Ian Walker is made Yachtsman of the Year, while the Young Sailor of the Year is talented teenager Eleanor Poole, and a lifetime achievement award is made to cartoonist Mike Peyton
Volvo Ocean Race winner Ian Walker was today awarded the boats.com/Yachting Journalists’ Association Yachtsman of the Year Award.
Dubbed ‘the knighthood of sailing’ the award, whose previous winners include such luminaries as Eric Hiscock, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and Sir Ben Ainslie, went to the 45-year-old for his part in bringing Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing home to a win in the round the world race on his third attempt.
Walker has had a highly distinguished sailing career dating back to his Olympic Silver Medal winning 470 campaign in 1996 with the late John Merricks. Together with Mark Covell, Walker won another Olympic Silver medal in the 2000 Games in the Star class.
Walker took part in the 2008/9Volvo Ocean Race: in the Chinese-Irish entry Green Dragon and in 2011/12 in Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, when the crew finished 5th out of 6 entries. Walker was determined to return to win – and last year he did.
He was up against a formidable shortlist of nominations: Finn World Cup winner Giles Scott; and world match racing champion Ian Williams.
The Young Sailor of the Year Award went to Eleanor Poole from Devon, who won the Topper national championships at the age of 14 and came 7th last year at the Topper Worlds in Lake Garda.
A lifetime achievement award was made to Mike Peyton, now aged 95, for 60 years of wonderful cartoons depicting the ups and frequently the downs of life afloat.
Ian Walker’s triumphant Volvo Ocean Race win
Focused, intense, analytical and tireless, Ian Walker is as determined as he is talented when it comes to winning major races. With two Olympic Silver medals to his name – the first in Atlanta in 1996 in the 470 class with John Merricks and the second with Mark Covell in the Star at Sydney 2000 – and a host of inshore and offshore successes, including Fastnet Race and Round Britain and Ireland wins, Walker knows how to plan for success.
When Britain launched its first bid for the America’s Cup for 14 years in 2000, Walker was named skipper. Then, in the 2007 America’s Cup he joined fellow Olympic medallist Iain Percy as the tactician of the Italian team +39 Challenge.
His eight-year mission to win the Volvo Ocean Race, which he finally succeeded in doing in Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in June 2015, is second only in duration to the 12 years spent in Olympic campaigns, but the Volvo races pushed him harder, physically and mentally.
His quest for the Volvo began in 2008 with the Irish-Chinese Green Dragon project. “I wasn’t planning on sailing aboard Green Dragon for our first campaign. But when I couldn’t get the skipper I was after because we had no money, I realised I would have to do it myself,” he says.
“At the time I knew nothing about this kind of offshore racing and had lots of self-doubt and we made loads of mistakes, too. But what I did do was to surround myself with good people.”
But this first campaign was by no means the toughest, even though the boat was heavy and outclassed. His second campaign with the Farr-designed Volvo 70 turned out to be traumatic from the start as the boat was dismasted on the first night of the race. Structural problems later on, along with a boat that failed on the performance front, put even more pressure on Walker, especially given the campaign had been fully funded by Abu Dhabi.
“We started incredibly late in that campaign,” he explains. “We were over a year behind several of the other teams. But without those two previous campaigns we wouldn’t be where we are now.
“After the last race we sat down and took a hard and clinical look at the project, what had worked and most importantly what hadn’t. We then put together a detailed document on what we thought it would take to win the event.”
And while Walker makes it clear that people like Justin Slattery, Neal McDonald, Jamie Boag and other key players have been pivotal to the team’s success, there is no doubt that Walker’s own single-minded determination drove the Abu Dhabi team.
As one of the few who has skippered a Volvo Ocean Race boat, an America’s Cup boat and taken medals in Olympic campaigns, the breadth of his knowledge is another important ingredient.
“I guess I’ve succeeded at two of the three now,” he jokes.
“I believe that if you want to be successful in this or any other major event it has to be the most important thing in your life, every day. You have to get up each morning with nothing else in mind.
“For the Volvo it’s the same. In fact, I trained harder physically for this than the Games, even though I’m the kind of person who sails with brain rather than body.”
Long before the start Walker had claimed that winning the event would be about getting onto the podium consistently. Treating the race round the world as a series of shorter individual races seemed to fit with his Olympic, inshore racing and America’s Cup background.
“This type of racing has so many other factors, from navigation and the weather to team management, and when you’re doing well it’s easy to enjoy it. But when you’re not it’s incredibly stressful.”
And while Walker had plenty of stressful moments driven mainly by the close and relentless nature of the competition, he is clear about the keys to the team’s overall success.
“We won this race on the first five legs because we had had the best training and came out of the blocks fast and made fewer navigational mistakes,“ he says. “I believed that, as with the Olympics, we would be defined by our worst races.”
Judged by this standard it is easy to see why his team took the overall Volvo Ocean Race trophy and missed the podium in only two legs.
“Olympic medals are special, but this is different because so many other people are involved. It’s also special because winning this race wouldn’t mean anything if you weren’t racing against the world’s best.”
Will he be back for the next race?
“To win any major race it needs to be your life, the most important thing in your day, every day. As a family man with kids of 11 and 14 I’m not sure that can be the case again. If I do the next race my kids will be off to university by the time I get back. Right now they want their daddy back.”