Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Completes Volvo Ocean Race Global Odyssey
WAM GALWAY: Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, the Abu Dhabi-backed Volvo Ocean Race outfit, sailed into yachting history books last night as it became the first Arabian entry to complete the gruelling, nine-month round the world odyssey, after placing sixth in the final short sprint from Lorient, France to Galway, Ireland - the event's 10th and last stopover.
Having battled across some of the world's most treacherous seas in the punishing 39,000 mile global circumnavigation, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing - which also fielded the first Gulf national to contest the race - 23-year-old Olympian Adil Khalid - finished the event in the early morning, sailing into Galway's waters to a rapturous applause.
It was a fitting end to Abu Dhabi's debut campaign in the �Everest of Sailing', returning to the same waters on which the team made its global competitive debut a year ago, when - sailing its sleek black race yacht, Azzam (determination) - it smashed the iconic Rolex Fastnet Race monohull record.
The final leg, despite its relatively short length, was no easy task for the Volvo Ocean Race fleet. Having to contend with The Irish Sea, which is notorious for strong winds and big seas churned up by the Celtic continental shelf, the fleet closely battled it out before facing a strong westerly breeze and huge seas as it passed Blasket Island on the south-west tip of Ireland.
And it was all to play for in the pitch-black final straight run up to the three Aran Islands, which mark the entrance to Galway Bay.
Despite the wet and cold conditions, tens of thousands braved the weather to welcome the fleet in the early morning, and it was Abu Dhabi's Khalid - who donned a hand-made traditional Emirati khandoora, in the green, orange and white of the Irish flag - that roused a special cheer.
Almost lost for words, the young UAE national - who has made waves in the race since beating 120 of his countrymen for a spot on the Abu Dhabi Tourism '&' Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi)-backed team - was clearly overjoyed to complete the back-breaking journey, which began in Alicante, Spain last October and has rounded five continents, including making its first stop to the UAE capital - another feather in the cap for Abu Dhabi.
"I thought I would be prepared for this, but you can never be. Knowing that you have completed this unbelievable test of human endeavour is a life changing thought. Yet it is bitter-sweet, as you also know this is it, the end. You are so focussed on finishing, when the time comes, it almost comes too soon," said the UAE Olympian, who represented his country in the Beijing Games four years ago.
"It is amazing to be back in Ireland; this was my training ground ahead of the Olympics so it is a neat end to my remarkable journey. There are many similarities between Ireland and Abu Dhabi, the warm hospitality, the strong sailing heritage and the friendly people. In some ways it is almost like a homecoming." For Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing's skipper, the double Olympic medal winning Briton, Ian Walker, and the team's talismanic bowman, Justin Slattery from Cork, it was a welcome return, as both were part of the Chinese-Irish entry, Green Dragon in the last race.
Both hardened veterans, this campaign has been a rollercoaster of emotion for the duo, from the dizzying highs of victory, including three In-Port trophies and winning the �blue ribbon' Trans-Atlantic Leg 7, the first for Walker, to the lows of dismasting in the early stages and retiring from the Southern Ocean.
"In many regards this feels like the �closing of the loop' the moment you have actually made it around the world. The last 200 miles of the race were both exciting and sad. Exciting because you knew a long awaited break for mind and body was not far away, but sad as the Volvo Ocean Race becomes a way of life and will always leave a void," said Walker.
"It has been a remarkable experience being part of this team. To have seen firsthand the powerful impact this race, and the work that the Abu Dhabi Tourism '&' Culture Authority, has done to create a lasting legacy is inspiring." For Slattery - a 2005/06 race winner - the return to home shores was a welcome one, and marked the 37-year-old's third full Volvo Ocean Race campaign, making him one of the most capped Irish sailors in recent history.
"It's been long and tough but worth it every step of the way. Every time you do this race, you see it from a different angle and to part of a campaign that is young and full of energy gives you a whole new set of experiences to take away from it," said Slattery.
After a few days recovery, the teams will battle it out in the last points scoring opportunity of the 2011/12 campaign - the stadium-style Galway In-Port Race on July 7th.
In the build up to the finish, TCA Abu Dhabi is pulling out all the stops in Galway to celebrate the emirate's debut showing in Ireland's third largest city. A wealth of on-ground activities will take place in an Abu Dhabi pavilion in the Galway Race Village throughout the stopover.
Traditional Emirati Al-Ayala dancers, chanting national songs of the United Arab Emirates, of which Abu Dhabi is the capital, will play daily for crowds. Drawing on centuries of history, the Al Ayala represents Abu Dhabi's deep-rooted horsemanship past and the notion of bravery in battle - all set to the beat of drums.
Calligraphy artists will be on hand to turn names into works of art, whilst henna specialists will paint intricate designs on visitors. Fans of the traditional Arabian falcon, which is the team emblem for Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, will also be able to get up-close to the majestic birds.
TCA Abu Dhabi will also hand lucky competition winners luxury holidays to the UAE capital. The VIP breaks will see the winners fly to the emirate with Etihad Airways, the award-winning airline of the United Arab Emirates, which now flies ten times a week from the Irish capital, Dublin, and stay in a luxury five-star hotel.