Refitting, selecting, racing: Walker's Fastnet goals

Text Agathe Armand
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Refitting, selecting, racing: Walker's Fastnet goals Text Agathe Armand
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Ian Walker is getting ready for the Fastnet Race this August to test a group of young sailors from Europe, America and Australia – all of them hoping to prove they have what it takes to join his crew for the Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15.

We caught up with Walker to learn the latest on his team's progress ahead of the next edition and the double Olympic silver medallist had plenty to tell us as he prepares for his third Volvo Ocean Race appearance as skipper.

Four months after announcing Abu Dhabi’s return in the race, what is your team up to?

“Our main priority at the moment is to get our Volvo Open 70 reconditioned. Azzam has to be back on the water in time to do some sailing in England this summer.

"We will mainly do crew selection and also a bit of corporate sailing. We’ll train on our own but then join Cowes Week’s big boats racing and the Rolex Fastnet Race.”

Where is Azzam and in what sort of condition?
“The boat is being refitted now in Endeavour Quay, Gosport – the shore team and I delivered her back from Ireland to England after the Volvo. We are taking the mast down for services and the keel off to be checked. After sailing round the world, she needs a little bit of love!

“We hope to be sailing by July 2nd. It will be the first time she will be back in the water since then. Azzam is also on the market now and available after the Fastnet, and we’ll be taking interested parties with us on the race.”

You took a record-breaking win in the Fastnet Race 2011. Back to defend your title?
“Our goal is primarily crew selection. I think it’s also good for Abu Dhabi to be out racing in high-profile events. As for the result, we will be completely dependent on the conditions with a Volvo Open 70.

Last time we were really lucky, it was very windy with a lot of reaching. That made the difference, along with the fact that the two 100 footers had technical issues. Realistically it will be very hard this time because there are bigger and faster boats in the race and it’s handicap racing. With a VO70 you’re likely to finish near the front – or near the back. There will be no middle ground. 

The all-female entry Team SCA is also going to compete with their training boat, the ex Mar Mostro… A first taste of the fight to come in 2014-15?
“It’s always good to have similar boats to yourself to measure your own race. I’m hoping there will be more Volvo Open 70s too. 

“I guess we will all be using the race for our own needs though. Sailing under IRC is a bit different because we won’t be stacking and we might choose to take a different amount of people. We will probably sail with 13 or 14 people.” 

What will your crew be like then?
“I’m just putting that together. We are hoping that more of half the crew will be under 30. The main priority is looking at other younger sailors so we’ve got younger sailors from America, Sweden, Australia, France, England… It’s nice to give the people who wrote to me a chance to sail the boat and see how we get on!” 

That’s for your Rolex Fastnet crew. What about the Volvo one?   
“I think the first thing to say is we don’t need many crew for the next edition! I’ll be sailing and we will have an Emirati crewmember so we are actually looking for six sailors and probably one reserve. We obviously need as much experience with the race as we can get and I’d love to race again with the Abu Dhabi guys. So it’s not a huge task. 

“Having said that, we want to get the very best chemistry and the very best team. So we’re going to use this time to try and do that.”

Early June Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing announced they were looking for the next generation of Emirati sailors – any preferred candidate yet?
“At this stage the aim is just to get the word out. If anybody is interested, do not hesitate to get in contact with the team. What we do next will very much depend on who contact the team, and it’s one of the reason why I’m here in Abu Dhabi. We will see what the replies and interests are and then we’ll take the next step.”

Does your previous Emirati crewmember Adil Khalid have his chance? 
“Yes, absolutely! Of course Adil has a huge advantage having now experienced sailing around the world. It would be great to see him again, I’m sure he will be around. He could well be the Emirati on the boat. 

“And I’m sure Butti Al Muhairi will be involved. He can do some sailing but I think a key skill for us is to manage other Emiratis in the team on the shore side.

“I guess it would be nice, not essential but it would be nice, to have the whole team all together before the launch of our Volvo Ocean 65.”

Did you have a look at the build process already? 
“I went to visit Green Marine one month ago to have a look at the set-up and report back to the sponsors in Abu Dhabi. They are working through contracting with Green Marine to buy the boat. It’s a very impressive set-up, not many boatyards could do what they are doing! I guess now we all want to see one of the boats out sailing.”

You must have seen the first two Volvo Ocean 65s – any thoughts?  
“It looks like a slightly smaller Volvo Open 70 with a slightly bigger coach roof. There is certainly a lot more structure than what we used to see and the boats are very detailed. They look nice! Having worked with Farr Yacht Design in the last race, I’m probably more familiar than most. I know what drives a lot of their thought processes.”

Last year you said the One Design ignited a whole new interest for you in the race. Still agree?
I’ve very openly been a big defender of the One Design. I think that teams can enter right up until the last minute and still have the same chance technically than the other teams. I wish it was One Design two races ago! 

“There is a part of me that is sad that you won’t be able to optimise things, because you learn so much by optimising sails and the boat. But I think it’s something which we won’t really appreciate how significant it is until we start off Alicante and find out that we are nose to tail for the first few days and how tight the race is going to be.”