Assa Abloy arrived in Sydney in sixth place, after the second leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, with a distinctly second-hand looking wheel – bent, bowed and patched.
“People get washed through it,” said British skipper Neal McDonald. “It hasn’t actually fallen off. A wave washes someone back straight through the back of the boat and he lands on the helmsman’s lap and rips the wheel off. Nothing new. It was the first wild night we had that someone was washed through it.”
Apart from a missing pole end and torn sails, Assa Abloy escaped the Southern Ocean relatively lightly and uncontrolled approaches to the helm are the least of McDonald’s worries at present. The surprise sacking of former Assa Abloy skipper Roy Heiner in Cape Town brought McDonald to the captaincy and repaired some of the damaged morale brought about by their fifth place on the first leg. Sixth on the second leg has done little to brighten their collective mood.
“The underlying thought I have is that we clearly have what it takes,” said a reflective McDonald in Sydney. “Boat speed is good, crew work is good, the preparation is good, the sails are good. We just have to pull all that together and make sure it all happens at the right time and the right place.”
McDonald and his navigator Mark Rudiger (1997-98 winner on EF Language with Cayard) make tactical decisions based on the available information. With the racing so close, each decision is absolutely critical and McDonald has clearly not enjoyed certain aspects of his new-found responsibility.
“It’s an intense pressure. Every six hours you see those scheds and you lose half a mile and you think, ‘Well, we can wear that’ but all of a sudden you’ve lost two places. It ‘s unbelievable. It’s been a stressful two weeks and I’m sure it is the same for everybody.”
Rudiger is used to winning: Transpac, Sydney-Hobart, Whitbread – all feature on his CV. He, too, is struggling to work out how their calls turn bad while trying to buoy the crew’s morale. “I told the guys as we were coming in that in my mind they won this leg,” said Rudiger. “They pushed hard, the boat went really fast and it’s really Neal and I that need to put on the winning positions.
“It’s an easy thing to fix as we have a good boat and great crew, we just need to work on our side of things. We just need to work on our strategy a little more, as far as when do we cover and when do we take chances.”
Magnus Olsson, the serial globe-trotter and compulsive optimist at the heart of EF Language’s 1997-98 win, puts as positive a spin as possible on the situation but he underscored the same problems highlighted by McDonald and Rudiger.
“We made two strategical decisions wrong and we were nailed very hard by that,” said Olsson. “One when we rounded Eclipse Island – we knew we had to go south and for some reason we didn’t really manage to do it. The other was that we went the wrong side of King Island in the Bass Strait. It is annoying. We have good boat speed, we sail well, we are right up there, but you have to make those decisions right.
“We just have to sort ourselves out a little bit. The future looks good, the morale is good, the level of how we sail the boat has stepped up a lot and the crew enjoys that, and we all have confidence in Neal.”
Olsson’s words chime with other reports suggesting McDonald has won the respect of his crew. However rumours of Paul Cayard (Rudiger and Olsson’s skipper on EF Language) being sought to play the role of White Knight were compounded when McDonald said his ambitions as skipper stretch no further than Sydney. “Sydney Heads has been my limit, my goal, and we will go from here.”
McDonald gave the rumour mill another spin by adding, when questioned on crew changes, that “Guillermo (Altadil) is coming back, and we will probably make a further change, but we are not sure how that will go.”