high. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Emirati shore crew member, Butti Al Muhairi, said the win was a great boost for the team.
“We have been working round the clock for the last 18 months, so this win is the culmination of all that hard work and dedication. It is a great moment for Abu Dhabi and everyone involved in the project. I am very proud to be an Emirati today and hope we can add a few more wins before the Volvo Ocean Race finishes next month,” said Al Muhairi, who trained with his countryman Khalid, all around the world before the race started.
After a much needed rest, the action resumes with the Lisbon In-Port Race on June 9, followed by the start of Leg 8 to Lorient, France the following day. The entire 39,000 nautical mile race concludes in early July in Galway, Ireland.