Ian Walker, freshly crowned winning skipper of the Volvo Ocean Race, woke up with the familiar feeling to all sailors in the nine-month offshore marathon: How on earth do I follow that?
That’s a particularly tough challenge for the 45-year-old Briton, who has spent the last eight years of his life focusing on climbing and winning the ‘Everest of Sailing’.
First up, on the Sunday (June 28) following Saturday’s Inmarsat In-Port Race Gothenburg is a trip back to the UAE to celebrate Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s triumph to celebrate with the backers who made it all possible.
Then, unlike many of his rival competitors who are rushing straight into a series of other sailing challenges, he plans some long overdue rest and relaxation at home with his family.
“I think my next appointment is rescue boat duty at Junior Fortnight sailing with my kids,” he told a post-finish press conference yesterday after his fifth place finish in Leg 9 to Gothenburg sealed the 12th edition of the Volvo Ocean Race.
“I’m going home for the summer – my kids want their Daddy back.”
He said it with a smile on his face, but makes a serious point. Top class sport’s longest and toughest professional event demands huge commitments from its participants, at sea and on land, and to win demands an almost obsessive focus.
Walker, a twice-Olympic silver medallist, is well known within sailing for eschewing sleep in his drive for victory while onboard.
His journey to become the 11th skipper to win the 41-year-old pinnacle of offshore racing, formerly the Whitbread Round the World Race, has been long and hard – a lesser man would have been excused for quitting long before Monday’s moment of glory.
He was asked, almost out of the blue, to skipper a joint Chinese/Irish venture, Green Dragon, in the 2008-09 race, but the boat under-performed from the off and Walker and his crew were never a threat to Torben Grael’s (BRA) eventual champions, Ericsson 4.
Walker looked likely to fare better in 2011-12 onboard Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Volvo Open 70, Azzam, but she too, proved to be an under-performer and a broken mast on the very first night of the race set the scene for a campaign littered with disappointments, lifted only by the odd bright moment.
Walker refused to give up on his dream. He arrived in Alicante pre-race in October 2014, relaxed and confident, after the perfect build-up in a one-design Volvo Ocean 65, which he could be sure, was the equal of any of his rival’s.
He also assembled an eight-strong crew of tried and tested professionals such as navigator Simon Fisher (GBR), Justin Slattery (IRE), Daryl Wislang (NZL) and Phil Harmer (AUS).
“Our game plan is simple,” he told reporters on the eve of the opening skirmishes in Alicante. “If we can be on the podium for every leg, we will not be far away from winning this thing.”
It was a strategy that worked to perfection. The new Azzam had accrued two victories – achieved in the testing Leg 1 from Alicante to Cape Town and then the epic Leg 5 through the Southern Ocean – by the time they had finished the sixth stage.
Just as importantly, they were solidly on the podium in all the others, with three of them in runner-up spot.
Until Leg 5, though, Dongfeng Race Team (Charles Caudrelier/FRA) looked capable of scuppering Walker’s well-laid plans, especially after winning their ‘home’ stage into Sanya on Leg 3.
But a broken mast forced the Chinese team out of Leg 5 and with it eight, costly, points were added to their total. Suddenly, the race was Walker’s to lose.
To their credit, Walker and his vastly experienced crew never looked likely to drop their golden opportunity, despite fifth places in Legs 7 and 9.
“It’s an amazing feeling, so much hard work goes into it,” he recalled for the press conference on Monday.
“My whole relationship with the Whitbread started as a kid with pictures of the boats on the wall.
“I did my first Volvo Ocean Race two editions ago and I really wasn’t sure if I’d be up to it. I wondered what the Southern Ocean would be like, lots of self-doubt, and it’s been a long, old road.
“We’ve made a lot of mistakes and we’ve learned a lot of lessons and this time round we threw all that experience in place, surrounded myself with good guys and it worked.”
His hope now is that the achievement will further popularise a sport that is continuing to gain traction in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere in the Gulf region.
“It’s a big deal. A big part of what we’re trying to do is try to popularise the sport there and get young Emiratis sailing.
“The best way we could do that was to win the race.”
*Image credits: Volvo Ocean Race/Matt Knighton