Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper, Ian Walker says making the call to pull out of the first leg of the Volvo Ocean Race has been one of the hardest decisions of his life.
Having been forced to return to Alicante within a few hours of the start when their mast was destroyed by the impact of a massive wave, Abu Dhabi had been in an all out race against the clock to get back on the water and complete the 6,500 nautical mile leg to Cape Town, South Africa.
After successfully fitting their replacement mast, the crew left Alicante on Wednesday night and officially re-joined the race in the early hours of Thursday morning, almost 1,000 nautical miles behind the fleet.
However, as Azzam approached the Strait of Gibraltar this morning, after consultation with his crew as well as the team’s management and sponsors, Walker made the tough choice to retire from the leg.
The team now plans to sail to the Portuguese port of Lisbon where Azzam will be packed up and loaded on a ship to Cape Town, buying them more time to make modifications to the boat’s rigging.
'This decision has been a few days in the making' said Walker from Azzam today.
'As we said when we left Alicante we were just coming out to see how the new spare mast set up and we are carrying on our investigation as to why the original mast breakage occurred.
'It’s been an agonising period but on balance today we made the call that we needed enough time in Cape Town to make some modifications to our rigging.'
Walker, a double Olympic Silver medallist, says he and the crew of professional sailors had to balance their natural competitive instincts to race on to Cape Town against the risks to the long term viability of the project and their chances of winning the race overall.
'If we carried on sailing, even if we had made it safely and our current set up had got us there, we would probably not have the time to make the necessary modifications and really be able to race at 100 per cent in Leg 2, which is our primary goal.
'We discussed a number of options. We could have continued to race flat out and hope everything would be OK, we could have backed off when it was windy, or we could find another way of getting the boat to Cape Town and buy ourselves enough time to play catch up.'
Despite having been trapped in windless conditions since restarting, Abu Dhabi are likely to face fierce conditions when they enter the Atlantic, something which Walker says he had been keeping a close eye on.
'We have been checking almost hourly and right now I am more confident than ever that we have made the right decision.'
Walker said the technical detail of the eventual solution was still being finalised but that they hoped to be able complete some of the work while Azzam was enroute to Cape Town.
'We need to go from a continuous to a discontinuous system of rigging in all likelihood, which will probably involve modifications to our spreaders, which we can do while the boat is being shipped and the mast is down, and then cure new carbon rigging in Cape Town.'
With a window of just 36-hours between their expected arrival in Lisbon and the cargo ship’s scheduled departure, the clock is ticking once again for Abu Dhabi.
Walker says although the team will motor the 60 miles to Gibraltar they are then hopeful of a fast passage under sail to Lisbon.
'Once there we have 36-hours for the sailing team to take the mast out, load everything up and put the boat on a cradle that we have had built, and load it on to the deck of a cargo ship which will leave on Monday afternoon.'
'It’s pretty tight but it’s an achievable timeframe which gets us to Cape Town before the end of the month.'
Walker said he was hopeful that they would be ready in time for the Cape Town In-Port Race.
'A lot of things have got to go right for us to be ready in time. We are relying on making this ship on Monday and it being on time. We are also relying on a lot of work from Future Masts to develop the new rigging, build all the new pieces and come out and cure new rigging for us in Cape Town.
'With conservative estimates we will hopefully have it in place in time to do some sailing prior to the in-port race in Cape Town.'