Walker & Co feel the need for speed

Azzam, skippered by Ian Walker, sails in to Abu Dhabi. Picture: Paul Todd/Volvo Ocean Race
Azzam, skippered by Ian Walker, sails in to Abu Dhabi. Picture: Paul Todd/Volvo Ocean Race
Leigh McMillan announced as Helmsman onboard Land Rover BAR Academy. Picture: Alex Palmer

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The points on offer for the Volvo Ocean Race’s midweek sprint into Abu Dhabi are unlikely to prove decisive at the end of this round-the-world marathon – but the 98-mile drag race finally made it clear who’s got the boat speed and who hasn’t.

It was smiles all round aboard overall race leader Telefonica, who crossed the line in second place after almost seven hours of racing.

Smiles, too, for the winning French entry Groupama.

They showed a blistering turn of speed around the short-reaching course, which allowed no scope for tactical decision making.

It will not have escaped the notice of their rivals that both yachts were drawn by hot-shot race boat designer Juan Kouyoumdjian.

Hampshire yachtsman Neal McDonald, a watch captain aboard the Spanish entry Telefónica, is reluctant to put their overall success entirely down to boat speed.

But he admits their Juan K design is no slouch across the range.

‘We haven’t lined up against all the boats in all conditions yet so it is hard to judge relative speeds,’ he said.

‘For example, Groupama were by far the fastest boat in the sprint into Abu Dhabi. We are pretty happy with our all-round speed though.

‘And that has served us well up to now.’

There’s a great deal more soul searching elsewhere in the fleet, however, not least aboard the Abu Dhabi entry Azzam – skippered by Warsash-based racer Ian Walker.

After starting on a high by winning the Alicante in-port race, it’s been downhill ever since for the largely British-crewed Volvo 70.

Mast failure saw an early retirement from leg one, followed by a fourth in the Cape Town in-port and fifth (and last on the water) on both stages of leg two to Abu Dhabi.

Only Sanya, which has yet to finish a leg after hull and rig failures, has had a more torrid time.

‘This obviously wasn’t the result we wanted but we had a very tough time to get here,’ said Walker.

‘We broke the mast and at that point it didn’t look like we would get to Abu Dhabi. To arrive to this amazing reception is just fantastic.’

Always upbeat, though, Walker added: ‘It all worked out well. No sail damage, no injuries on board and no illness.

‘So we’ll be in pretty good shape for the restart.’

Other race skippers were up front about the challenge they face in getting on terms with Telefonica and a clearly quick Groupama.

Camper skipper Chris Nicholson described the culmination of leg two as the ‘longest short race I’ve ever done.’

And Ken Read, skipper of Puma said: ‘I really didn’t enjoy that race.

‘It was all about flat out boat speed and we weren’t quick enough.

‘All respect to the winners, but we just couldn’t keep up. We have a lot of work to do.’

The Volvo fleet are back in action with the Abu Dhabi in-port race on January 13.

Leg three to Sanya starts the following day with a sprint back up to Sharjah, before the boats are once again loaded on to a ship for transport through piracy-affected waters.