'We can all be very proud'

Text by Jonno Turner
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'We can all be very proud' Text by Jonno Turner
 
He's won the Volvo Ocean Race, bagged a pair of Olympic medals - and in the last couple of weeks, he's helped raise over £1 million for Sport Relief. As you do.

We caught up with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper Ian Walker to reflect on the Hell On High Seas challenge, get the inside scoop on what really happened onboard ...and find out his plans for the future.

It's a week since you finished the Hell On High Seas challenge for Sport Relief. How do you look back on it now?

First and foremost, I’m pleased that we pulled it off, and everyone is safe. Let’s be honest, it was pretty ambitious. When we first discussed it we weren’t even sure if it was going to be possible at this time of year. Secondly, I think the celebrities did well. They were very trusting – I don’t think they really knew what they were going to take on. They all stood their watches and no-one complained. They didn’t always enjoy it, but they were pretty brave to take on the challenge.

The celebrities seemed to adapt to the rigours of ocean life pretty quickly. Who were the standout performers for you?

I think both Angellica and Alex were very strong in particular. They didn’t suffer from sea sickness. If you do, as did Hal, and to an extent Ore, and Suzi, it’s not your fault – it’s just a fact of life – but you very quickly go downhill and obviously the One Show girls had an advantage in that they didn’t suffer from that. Doon was ...mad. She was probably the one with the biggest highs and the lowest lows. I think she might have been the first one wanting to get off if it had been rougher, but saying that, she also enjoyed parts of it more than anyone else.

Stepping on to shore, they all seemed to have the Volvo Ocean Race bug - did they ask much about the Race, and your respective careers sailing it?

Yeah, a little bit. We talked a lot about the difference between what we were doing and racing. There were a lot of questions about how – and mainly why – we do it! I think generally they think we’re all a bit mad to be doing it, to be honest.

It's certainly created a lot of hype in UK sailing circles and beyond. Some of the celebrities have already said that they'll stay friends of the race for life - how important do you think it was to leave a mark on the wider UK sporting community?

I think that was one of the driving factors, both for ourselves as sailors, and for the Volvo Ocean Race, to get involved in this project. Yes, it’s all about raising money, but it also raises the profile massively of not only the Race, but the sport of sailing as a whole. Certainly, I personally got more coverage in the UK by doing this for a week than I did through winning the Volvo Ocean Race. In addition to that, it doesn’t do any harm for the Race to be gaining good contacts and sailing to be making an impression within mainstream media circles, especially with the Cardiff stopover coming up next edition.

And how has the reaction been among the sailing community? I think a few commentators and sceptics warmed to the idea of the challenge as it went along... 

I don’t think anyone could say it was reality TV. When Alex Jones climbed the rock face in Utah for Sport Relief, no one was calling that reality TV. The reality is, pure and simple, it was a sporting challenge, which Sport Relief do every year, it was an opportunity for us to promote the race and the sport, and it was a great chance to capture the public’s imagination and try to raise a lot of money. I don’t think there was much more to it than that. We weren’t trying to create reality TV, we weren’t trying to pretend it was the Race, we were just trying to give the celebrities challenges which they would have to push themselves to overcome, and in turn, raise money.

A particular highlight for the professionals onboard must have been when Sir Ben Ainslie brought his America's Cup boat out into the Solent to salute you - it was quite the sight to see two speed machines going next to each other! 

Yeah, that was cool! Obviously I know all of the guys at BAR, and we knew they were out training so we made sure we didn’t miss them in the Solent. In the end, the timing was perfect. Of course, Ben was on the final episode of The One Show before the challenge started to help promote Hell On High Seas, so it was a very neat way of bringing it all together. We didn’t have to go through the Solent, but I thought it was a particularly good way of engaging with some of the local community, and especially the sailing community. It goes without saying it’s also picturesque and it’s a cool thing to do, to sail through the Needles.

You must be delighted with the news that the challenge has already raised well over £1 million - an amount which is likely to keep on rising...

Of course. We’ve hit all of our goals. That’s thanks to help from a lot of supplier companies as well, people like MUSTO, Inmarsat, Exposure Marine and others, who all supported the effort, as well as Volvo Ocean Race itself. I think everyone can look back with a lot of pride on a job well done.

You've sailed with Phil during the last edition of the Race - but you've never sailed with Dee or Sara before. How was that?

It was good – I didn’t actually spend that much time on deck with Sara but I spent 100% of my time on Dee’s watch. They were both great. Dee in particular is a very strong offshore sailor, and we spent a lot of time talking about the race, mistakes we made, things we did well, and what we think could be better. You have a lot of hours to kill on these kind of trips, and it was definitely fun to chat about those things with her.

It must have been particularly unique for you to climb onboard Dongfeng's boat after the battles you shared with them during the 2014-15 edition - did it feel like sneaking into enemy territory? Find any secrets?

(Laughs) I don’t think there were any secrets. The boat is just the boat – I didn’t think about that too much. There are so few things you can actually change, in fact the only things really are the handholds down below. But you become very used to what you have on your boat, and suddenly everything is in a slightly different place, so for me, it felt a little bit harder down below. You’re so used to a footrest or a handhold being in a certain place, you aim for it, and it’s not there! But Gringo (Graham Tourell) did a really good job of preparing the boat, and it was great to sail with him. I think one of the things about the Volvo Ocean Race is that we've actually all worked together on a lot of different things over the years, such as trying to change the rules and improve the boat, so I think it’s a good thing when you develop stronger links with key players in other teams like Gringo.

It was a big task, going to sea with only six professional sailors, and a bunch of complete amateurs. How much responsibility did you feel? Did it ever feel like a gamble?

Yes, I felt a big responsibility for sure. I wouldn’t say it was a gamble - if it was, I wouldn’t have done it. You can’t gamble with safety at sea. We put a lot of precautions in place – we made sure we had a professional sailor buddy for every celebrity, and they all went through the sea survival course prior to the start of the challenge. But you always have to expect the unexpected – it could be anything, someone trying to go to the loo, or just move around the deck, or pass a coffee cup, their balance and feeling to the boat will not be as strong as a professional. We just had to look out for them a lot, but it was a relatively short period of time, and we managed the risks quite well. It’s always the fear of the unexpected – if something goes wrong, can we react well enough? The key thing is to make sure it never goes wrong.

If you had to sum up the Sport Relief experience in three words, what would you say?

Oh, I hate doing these three word things! (Pauses) Rewarding, enjoyable, and something we can all be really proud of.

What's your plan going forward, over the next few months?

I’m in St Barts this week doing a super yacht regatta, and then I’m off cruising with my family after that. I’ve just got a succession of in-shore sailing events, mainly superyachts and TP52s. I’m very busy all summer – in fact, I have no offshore sailing currently planned – and at the same time I’m obviously waiting to hear from Abu Dhabi on whether they want to do the next race, and if so, what our role will be. I’m on standby right now as far as the Volvo Ocean Race is concerned.

How do you feel about the next edition? You said after lifting the trophy that you weren't sure whether you'd return for another edition. Has this experience reignited any fires?

I can only really see myself doing the race with Abu Dhabi – I’ve got such a long association with them now. I actually found it a little bit tough in parts last week, probably because I’m not as well physically prepared as I was at the start of last edition. That just shows how much preparation work you need to put if you want to make sure that you can cope with life onboard in the Volvo Ocean Race. We were very lucky with the weather but we had the big storm in the middle so the biggest thing for me was just making sure that we made the right decisions in terms of managing that wind speed. I guess I had to rein in my bravery, so to speak, because I realised just how far out of the comfort zone the celebrities were. But actually it was a pretty powerful system, and I think we made the right decisions at the right time.