AS the Volvo Ocean Race finish line draws near, Ian Walker is looking forward to returning home to Warsash after the most dramatic eight months of his sailing career.
So eventful has Walker’s second circumnavigation of the globe been he could probably write a book on his experiences.
He is due to finish the odyssey next Tuesday after the final, and shortest, leg starts this Sunday from Lorient in France, with his Abu Dhabi crew and the rest of the fleet heading to Galway.
Soon after waving goodbye to his wife and two children in Alicante when the race began back in October, Walker and his 11-strong crew were heading back to port after the mast broke.
Worse was to come for the team.
During the fifth of the nine legs, having set sail from New Zealand bound for Brazil, disaster struck when the hull of their yacht, Azzam, split open.
“We had two big dramas we didn’t envisage, especially after the testing of all the equipment,” says 42-year-old Walker.
“The breaking of the mast happened very quickly and we’ve been battling away ever since. We weren’t able to learn from leg one and that put us on the back foot.
“But at least we were able to come back to harbour, we recovered well and had a spare mast.
“The damage to the hull was far more dramatic. “Everything was going fine when two thirds of the way across we came off a huge wave.
“We were as far from land as it’s possible to be, 1,700 miles adrift in rough seas and cold weather in the Southern Ocean.
“There was no one behind us, which was quite threatening at the time. That was where the race for us became one of ensuring safety rather than racing.
“We managed to get to Chile, which was the closest bit of land where we could make some repairs.
“We managed to do that in time for the next leg, since when it’s been more of a normal race.”
It says much for Walker’s leadership and the fortitude of his crew that they recovered to win the trans-Atlantic fifth leg of the race, from Miami to Lisbon.
Walker, a double Olympic silver medallist, competed in the 2008/09 Volvo Ocean Race.
But arriving in Lisbon ahead of the chasing pack – after more than 3,500 miles across the Atlantic – was the high point of his ocean racing career. “No one would have foreseen us retiring from two of the legs, but we’re delighted to have won a leg, which we didn’t do before,” he said. “The highs have been higher and the lows lower this time.”
Walker does not rule out competing in a third Volvo Ocean Race.
“The funny thing with offshore sailing is that, at the time, it’s a whirlwind,” he said. “When you’re in the middle everything seems difficult, it’s only afterwards that you look back at all the happy memories and can’t wait to do it again. It seems like it never ends but I can’t believe it’s June.”
Walker admits the time away from his family is the biggest sacrifice he has had to make.
“It’s hard,” he says. “There’s very little time off. Stopovers are supposed to be two weeks but this year we’ve generally arrived late and five days before the start of the next leg we have in-port races and training.
“So we probably only average two to three proper days off between each leg. But it isn’t as if I don’t see them at all. Auckland was too far for them and it also depends on school holidays but they’ve come to a couple of the stop overs, in Abu Dhabi and Lisbon.
“It’s also very educational for the children as their school in Fareham follows the race and my wife’s a big fan, she follows it closely.
“I see it as a positive thing as much as I can and e-mail when I can.
“I make sure I don’t miss birthdays!”
Internet access is restricted on board and skippering is a 24-7 occupation for Walker, who gets by on three lots of two-three hours sleep a day, when conditions allow.
Adrenaline does the rest.
Will he compete in the 2014/15 Volvo Ocean Race?
“We’ll have to see, it’s a long time away from home,” he says. “I’ve been away for the best part of two years so a lot of sacrifices have to be made.
“First things first, let’s see how we do in the remainder of this one.
“It’s certainly been exciting to carry the flag for Abu Dhabi in their first foray in international sailing.
“It’s been great fun promoting them as we’ve gone around the world.”
Walker and his crew have no chance of winning the actual race, but they are third in the In-Port series of races, just two points off top spot with the penultimate race in Lorient tomorrow.