The crew aboard the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing boat, Azzam, did a test sail near the shores of Sanya, China, yesterday. Ian Roman / VOR
Skipper Ian Walker and Azzam have been in Sanya, China’s southernmost big city, for a week, but they already are preparing for a return to racing.
The six boats of the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) fleet spent three weeks in Abu Dhabi but they will bid farewell to Hainan Island on Sunday, after a 12-day stay, and set off for New Zealand’s North Island.
Leg 4 of the round-the-world race concludes in Auckland, a journey of 5,264 nautical miles. It is the fourth-longest of the nine legs and sets up the long, Leg 5 journey through the Southern Ocean.
Azzam are second to China’s Dongfeng Race Team, but are only one point adrift, allowing Walker to suggest Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s boat is in a favourable position.
“No, there isn’t that much pressure,” he said yesterday. “There’s actually less pressure if you’re doing well.
“I feel it would be a lot more pressure if things aren’t going well and you’re desperate to get results.
“We’re in a position where we just need to keep doing the same thing and try to keep learning as we go along. For sure, we would like to beat our nearest rivals, but at this stage that isn’t too important. The most important thing is to just get some good results in.”
Azzam have been on the podium in each of the first three legs, finishing first, third and second. Dongfeng have two seconds and a win in their home port.
Leg 3 presented many man-made obstacles, most in the shape of commercial vessels large and small.
The passage through the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea make for some of the most nerve-racking days and nights in the nine-month journey around the planet.
On Leg 4, the fleet will head east, leaving the Philippines to starboard and will angle south towards the antipodes.
Islands represent the biggest navigational dangers, and the fleet will be aware of them, with the grounding of Team Vestas, in Leg 2, still fresh in the minds of the mariners.
The leg will last 21 to 23 days, according to VOR officials.
Walker expects continued tight racing.
“I haven’t looked at it that closely yet but, for sure, leaving Sanya will be upwind for a while, maybe a week or two weeks,” he said. “There is quite a wide Doldrums as well and then whatever gets thrown at us afterwards.
“I don’t think there’s as many options available for routes as in previous legs, so I expect the fleet to stay quite tight together.
“Going upwind boat speeds will be much more similar than downwind, maybe a difference of as little as 0.1 or 0.2 knots.
“Downwind can be a little more but the fleet will stay much closer from front to back.”
Azzam welcomes back Phil Harmer for the leg after he injured his left wrist at the start of the second leg, from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi, and was replaced for the latest leg by performance director Neal McDonald.
Harmer also had a bout of tonsillitis during the Leg 2, and he lost 10 kilograms of weight.
On Saturday, he will return to the boat for another in-port race, a series in which Azzam are leading the standings.
The in-port race results would come into play if boats finish tied on points in the overall standings.
“I understand it will be a downwind start so it is going to be good fun, with lots of potential for place changing,” Walker said.
“It will make for difficult boat handling as it’s been windy the last week. I’m not sure if it will be as windy on Saturday, but if it is, we will be in for some good action.”
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