Inside story: Abu Dhabi reveal Volvo Ocean Race secret

Matt Jones - Editor 11:48 06/07/2015
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Experience and friendship were the backbone of ADOR's VOR success.

For nearly nine months they have lived and breathed one of the most epic challenges sport has to offer. After nine legs, 38,739 nautical miles, 255 days and enough freeze-dried meals to last a lifetime, the 12 Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing sailors captured the ultimate prize, winning the Volvo Ocean Race.

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Their triumph can be put down to one attribute in particular – experience. Before the race seven of the eight sailors on board had been in one previously.

At the same time, you cannot be successful without a special bond being created on board, and when you spend time with this group, one thing is abundantly clear – strip back the punishing conditions, lack of sleep and steely determination to capture sailing’s most prestigious prize, their voyage has been a case of eight friends spending time together at sea.

“I look back on it and I want to go again,” on-board reporter Matt Knighton tells Sport360 in Gothenburg.

The accomplished American photographer and film-maker had more reason than most to feel like the odd man out. As the OBR he is not allowed to sail the boat or assist in any way. His job is to snap, record and report. But he doesn’t feel left out. He is right in the thick of it, observing the friendships forged in the harshest of environments, documenting the ingredients key to Abu Dhabi’s success.

“I was intimidated coming in with how close everyone was,” admits the 31-year-old. “Everybody on this boat is a legend in the sailing community. There’s a lot of experienced guys but all that disappears when you see how they all relate to each other. Everyone’s best friends and you forget about how many Volvo Ocean Races this team has won, how many Olympic campaigns they have behind them or America’s Cup experience.”

Pitman and boat captain Daryl Wislang can relate. He was one of the last members to join Azzam, missing much of the group’s training regime, but his transition was seamless.

“The guys had been together for some time so it’s always quite difficult to come into a group that’s been together six months, but I felt really welcome,” he said. Skipper Ian Walker sums the atmosphere aboard Azzam nicely.

“It’s not like we’re on a picnic but if you’re going to spend a lot of time with people you might as well do it with people whose company you enjoy,” he said.

Another key to ADOR’s success was the time spent together prior to the race. The majority trained together six days a week since February 2014. During that time they covered 19,000 nautical miles, half the distance of the actual race.

“Without that bond it just wouldn’t have worked,” said bowman/helmsman Luke Parkinson, 25. “We’re sailing around the world. You’re going to eat, live and breathe with these guys for nine months so if you don’t get along you’re not going to enjoy it.” 

Roberto Bermudez de Castro, the 45-year-old trimmer/helmsman who has sailed five previous VOR’s, said the bond went beyond the men on board. It included the whole team; the shore crew, people who handle logistics, even the girls who prepare the food. All were glued together.

“Sailors are part of it but you need a really good team. It’s been all of us together,” he said.

Australian Phil Harmer claims that glue is as strong now as it was at the start of the race. The 36-year-old has been victorious in the last two VORs, having won with Groupama in 2011/12, although he claims this one was sweeter.

“We’re friends now just like we were on day one, if not stronger. The gel we had as a bunch of friends as well as a crew was the difference, not our sailing ability,” said the trimmer/helmsman.

One man in the shadows who has held the team in place more than most is the team’s performance manager, Neal McDonald. He and Walker put the team together, and while the race was nine months, the journey to success has been far more arduous. 

“This is a two-year campaign. For some it’s been six or seven years,” said the VOR veteran, who also stood in for the injured Harmer on leg three. “It’s a continuing relationship, like a marriage. You can’t just push it aside and say ‘let’s go home, we’ll talk about it tomorrow’. You can’t walk off the boat. It’s not like a football pitch where after 90 minutes you don’t see each other until the next week. It’s day in day out.” 

There were crucial moments along the way to victory. ADOR winning the opening leg from Alicante to Cape Town, fending off a late fight back from Dongfeng Race Team. Claiming a vital victory on leg five in the treacherous Southern Ocean. Dongfeng breaking their mast on that same leg also turned the tide, handing Walker’s men the initiative. 

But what the cameras, newspaper columns and four hourly positions reports don’t show you are the little moments that underpin Abu Dhabi’s triumph, shared only between a crew bonded closely by a special brotherhood.

“There’s tons of laughs, a lot of mickey taking, a lot of banter. It can be a bit brutal at times. I’m usually the one taking the brunt of it and I’m in charge,” said Walker.

Parkinson smiles as he recalls Wislang, navigator Simon ‘SiFi’ Fisher or even himself falling down the hatch in the middle of the night. He was also given the nickname ‘Labrador’ during training, due to his boundless energy, insatiable appetite for hard work and, well, his insatiable appetite.

“When we were offshore I would eat the rest of everyone else’s meals or whatever they wouldn’t eat,” he said. “Then we’d be doing circuit training and the guys would be having a break and I’d be kicking a rugby ball or still running around, like a Labrador would, so it very quickly became a nickname.”

There was the Lorient departure on leg nine. The race was won and the team started to relax. Maybe a bit too much. Wislang recalls: “We’d been out to lunch before we left and we’d eaten prawns. On the boat the amount of methane we had on board, if you’d lit a match downstairs (in the sleeping quarters) the boat might have blown up. Moments like that that are hard to put into words but there’s been a lot of humour.”

Rounding Cape Horn is a massive achievement for any sailor and a big milestone in any VOR. Seeing it for the first time on leg five was a big moment for Parkinson and Knighton. 

“Everyone had been through the washing machine for a week and then you see land and we were all on deck together, so that was something special, something we’ll never forget,” said the Aussie. “We really loved rounding it and breaking out the cigars, that certainly stands out,” added Knighton. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but even during trying times, the camaraderie was evident.

“One thing stands out. The way they finished in Lisbon when the chips were down and they didn’t have a good leg. They got off the boat smiling. It would have been easy to be down there, that was a very proud moment for me,” said McDonald. “I didn’t really doubt it before but from that moment I had zero doubts that they would wrap it up.”

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