Galway gives seafaring heroes a spectacular welcome

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The Independent Online

Irish pride stretched not only all the way from Edinburgh to Dublin yesterday but on to the west coast city of Galway as the locals gathered in their middle of the night thousands to welcome a new team of seafaring heroes.

Already fuelled with fervour from Leinster’s capture of the European rugby crown, they crowded the dock to cheer the local boat Green Dragon to its first podium finish at the end of the seventh leg of the Volvo round the world race.

It may have been three o’clock in the morning, but the drums hammered out a triumphant welcome and the very Irish sound of Galway Girl prompted spontaneous dancing.

It was the most spectacular welcome given to a fleet arrival since 1989, when, in a former life, the Whitbread round the world fleet arrived in Auckland.

The clear winner had been Ericsson 4, the Swedish entry skippered by the Brazilian Torben Grael, but the battle for second third and fourth was not settled until the last few of the 2,600 miles. The American, Kenny Read, was second in Puma, by less than 12 minutes from Ian Walker in Green Dragon, who held off Bouwe Bekking in Spain’s Telefonica Blue by just over 11 minutes.

Mayor Pádraig Conneely handed over trophies and ducked for cover as champagne spray followed champagne spray, the crews were astonished at the level of the cheering, and, in the case of Ericsson, the shore crew immediately prepared the 70-foot yacht for hoisting out of the water and tackling a long list maintenance and repair jobs.

This fourth leg win out of seven virtually secures the Fighting Finish trophy for Ericsson 4, the lead boat of a pair given huge financial support after the disappointment of the last race in 2005-06. There are three legs to go, to Marstrand, Stockholm and St. Petersburg.

“This was beyond our expectations,” said Walker as he escaped the crowds for the peace of a reception marquee. “But we knew if we got heavy downwind conditions we could do well and we had three days of them.”

Another Ian, Budgen, a specialist helmsman alongside watch leader Neal McDonald, said they had often been on the edge in huge seas and over 40 knots of wind. “It’s frightening but it’s so much fun, and we all did a lot of laughing,” he said. “We wanted a good result and we just kept the hammer down and drove the boat really hard.

The Dragons also paid with some sail damage and the budget is, to say the least, tight but a last-minute push for extra funds is underway and will continue through the inshore race which is being staged at the end of this week.

For Read, who had to cope with a smashed rudder and its replacement by emergency kit, “what we did was as good as a win. No-one breaks a rudder like that and comes through. This leg is something in which the whole team can take pride.” As for the dockside welcome: “I have never seen anything like that before in my life.”

Bekking hopes that the shorter, largely inshore conditions of the last three legs will play to his strengths, though his 14.3-point deficit on E4 is probably too much to close and his second place is protected by only 1.5 points from Puma.

Ericsson 3, skippered by the redoubtable 60-year old Magnus Olsson, despite carrying the lanterne rouge into Galway, retains fourth place overall, with Green Dragon fifth, Telefonica Black sixth and the Dutch team Delta Lloyd, in the boat which won last time, seventh.