Ian Walker’s Abu Dhabi team dominates the opening race of the Volvo Ocean Race

As Abu Dhabi’s skipper Ian Walker gave a live TV interview explaining the background to his team’s dominant performance in the first in-port race of the 2011/12 Volvo Ocean Race, the second placed boat was still more than 14 minutes behind, struggling to finish.

The weather for the opening event had been forecast to be a blustery affair but instead, the fickle, shifty breeze at the start did little more than decay throughout a race that was planned to take around 60 minutes.

“None of us were really expecting light airs or were even in a light airs frame of mind,” explained Walker shortly after crossing the finish line. “We had a great start, a bit too brave perhaps as we thought we could have been over. We weren’t but it must have been very close.”

“After that the key for us was a gybe change on the third leg to our code zero. We called it with less than a minute to go so it was really good work from our crew.”

In the absence of any decent breeze, today’s racing was judged by team’s abilities in wind spotting and boat handling, here Abu Dhabi excelled. Yet Walker remained modest about the team’s victory.

“Today’s success doesn’t necessarily mean much in the overall rankings, but it does mean that we can go ashore with a spring in our step.”

When Kenny Read’s Puma team crossed the finish line 14 minutes and 40 seconds behind the skipper was clearly pleased to have struggled onto the podium for a race that no matter how shifty and fluky, is the first to count for points in the Volvo Ocean Race.

“What was the most difficult part? Starting, getting around the course and finishing,” he said with a wry smile.

Behind him the Kiwi Camper team took third, doubtless also pleased having dropped from second to second to last at one point during the race.

Mike Sandersons’ Team Sanya pulled off a surprise 4th at the finish in a scramble for the line that saw Groupama in 5th and the home team Telefonica forced to take last place after an incident with Sanya in which the umpires penalised the Spanish team.

So what, if anything does the first in port race mean in the bigger scale of things?

While Walker plays down the significance of the 60 minute preview to a nine month marathon, it is also true to say that light airs performance, no matter how frustrating, could play a large part come Leg 1 to Cape Town. As several races that have started here before, including the Volvo have demonstrated, exiting the Mediterranean is one of the first major hurdles. The first out often gets to the Trade winds first, providing a handy slingshot on the fleet.

The transition through the Doldrums is another area where light air performance counts and where keeping the boat speed up through agonisingly light conditions will be another crucial light weather skill. And then there’s the boat handling. While there may not be the twisting and turning around inflatable marks as they head across the Equator, snappy, efficient and often frequent sail changes will also pay dividends.

The fleet starts Leg 1 next Saturday (Nov 5).

Alicante In Port Race

1 – Abu Dhabi
2 – Puma – 14m 14 secs
3 – Camper
4 – Sanya
5 – Groupama
6 – Telefonica – subject to protest