Walker & Co hold on for emotional victory

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, skippered by Ian Walker from the UK, leads the fleet at the start of leg 7 from Miami, USA to Lisbon, Portugal, during the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12. (Credit: IAN ROMAN/Volvo Ocean Race)

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, skippered by Ian Walker from the UK, leads the fleet at the start of leg 7 from Miami, USA to Lisbon, Portugal, during the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12. (Credit: IAN ROMAN/Volvo Ocean Race)

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A jubilant Ian Walker last night cast off the disappointments of the Volvo Ocean Race with a dramatic victory in the Atlantic leg into Lisbon.

Fireworks lit the sky over the Portuguese port as the Warsash skipper led his Abu Dhabi team over the finish line just five minutes ahead of French rivals Groupama after more than 3,500 miles of racing from Miami.

The two boats had been nip and tuck for the last 24 hours of the race, with Groupama getting within half a mile of taking the lead at one point.

And the duo were within sight of each other on a nerve-jangling run into the finish line.

Soon after crossing the line a visibly emotional Walker said: ‘Do you think you can make the last 10 miles of a race any harder than that?

‘It’s a massive relief. It was such a tough race.

‘Everyone knows we’re not as quick as some of the other boats, so we just had to make up for it in other ways.

‘It’s one of the most amazing experiences of my sailing career, that’s for sure.

‘We paced ourselves pretty well, we were even sleeping today.

‘We were preparing ourselves for a night in the river if we had to. Mentally, I’m exhausted – it’s just such a relief.’

Agony or ecstasy had been the only choices for Walker and his crew as they clung on to their wafer-thin lead.

Theirs had been a race to forget so far, with damage and leg retirements putting the Abu Dhabi entry Azzam out of contention for an overall podium finish in the six-strong fleet.

But after winning the Miami in-port race, the striking black Volvo 70 had led the competition across the North Atlantic.

Smart calls from skipper Walker and Isle of Wight navigator Jules Salter kept Azzam’s nose out in front.

The final hurdle came in the last 300 miles to Lisbon with a ridge of high pressure and associated light winds blocking the way.

Emirati crew member Adil Khalid perhaps best summed up the mood on board after such a long and frustrating race.

He said: ‘We do not hope to win. We want to win. We need to win.’

Aside from giving the Azzam crew a new sense of pride, the result shakes up the leaderboard to put Groupama ahead of long-time leader Telefonica.

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