Mast-ditch effort gets Walker & Co racing

Azzam, skippered by Ian Walker, returns to Alicante after the mast broke in rough weather. Picture: Paul Todd/Volvo Ocean Race
Azzam, skippered by Ian Walker, returns to Alicante after the mast broke in rough weather. Picture: Paul Todd/Volvo Ocean Race
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Ian Walker is back in the Volvo Ocean Race after a four-day race against time to replace the mast that crashed down just hours after the Alicante start last weekend.

The Hamble-based skipper of the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing yacht Azzam resumed racing early Thursday morning at the point where disaster struck six hours and 85 miles into the first leg of the round-the-world race to Cape Town.

The team, who had worked around the clock to replace the towering rig on the dark hulled Volvo 70, have said they are still not clear on what caused the failure.

Azzam had sailed several thousand miles in pre-race testing without reporting any major problems.

‘I wish I could say we were now racing with clear minds but we are not,’ said Walker shortly before resuming racing.

‘It is not normal practice to step a new mast and set off in the dark and straight offshore – new masts can sometimes take days to tune up but we don’t have that time.

‘We also don’t have the safety of a spare mast waiting for us if anything goes wrong.

‘The stakes are now very high and we must sail accordingly.

‘Right now we are taking it one step at a time.

‘We will not sail fully loaded until we can check everything in daylight.

‘Just like falling off a horse, it takes time to regain your confidence but you simply have to get back on it as soon as you can,’ added the double Olympic silver medallist.

At midday on Thursday, Azzam was heading for Gibraltar some 837 miles behind the leading yacht and 650 astern of the fourth-placed Camper – an almost impossible deficit to overturn but nowhere near as bad as it could have been.

The leading boat in the fleet, the French entry Groupama, has already proved to be fearless, ignoring the oft-followed rule of sticking with the opposition.

On the opening stretch from Alicante to Gibraltar, she split from the fleet and went up the North African coast in a move that produced neither profit or loss.

More dramatically, once in the Atlantic, Groupama again split, again heading for the African coast.

On Thursday, she was sitting on a 100-plus mile lead east of the Canaries while her three main rivals were some 450 miles further west and leaving Madeira to port.

However, fresher wind is coming, and coming from the west, so Franck Cammas’ crew’s lead could prove to be very temporary.

Puma was in third place, hot on the heels of Telefónica, whose skipper Iker Martinez and Xabi Fernandez won the ISAF Rolex Sailor of the Year award on Tuesday for their 49er exploits.

Dee Caffari, short-listed for the women’s award, lost out to American match-racer Anna Tunnicliffe.

Sanya, the Chinese entry that underwent a major refit in Hamble before the race, was yesterday due to be shipped by road to Gibraltar’s commercial port and put on a ship to Cape Town.

The yacht was forced out of the first leg on the first night after suffering serious bow damage, possibly after hitting an object.

n There was better news in the Atlantic for a couple of local sailors.

Gosport’s Alex Thomson and co-skipper Guillermo Altadill on Hugo Boss are neck and neck for the lead of the Transat Jacques Vabre, with Jean-Pierre Dick and Jeremie Beyou on Virbac Paprec 3.

Warsash-based Mike Golding, meanwhile, was nicely placed in fourth place among the nine survivors of the Open 60 class.