As we walk down the pier at Gosport, one of England’s less salubrious small coastal ports, we face the Azzam, a towering racing boat, stretching 70 feet, with sails like skyscrapers in a colour which can only be described as pirate black.
The boat, made entirely of carbon fibre (except the sails), is crucial to the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team’s chance for a win in the Volvo Ocean Race, one of the toughest around the world competitions, held every three years.
The race begins next October (2014) in Alicante and finishes nine months later, in Gothenburg.
But Azzam’s captain, Olympic medallist Ian Walker, is already auditioning the last two members of his team, and a small group of us get to come along for the ride.
Azzam and her crew is on the south coast for Cowes Week, one of the longest running annual regattas in the world.
The week’s racing is nothing like the Volvo, a gruelling sailing race which departs from Europe for a nine leg journey.
Each entry has a sailing team of 11 professional crew who spend day and night racing in four-hour shifts.
Two crew members are trained as medics, and a broadcaster is on-board to capture and report the team’s progress.
If you’re thinking a nine-month, round the world trip on a 70’ sailboat sounds luxurious, think again.
The lighter the boat, the faster it goes, so conditions below deck are a bit like a third-world prison – netted sleepers (like narrow hammocks) bunk-bed style.
I’m told the top bunk gets the condensation drip, but the bottom bunk gets the sweat drip from the other crew members when it’s hot.
And this is no place for a claustrophobic.
The bathroom consists of a wrap-around curtain with a zip, and essentially, a hole in the floor.
In lieu of showers, the team allot three wipes per day for each crew member, no change of clothes (I didn’t ask about underwear).
And the food?
Forget about it.
The crew purify water to make their freeze-dried fare just about edible.
Stopovers are a few weeks to a month, allowing crews to reunite with their families, and more importantly, maintain their vessels, not to mention fatten up on decent food.
The stopovers are a windfall for their host cities, which create Olympic-like villages to welcome crews, corporates, and tourists.
Abu Dhabi was the first destination in the Middle East to host a stopover in the last race, and also the first Arab team to contest the race.
On the back of their tourism success in 2011-12, Abu Dhabi has been given the prize of playing host port for the race’s Christmas and New Year’s layover (mid-December 2014-3 January 2015), when teams arrive from Brazil, and begin preparations for the leg to China.
And Abu Dhabi’s tourism board are already making big plans.
A bounty of watersports are on offer – from sailing and yachting to kayaking, diving and snorkelling, and the more adventurous, like flyboarding, sort of like snowboarding on water, propelled by jetskis.
Corporate and tourist hospitality packages are being built around Destination Village, which will be open from morning til late at night, with major headliners (Coldplay played last time), sailing festivals, water sport and sailing clinics, dragon boat races, and best of all, racing simulators which replicate the onboard experience of a Volvo Open 70 yacht at speed.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing