For once, Ian Walker was lost for words.
His Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing crew all but clinched the 12th edition of offshore sailing’s toughest challenge in the early hours of Thursday in Lorient, when a third place in Leg 8 left them with an eight-point lead in the Volvo Ocean Race with one stage to go.
Yet one of the most articulate sailors in the sport and his crew greeted the golden moment just before dawn in complete silence.
“It’s not really sunk in yet,” said a still dazed Ian after reaching the Lorient dock. “When we passed the finish line we all went quiet and asked ourselves, ‘is that it?’.”
Well, that pretty much is ‘it’ – at least for the overall trophy.
Only a very unlikely combination of a last-place finish in Leg 9 to Gothenburg from Lorient plus at least two penalty points can deprive the team of a remarkable achievement.
For double Olympic silver medallist Ian, 45, it is the realisation of a career ambition to become the first British skipper to win the overall trophy in the 41-year-old event, although John Chittenden on Creighton’s Naturally won the Cruising Division of the 1989-90 edition won overall by Sir Peter Blake’s Steinlager 2.
And it is no less an extraordinary achievement for the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing project, which only entered the race for the first time in 2011-12 and finished a disappointing fifth. The team and skipper Ian learnt hard lessons.
A pre-race strategy for 2014-15 of a podium finish in each leg has been carried out almost to perfection – they were fifth in Leg 7 – to take them through to a handsome victory.
Their triumph was complete at 0305 UTC/0505 local time on Thursday, when they finished in the final podium position behind fairy-tale Leg 8 winners Team SCA and runners-up, Team Vestas Wind.
With MAPFRE obligingly sandwiched in fourth between Azzam and Team Brunel, it was mission accomplished for Ian and his ecstatic crew.
“I can’t thank our team enough,” said the skipper. “We made a plan one and a half years ago and we just carried out that plan.”
He could not resist a thought of the reaction ‘back home’ in Abu Dhabi. “I bet they’re going nuts,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it without their backing.”
Dongfeng Race Team, who, like Team Brunel, realistically needed to beat Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing to stand any chance of wresting the trophy away following their disappointing mast break in Leg 5, could only finish in seventh and last place behind Team Alvimedica.
To underline once again how close this 2014-15 race has been, though, all seven boats finished within one hour and 26 minutes of each other, after three-and-a-half days of sailing from Lisbon, Portugal to Lorient.