“The Whitbread’s the one race that I always followed and dreamt of doing – to finally win it, and win it as navigator, is a dream come true.”
Big things were expected of this Emirati-backed team of experienced round the worlders, and the Azzam crew kicked off in the ultimate fashion – smashing records during training, and storming to victory in Leg 1 to Cape Town.
“We made a really good plan, and we carried out that plan,” smiles skipper Ian Walker.
“We were confident going into the race, the boat was in great shape, and we arrived in Alicante probably better prepared and better trained than most teams.”
But after a perfect start, the next eight months wasn’t to be a stress-free cruise to victory. In fact, far from it.
“The one-design element changed everything this race,” admits SiFi. “It made the fleet so much closer, and any risk you took, you weren’t just risking losing one or two places, you were risking losing the whole fleet.
“We had a plan to be conservative and not take too much risk. We sailed like we didn’t have to win every leg, or do anything too radical.
“There were some opportunities where we’d look and think ‘we could win the leg by miles, but if it doesn’t work out we’ll be a long way behind’.”
So how frustrating is the pack mentality, as a navigator?
SiFi smiles. “It’s actually quite a nice position to be in, not being under pressure to pull something out of the bag to win. That comes from having a great team, a fast boat, being well prepared, and our boat handling being very good.
“We decided to stick with the fleet and be patient – sometimes, you know the fleet aren’t going the right way or you’d like to do something different, but you have to be patient and think ‘right, we’re with the fleet, we’ll just keep going’.”
“It was a very privileged position for me to know that we could just hang with the fleet and grind them down if we had to.”
With closer racing than ever before, this edition was intense – taking its toll mentally, emotionally and physically.
And there was one boat which caused Ian to lose sleep more than any other.
“I never felt 100% comfortable, never thought we were definitely going to win it, until we arrived in Lorient,” he admits.
“That speaks volumes for Dongfeng Race Team in particular, who sailed so well in the first half of the race.
The Chinese team, led by Charles Caudrelier, was the surprise package of the edition – and the game of cat and mouse that developed between the experienced Brit and the first-time French skipper, pushing each other to their limits and beyond, was fascinating to watch.
“In the leg from Brazil to Newport, we fought back from sixth to finish second, just behind Dongfeng,” explains Ian. “That was a really important result – we could’ve lost all of our lead on that leg.
“In some ways, that was more important than the legs that we won. We were never really on the back foot, but always carrying the pressure of leading.”
SiFi continues. “One of the strengths of our team was that it didn’t matter if we were leading, sixth, out on our own or in a battle with another boat, the atmosphere on board was always the same – level-headed, very balanced.
“It’s impossible to lead all the time – but I think that comes with experience.”
And that experience – both in miles and mind - was something that this crew certainly wasn’t lacking.
“Half the crew I’d sailed with before,” says Ian. “I wanted to have people who I could trust, who I knew would work with me, and who were nice people.
“Things will always go wrong at some point so you need a crew that will stand together. If I had to describe our campaign in three words, I’d say, ‘organised’, ‘experienced’ and ‘clinical’.”
And on the odd occasion when things didn’t quite go to plan, it was all about keeping chins up, and eyes on the prize.
“We didn’t have too many difficult times,” smiles Ian. “We had a bad In-Port Race in Auckland, we didn’t have a great finish to the leg in Abu Dhabi which was disappointing.
“But the moment when we doubted ourselves most was in the Transatlantic when we were slow for a day or two and slipped to fifth or sixth – whilst Dongfeng were winning.”
Frantic eyes bright and darting, stress lines carved into his forehead - the skipper has been a joy to watch over the last nine months, captured in all his glory by Onboard Reporter Matt Knighton.
But it’s that intensity, alongside the patient and softly-softly tactical approach, which has proved a real winning formula for the Emiratis – leading them to an historic double, securing not only the overall trophy but also the In-Port Race Series.
“He’s definitely the more emotional one,” laughs SiFi. “You can understand it – it’s his campaign, his project, he’s the skipper. He feels the pressure a million times more than any of us.
“This campaign I’ve tried to be the calm one, I tried to be objective whether we were gaining or losing. I always try to be positive and balance out the highs and lows.
“But working with Ian is great. He’s so focused and so intense. He’ll wear himself out fighting for every inch, he’s smart and savvy. I’ve learnt a lot working with him.”
So, what now for the pair, and the rest of the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew, who flew straight from Gothenburg to Abu Dhabi to deliver their trophies to Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan?
Ian admits that, having achieved his boyhood dream, becoming the first Brit to lift the overall Volvo Ocean Race trophy, he’s unsure what the future holds for him.
“If you wake up and don’t want to go to the gym and train and put everything into it, then you shouldn’t be doing it, especially as the leader of the group. Right now I couldn’t do that,” he says.
“But who’s to say in three months’ time I won’t have recharged? This is what I do.”
And as for SiFi, well, first he’s looking forward to some time off with his family and 18 month old son Alexander, who’s ‘already travelled the world’. And then?
“I would do the race again, you learn too much,” he says. “There’s so much stress and responsibility involved, but I enjoy the challenge.
“There are people who’ve been trying their whole lives to win and they’ve never done it, so it’s something I’ll definitely cherish forever. There’s always something new to learn.”
He pauses, and reveals the trademark SiFi grin.
“That’s why I keep coming back. Every race you do, you’re a little bit smarter.”