Competitors in the Volvo Ocean Race set out from Malé on 22 January, 2012 and arrived in Sanya, China, on 4 February at the end of what proved to be a hard leg for both the men and the machines.
The French crew, skippered by Franck Cammas, racked up a very fine performance and finished second in this 3,051-mile leg, where it was necessary to avoid the pitfalls of the Straits of Malacca and the monsoon in the South China Sea. We review 12 intense days of racing.
Sunday 22 January, 0800 UTC. Amidst the heavenly Maldives archipelago, Groupama 4 and the other five competitors in the Volvo Ocean Race took the start of the third leg (part 2). It was a tactical leg spanning 3,051 miles (5,650km) as far as China, which began with a long 1,300 mile section (2,408km) in light airs, making barely 10 knots (18.5km/hr): four days with very few manœuvres but the utmost concentration. The competitors were within sight of each other and Groupama 4 didn’t let Puma’s stern out of her grasp: 'It’s not monotonous since we have the references in front of us for going fast and we know immediately if we have good speed: it has great appeal for refining your trimming' indicated Damian Foxall on 24 January.
On 27 January, five days after setting out from the Maldives, Groupama 4 entered the famous Straits of Malacca. The crew rounded the island of Palau We, to the North of Sumatra and penetrated the long gully extending some 500 miles (926km) as far as Singapore and the South China Sea. It was the first land they’d got a glimpse of since the start and everyone was on deck to admire the coastline and its lush vegetation. 'The landscapes are fantastic near the coast, a little reminiscent of Brest harbour beneath the tropics', explained Charles Caudrelier.
However, it wasn’t the moment for contemplation and the competition was fierce. Groupama 4 managed to hook into second position thanks to a squall. Franck Cammas’ boat was so close to leader Telefonica that the competitors could even converse with each other. The conversation is quickly cut off though as the Spanish notice that the French are in the process of overtaking them…
The way out of the strait is full of pitfalls: everyday over five hundred ships pass through this passage, which narrows like a funnel, shrinking from a width of 370km to less than 28km. 'It’s a place where there’s no wind: it’s very hot and very humid since we’re close to the equator (2° North)' explains Jean-Luc Nélias during a radio session. Life aboard becomes suffocating down below and every task is an ordeal: getting dressed, preparing the food, sleeping…
'We’re lucky to have a white deck, unlike Puma and Camper, who must be suffering even more than we are inside their boats' says Franck Cammas. As nothing aboard these boats is left to chance, the menu has been adapted to the intense heat and small fans are positioned aboard the bunks.
Life aboard takes its course then and Groupama 4’s progress isn’t slowed by the UFOs (non-identified floating object) which brush against her, and she continues to closely tail the Spanish leader. However a dive proves necessary in order to clear a plastic bag caught around the keel and the criss-crossing of local fishing boats causes a real fright: 'when you begin to make out the fishermen’s head torches, you know it’s time to change course!' explains Yann Riou, media man aboard the French boat.
Camper gets stuck in a windless zone on the coast at this point and Telefonica and Groupama 4 have an open road to hang a left and branch off towards Singapore, from where they can head due North to China.
Second out of the Straits of Malacca, the French boat has over 1,200 miles (2,222km) to go. The last third of this leg involves a beat in a monsoon system, which will increase in strength on the way to Vietnam with winds reaching over 30 knots (56km/hr). Groupama 4’s crew rediscover the delights of life on the tilt and stacking: to balance out the heeling of the boat, all the weight is shifted across to the same side. This moveable weight equates to over two tonnes of material, which has to be moved about by sheer arm strength alone.
It’s an exhausting exercise, particularly when it has to be performed every hour and the sailors don’t have the time to rest between changes of tack. This is the ordeal which faces those sailors in the Volvo Ocean Race, who have headed near the Vietnamese shore to protect themselves from the current. Groupama 4 tacks more than twenty times: 'The whole crew is worn out as it was an exhausting leg, one of the most difficult so far for the guys. They’ve shown just how much they want this, battling the whole time and last night, everyone really gave their all…' confirmed Franck Cammas after 36 hours of intense beating.
Deliverance finally comes with the last change of tack, which enabled Groupama 4 to set a direct course for Sanya in China. Though the crew had what it took to hold onto and defend its second place, by then it was virtually impossible for the French to still have a shot at being the first to cross the finish line. 'Telefonica has a good margin of safety: she’s very fast upwind, and even though we’re speedy with sheets eased, she looks to have too much of an edge for us to worry her' admitted Yann Riou on the eve of the finish.
As a result, Franck Cammas and his men took a fantastic second place on their arrival in China, at the end of a third leg which had been the most physically and mentally demanding since the start of the race. Franck Cammas concludes: 'A very fine leg with some difficult conditions at times, where we were often within sight of our rivals, and during which we really felt like we were travelling.
Our second place comes as a great satisfaction to the team, particularly in the knowledge that the conditions we encountered weren’t those which our boat cherishes the most on paper.' A second place whilst conditions weren’t optimal…?
It makes you wonder what the crew of Groupama 4 has in store for us over the next few legs…
1 - Team Telefonica Nbr de points : 95 2 - Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand Nbr de points : 80 3 - Groupama sailing team Nbr de points : 71 4 - Puma Ocean Racing Nbr de points : 48 5 - Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Nbr de points : 39 6 - Team Sanya Nbr de points : 16