Abu Dhabi' Azzam with her broken mast

Abu Dhabi's yacht Azzam returns to Alicante after breaking her mast. Photo Paul Todd/Volvo Ocean Race.

When the fleet of six Volvo 70s left Alicante at the start of the 2001-12 Volvo Ocean Race, pundits had the well-funded Abu Dhabi, skippered by Britain's Ian Walker, marked as clear race favourite. But just 30 miles into the race, the unthinkable happened and news filtered through that Abu Dhabi had lost her rig.

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing had drawn first blood in the event’s curtain-raiser, the Iberdrola In-Port Race, sailing to a 14-minute victory to claim six points and the top spot on the leaderboard heading out to Cape Town.

A crowd of 60,000 watched as Spain’s Crown Prince Felipe fired the gun to set the six boats on their way at 1300 GMT (1400 CET). French soccer legend Zinedine Zidane joined Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing on the inshore course, making it a gala start to the first ocean leg, which will take the fleet over 6,500 nautical miles to Cape Town, South Africa.

Volvo Ocean Race start leg 1

The start of leg 1 of the Volvo Ocean Race. Photo Paul Todd/Volvo Ocean Race

Chris Nicholson’s CAMPER was the slickest of the six away, as winds gusting up to 30 knots greeted the fleet. CAMPER increased their lead over PUMA Ocean Racing powered by BERG to 1 minute 39 seconds at the Alicante leaving mark at the end of the eight-nm course, with Team Telefónica another 36 seconds behind.

Abu Dhabi came next, followed by Groupama sailing team, who took a voluntary two-turn penalty after a collision with PUMA’s Mar Mostro just before the start, and Team Sanya.

“Our skills are offshore for sure,” said Cammas, skipper of the first French team to compete in the Volvo Ocean Race in 18 years. “We are in this race for the first time so we need to learn a few things. It’s important to finish the first 24 hours in good shape because the race is very long and we don’t want to break anything early on. The first night could be the hardest of the whole leg.”

His prediction was right as the teams faced a baptism of fire in the first 24 hours of the race, with head-on winds of more than 25 knots forecast and choppy seas – potentially boat-breaking conditions.

First to call in with dramatic news was Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing’s Azzam. At 1915 UTC/GMT, Abu Dhabi told race management Azzam had suspended racing after the mast was broken. The boat was 30 nautical miles south of Cartagena on the Spanish coast. The wind was blowing 30 knots and the waves were around 3.5 metres.

British skipper Ian Walker later reported at 2053 UTC/GMT: “Our situation is now stable. We are motoring towards flatter water at Cabo de Palos where we hope to lift the top section of the mast aboard.

“We have no injuries and have retrieved or secured all equipment. Our mast broke into three pieces when landing off a big wave in 30+ knots of wind. We were sailing under a J4 and two reefs. We do not as yet know the cause. Our intention is to return to Alicante under motor to repair any damage and step our spare mast.”

Volvo Ocean Race CEO Knut Frostad said he felt “desperately sorry” for twice-Olympic silver medallist Walker and his team.

“The team are extremely professional and I know they will do all they can to get Azzam back in the race as quickly and safely as possible,” he said.

Team media crew member Nick Dana told how crew member Wade Morgan had made a courageous attempt in waves of up to 3.5 metres to rescue the rig.

“The boat's mainsail and J4 were retrieved successfully along with various other parts that we will hope to re-use. We put a man in the water (Morgan) to cut away the top of the mainsail at the headboard car. Wade was able to make several attempts at cutting. However, a very violent sea state made it extremely dangerous for him to remain in the water.

“The crew retrieved him promptly and were able to get the mainsail off the lock - allowing it to slide down the rig and be pulled from the water. The mast from the first spreader up is now secured to the port side of the boat. About three or four metres protrude from behind the boat. A spider web of lines is keeping the operation intact. The crew are deeply disappointed.”