Dubai: Ian Walker, skipper of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, is confident his 11-strong crew can push for podium honours in the fifth leg of the race to Itaji, Brazil, next weekend as the team looks to get their Volvo Ocean Race campaign back on track after a tough first half.
Featuring the classic Southern Ocean high speed sleigh-ride sailing for which the Volvo Ocean Race is renowned, leg five — which starts from Auckland, New Zealand on Sunday — is the longest passage in the race and throws up a new set of challenges for the six-strong fleet, including sub-zero temperatures, the threat of icebergs and treacherous arctic seas.
But 43-year-old Olympian Walker, the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority-backed team is relishing getting its state-of-the-art race yacht, Azzam, back into the water, as much of the leg will feature the outfit's much preferred downwind sailing.
"We are optimistic ahead of the next leg. We are under no illusions that it will be extremely difficult, but it is also downwind and that is where our strengths hopefully lie. We've still not really gone downwind," he said.
"Telefónica look like the gun boat, but everyone's going to have their weaknesses at different times. We've got to hope. We've done six weeks' sailing in this race so far and I think four-and-a-half have been upwind. We have to get the spinnakers up and maybe it will be a different story. You just have to keep believing, keep trying your best and good things will happen."
The notorious Southern Ocean crossing has been a mainstay in the 39-year-old race's reputation as one of the planet's toughest endurance competitions. Race-imposed safety waypoints should keep the fleet north of the main areas of iceberg risk, but extreme conditions will test the nerve, skill and stamina of the crews to their limits.
The course initially takes the fleet from Auckland north-west across the Southern Ocean to the tip of South America at Cape Horn. From there the boats must cross the South Atlantic, avoiding the Falkland Islands on the way to the finish in Brazil.
And Walker believes that, for many of the younger Abu Dhabi crew members making their global race debuts, including Emirati Adil Khalid — the first Gulf national to ever compete in the event — the rounding of Cape Horn will be a moment to cherish.
"The next leg is already on everybody's mind. You have to keep your wits about you, it can be very dangerous but exhilarating at the same time, it really is classic Volvo Ocean Race. For the first-timers, rounding Cape Horn will be a highlight — it's the sailor's equivalent of climbing Mount Everest," he said.
"It's just a shame we didn't have longer in Auckland for the stopover. It is very short so we don't have enough time to get up to full strength, but it's the same for everyone, we're all in the same boat."
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, which currently sits fifth in the overall Volvo Ocean Race standings, is looking to continue its impressive in-port race run of form on Saturday for the Auckland showpiece, before starting leg five the day after. The team has won two of the last four in-port races, including a historic home victory in the UAE capital.