Ian Walker has achieved more in sailing than most people dream of, but even he admits he is star-struck by new team-mate Neal McDonald.
McDonald, 51, is a veteran of five previous Volvo Ocean Races and has stepped on board Azzam to fill the void left by Australian trimmer and helmsman Phil Harmer for the third leg of the race.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing admitted earlier this week that it was not a change they made lightly, but were rather forced into due to a wrist injury Harmer sustained as well as a mystery illness he succumbed to on the last leg which saw him drop 10kgs.
Walker said: “Anyone who’s spent time with Phil here in Abu Dhabi knows he’s not ready to get on the boat. Even having said that it was a difficult decision because not only is he one of our best trimmers and helmsman, but he’s also my watch partner. I rely on him quite heavily because we spend 24 hours a day together.”
With every cloud comes a silver lining though, so it seems. Briton McDonald has already been working closely with the team as their performance manager, debriefing the sailors once they step foot on dry land.
“We couldn’t ask for a much better replacement,” added Walker. “Neal’s been my sailing idol from a young age and there’s nobody more I respect in the world than Neal.
“He will bring something new. Of course we’re going to lack some things Phil had but for sure we’ll gain in some areas as well.
“I’m very positive about it and personally I’m looking forward to sharing a watch with Neal and learning more from him myself.”
On what is renowned as being a tricky leg from Abu Dhabi to Sanya, fraught with hazards, Walker admits McDonald’s experience will be key.
The boats will need to navigate the 500nm Malacca Strait dividing the Indonesian island of Sumatra and Malaysia.
The 500nm stretch of water, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, narrows to 1.5nm at its most narrow point.
“You have some difficult judgements to make, particularly with shipping in the Malacca straits.
“This is an experienced game so I’m sure he’s going to help us out, as long as his eyesight’s holding up,” joked Walker.
ADOR got off to a fine start after leaving Abu Dhabi on Saturday afternoon, shooting into an early advantage in the midst of thick fog.
— AbuDhabiOceanRacing (@ADORlog) January 3, 2015
The low visibility made for tense action with Walker and navigator Simon Fisher reading the shifting breeze to perfection on the first lap, timing their tack to make the best of a windshift that propelled them into a commanding lead at the first turning marker.
They consolidated their advantage around the rest of the inshore course to lead the fleet at the final turning marker and off on the way to Sanya.
The VOR is a squad event these days, with Dongfeng up front about their intentions to rotate their team throughout the nine months of the voyage in order that every sailor has a leg off.
Team SCA and Mapfre have also rung the changes, but while squad rotation may be in fashion, it’s not something all teams are keen to embrace.
Walker has described himself as ‘romantic’ and ‘old fashioned’, revealing that the old school sailor inside him only considered someone who had only sailed every leg of the race could truly say they had sailed around the world.
The break for Harmer will, however, finally give him chance to hopefully get to the bottom of his illness and injury issues, while the team have already announced that McDonald is only stepping in for leg three and will give way to Harmer in China.