Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing scored a commanding victory on home waters on Friday, taking top spot in the Etihad Airways In-Port Race to the delight of thousands of ecstatic fans at the Volvo Ocean Race's first Middle Eastern stopover.
Abu Dhabi, skippered by Ian Walker, produced a faultless performance along the eight nautical mile course to win in a time of 57 minutes 51 seconds ahead of Groupama sailing team in second and CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand in third.
Walker, twice an Olympic silver medallist for Britain, was joined on board by HRH Prince Andrew and Sheikh Shakhboot bin Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan for what was a second victory in three in-port races following their success in Alicante.
The enduring image of that victory in Spain was of a jubilant Adil Khalid, the first Emirati sailor to take part in the race, and the 23-year-old Abu Dhabi crewman was at the heart of the action again as waved a giant United Arab Emirates flag to the home crowd before being launched into the water by his team mates.
PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG were fourth and Team Telefónica, the overall race leaders, came in fifth.
Walker said victory made up for the disappointment of arriving into Abu Dhabi at the end of Leg 2 in fifth place.
“We so wanted to win the race so we were prepared to take risks,” said Walker, whose team picked up a maximum six points for their victory against the spectacular Abu Dhabi cityscape. “We knew if we could win it would be very special for everyone.
“We’re involved in a nine-month odyssey around the world but today is the most important day for Abu Dhabi. We have never seen this many boats out on the water to watch racing, and there are lots of people out who are new to sailing. Right now all they are seeing is their country flag being waved. It’s a real thrill for that to happen.”
Franck Cammas’ Groupama sailing team, winners of the Leg 2 second stage sprint into Abu Dhabi, took five points for second place. Chris Nicholson’s CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand took the final podium position and four points, their fifth podium finish of the race so far.
"I'm very pleased with the result but the thing I'm most pleased with is all the work of the team, which is something we set out to improve over the Abu Dhabi stopover," Cammas said.
“In this race things can turn around really quickly,” added Nicholson. “It's on a real knife edge. It only takes one bad result and that changes everything. We feel like we're nicely in the middle and we're poised to get it right. I can't wait until that moment.”
A light southerly breeze of around seven knots greeted the teams as they took to the racetrack in the waters off the Abu Dhabi Destination Village.
In an unusual downwind start, PUMA led off the line but their dreams of a win were all but ended shortly after the start when Ken Read’s team had to take a penalty turn for an infringement involving Team Telefónica.
Abu Dhabi snuck round the first mark ahead, chased by Groupama. The two teams exchanged the lead on the way to the second mark before Abu Dhabi emerged in front. Nothing was going to tear victory from Ian Walker’s hands as he and his crew sailed a perfect race, winning by 57 seconds.
“People will ask whether this win will restore our confidence but we never lost confidence,” Walker added. “We feel we’re only just getting started in this race. Sometimes it’s your day, sometimes it isn’t. The main thing is to enjoy the moment.”
Despite today’s results, the overall leaderboard remains unchanged although CAMPER are now within six points of overall leaders Telefónica.
Saturday sees the start of Leg 3 from Abu Dhabi to Sanya in the Chinese province of Hainan. As with Leg 2 of the race, Leg 3 will be split into two parts to prevent the boats from sailing through dangerous waters off the coast of Africa. Early forecasts are tipping fresh north-west winds of 13 to 16 knots inshore, building to 18 to 22 knots offshore.
Leg 3 Stage 1 starts at 1400 local time (1000 GMT) with the boats racing a short sprint to the northern United Arab Emirates before being loaded onto a ship and transported to a safe haven port in the Indian Ocean. Once the boats are unloaded, racing will resume to Sanya.
1. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing – 57 minutes 51 seconds – 6 points
2. Groupama sailing team -- 58:48 – 5pts
3. CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand – 60:47 – 4pts
4. PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG – 62:22 – 3pts
5. Team Telefónica – 62:47 – 2pts
1. Team Telefónica 68 points
2. CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand 62
3. Groupama sailing team 47
4. PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG 31
5. Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing 25
6. Team Sanya 4*
* If Team Sanya complete Leg 2 Stage 1 under racing conditions they will receive four points for that stage, plus 1 point for Leg 2 Stage 2, and 2 points for the Etihad Airways In-Port Race.