Ian Walker defiant despite early setback


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The Independent Online

“We can still win this race,” said a defiant Ian Walker after motoring his crippled yacht Abu Dhabi back to Alicante less than 24 hours after starting the first leg of the Volvo round the world race to Cape Town.

Then the Chinese yacht Sanya, skippered by 2004-05 winner Mike Sanderson, announced that he, too was suspending racing to fix hull damage at Puerto de Motril.

Walker’s 100-foot super-high tech carbon fibre mast came crashing down without warning just over five hours and fifteen minutes down the track. No-one was injured and the crew of 10 plus an embedded media man saved all the sails and the three sections of mast. The rescue services at Cartagena were on standby but did not have to go to the aid of the 70-foot yacht about 20 miles offshore.

The wind was blowing between about 27 knots and a gale force 35 at the time but the seas were whipped into a difficult steep chop and the boat fell into a trough. “I know it’s a big wave when my feet come off the ground,” said a dazed-looking Walker, a British double Olympic silver medallist.

The crew was on deck completing a change to reduce sail area and the mast crumpled away from them. But they had to react quickly to minimise resultant damage to the hull, which was being speared by the spreaders though which the rigging runs.

A team of experts is on its way to assess exactly what caused the failure. The team’s spare mast was on its way to Madrid to be flown to Amsterdam for storage but was turned round, put on another truck, permits to use the Spanish motorways on a Sunday hurriedly issued, and was expected in Alicante late Sunday afternoon.

Essential is to find the cause of the breakage in case there is a similar fault in the spare.

Before the start Walker had proudly described the mast as “a peach.” It was a showcase product making its high profile debut after being made in Valencia by the British-founded company Future Fibres in a joint venture  with the Bergamo-based Italian company, Persico.

As well as making the high tech rigging for yacht masts, Future Fibres makes the tethers for the wheels on Formula One and other racing cars. Persico is the company again selected by Prada boss Patrizio Bertelli to build the hulls of his latest America’s Cup entry, Luna Rossa.

The Abu Dhabi team had originally negotiated exclusive use of the Future Masts technology. The development of the mould, milled from a solid aluminium block, was hugely expensive.

Abu Dhabi then agreed to allow a rival entry in the Volvo, China’s Sanya, to have a new mast made with an identical tube, though the design of the fittings is different.

Future Masts also supplied a tube for Mike Golding’s refitted Open 60, Gamesa, currently in the Atlantic in the double-handed Jacques Vabre race from Le Havre to Costa Rica.

The Abu Dhabi team was immediately in tough with Sanderson and members of the Sanya shore team immediately, as did others, offered to help with repairs but may have to break off to look after the damaged Sanya.

The repairs to Abu Dhabi could take three or four days and Walker could not hide the disappointment of such a campaign blow after working so hard for 18 months before the start. But others may also suffer setbacks over a 39,000-mile race which finishes next July in Galway. “Certainly, we believe we can still win this race,” he said.

Going into the second 24 hours, there was a Spanish one-two as the New Zealand-managed entry Camper was leading the charge through tough conditions in the Straits of Gibraltar with a four-mile advantage over Telefonica.

Third-placed Groupama from France then had a five-mile lead over the American-flagged Puma as Sanya pulled off the track.