Ian Walker and his Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew all but clinched the 12th edition of offshore sailing’s toughest challenge in the early hours of Thursday, when a third place in Leg 8 left them with an eight-point lead in the Volvo Ocean Race with one stage to go.
Only a very unlikely combination of a last-place finish in Leg 9 to Gothenburg from Lorient, France, plus at least two penalty points can deprive the team of a remarkable achievement.
For Walker, 45, it is the realisation of a career ambition to become the first British skipper to win the overall trophy in the 41-year-old event, although John Chittenden won the Cruising Division of the 1989-90 edition won by Sir Peter Blake’s Steinlager2.
And it is no less of an extraordinary achievement for the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing project, which only entered the race for the first time in 2011-12 and finished a disappointing fifth. The team and skipper Walker learnt hard lessons.
A pre-race strategy for 2014-15 of a podium finish in each leg has been carried out almost to perfection – they were fifth in Leg 7 – to take them through to a handsome victory.
Their triumph was set up at 0505 local time on Thursday, when they finished in the final podium position behind fairy-tale Leg 8 winners Team SCA (Sam Davies/GBR) and runners-up, Team Vestas Wind (Chris Nicholson/AUS).
With MAPFRE (Xabi Fernández/ESP) obligingly sandwiched in fourth between Azzam and Team Brunel (Bouwe Bekking/NED), it was mission all but accomplished for Walker and his ecstatic crew.
“But I can’t thank our team enough. We made a plan one and a half years ago and we just carried out that plan.”
He could not resist a thought of the reaction ‘back home’ in Abu Dhabi.
“I bet they’re going nuts,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it without their backing.”
Dongfeng Race Team (Charles Caudrelier/FRA), who, like Team Brunel, realistically needed to beat Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing to stand any chance of wresting the trophy away following their disappointing mast-break in Leg 5, could only finish in seventh and last place behind Team Alvimedica (Charlie Enright/USA).
All seven boats finished within one hour and 26 minutes of each other after three-and-a-half days of sailing from Lisbon, Portugal to Lorient.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing were certainly not the only team in celebratory mood on the Lorient dock.
Earlier, skipper Sam Davies (GBR) and her Team SCA crew struck a resounding blow for women’s offshore sailing with the Leg 8 victory.
The comfortable victory was the first leg win for a female crew in offshore sailing’s toughest challenge since Tracy Edwards’ Maiden clinched two stage wins in Class D of the 1989-90 race.
The Race is anything but over, of course. No less than four boats can still finish runner-up behind Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing with Team Brunel (27 points), Dongfeng Race Team (29), MAPFRE (31) and Team Alvimedica (33) all within six points of each other.
And the in-port race series is still very much alive with two races to sail in Lorient and Gothenburg.