Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12 outright champions are Franck Cammas and his men: by finishing second in the final leg between Lorient and Galway behind the New Zealanders, Groupama 4 has racked up a sufficient lead to be assured of first place in the overall standing, whatever the result during the last In-Port race on Saturday. This is the first French success since victory went to Lionel Péan and his crew in 1985-86!
As ever, there was still everything to play for on this ninth and penultimate race between Brittany and Ireland! And as ever, or almost, the expected scenario of a long straight course in a stable breeze wasn't quite how things panned out in the end. Indeed, as is frequently the case, it was over the final miles that everything changed. And, as is rarely the case, and for the first time since 1986, a French boat has come to the fore in what is the longest and most gruelling of oceanic races after 40,000 miles at sea and nearly nine months on from the race start in Alicante back in November... By finishing just astern of the New Zealanders in Galway on this final offshore leg, Franck Cammas and his men can at last wrap their hands around the Holy Grail of offshore racing, a Volvo Ocean Race win, before Saturday's In-Port race has even played out.
This ninth leg between Lorient and Galway always promised to be a close-fought race since the 550-mile course was framed by the compulsory passages around Belle-Île, the North-West tip of Brittany, the Fastnet Rock lighthouse and the Aran Islands. Indeed the separation between the top four, never exceeded four miles, as they constantly jostled over the top spot according to the (numerous) manoeuvres which had to be performed to adapt to the irregular strength of the breeze. The Spanish led the way as far as Raz de Sein, then the New Zealanders snatched control before being overtaken by the Iberians, then the Americans, as they rounded Fastnet with Groupama 4 permanently on the attack.
As the wind clocked round from 20-25 knots of south-westerly to around fifteen knots of westerly along the Irish coast, things were continually being ramped up again, but after the Blasket Islands, Puma really looked like she had the win in the bag with a lead of a mile and half over Camper and Telefonica. Franck Cammas and his men remained in contact by positioning themselves slightly offshore. However, fifty miles from the finish, it was time to think about gybing in around a dozen knots of breeze, which was backing round to the South: Groupama 4 was the first to launch into the manoeuvre, followed by Camper, whilst the Americans and the Spanish delayed in changing course...
Just as night fell the four leaders made the approach on the Aran Islands beneath the loom of the Eoragh lighthouse: the New Zealanders had a mere 500-metre lead over the French, who themselves were under pressure from the Americans, just 400 metres astern, whilst the Spanish had dropped off the pace slightly, a mile back. As for the other two VOR-70s, Sanya and Abu Dhabi, they were some 35 miles stray of the leaders... A fourth place would have been sufficient for Groupama 4 to secure outright victory in the Volvo Ocean Race, but the French crew didn't want to ease off the pace one iota in their bid to round things off on as positive a note as their last efforts in Lorient and Lisbon.
However, the Kiwis had a firm grip on the head of this race and they took the win in their first offshore leg since leaving Alicante to finish in a time of 00h 42' UTC and take the applause of an absolutely incredible crowd! Thousands of Irish supporters enveloped the Galway basin with extraordinary enthusiasm, which reached fever point when the French boat tied up alongside, congratulating the first Irish winner of the Volvo Ocean Race: Damian Foxall, watch leader on Groupama 4!
With this second place ahead of the Americans and the Spanish, Franck Cammas and his crew are assured of outright victory in the overall standing, even before the final `In-Port' race sets sail this coming Saturday. With a lead of 24 points over Camper, Groupama 4 is now the unassailable, outright winner of the eleventh edition of this crewed round the world race, in what is a first for a French team since victory went to Lionel Péan and his men in 1985-86...
Quotes from the boat Franck Cammas, skipper of Groupama 4: 'To win the Volvo Ocean Race is a very fine challenge when you're a novice in this format and French to boot! That's what is motivating and exciting for a team: achieving what nobody expects of you. We weren't a favourite or even an outsider at the start in Alicante. We were also in an easy position, especially as this first crewed race around the world was about learning the ropes prior to a planned second participation. We were here to discover the scene without any pressure on our shoulders, but to win was a surprise to everyone... despite putting a huge amount of work into the race over the past three years. We entered a tunnel where all we thought about was the race and we didn't think any further than that: our world may well be a bit empty for a few days after this coming weekend. However, after a victory such as this, we'll have many great memories and such trust in our way of working and in our strategy that we can cast our minds forward to lots of other challenges. This is an epic dream, which has come true today and I can honestly say that I didn't think we would win on our first attempt! We've become a good crew over the miles. Initially we thought that the Spanish were going to walk away with the race win but we knew that it was still very close between four boats, who all had a chance of winning. It's been an extraordinary race as there have never been so many uncertainties in a round the world race. And we'd still very much like to win the last In-Port in Galway on Saturday, just as a thank you to Thierry Péponnet, who told us to finish in front in the short races: we need to round things off in style! We're very happy to be able to compete in the last race without any pressure on our shoulders...'
Charles Caudrelier, navigator on Groupama 4: 'This final offshore leg was like a leg of the Solitaire du Figaro, except that it would take you four days in a Figaro! We had lost a bit of the sense of what this was: we found it a little hard to get into the real swing of things and we must have slept more than the others. We could see that they were all constantly out on the rail and we also knew that the outcome of this race was going to be decided at the finish and we wanted to remain rested and calm. As such we were a bit surprised that the other crews didn't launch into their final gybe at the same time as us: it was important to head for shore! That decision cost the Americans dearly. We wanted to win this race... To show that there is the know-how in France. We knew that Groupama 4 was a very fine boat, thanks to Franck and his design team, and we saw that we were a notch higher in terms of the crew. We didn't wonder too much about the whys and wherefores and we just worked hard, especially in the close-contact races. In fact, we're second in the In-Port standing alone, just one point shy of the top spot! We won the race in Lorient by crushing Puma: ultimately the inshores carried a lot of weight in the hierarchy.'
Thomas Coville, watch leader on Groupama 4: 'When I participated in the Volvo Ocean Race with Knut Frostad, I was like a 'worker in the entertainment industry', as I only sailed on a few legs. This time, I had a title and that changes everything! Your presence is there to serve a group, a leader, and over the nine months spent working together, the team builds in strength to reach a stage where victory is achievable. At the start, you don't know if it's going to work: there are so many parameters to take into account. And today, we've secured a win with a 24-point lead: which is no small matter! However, we still want to win the final race on Saturday for Thierry Péponnet, who was doubtless one of the key links in our ability to build up our mental strength. Indeed the preparation that went into the In-Port races largely exceeded the scope of this format: we applied his method and his advice to the offshore legs and that paid off!'
Thierry Martel, CEO of the Groupama Group: 'We are very proud of this exceptional victory which represents a great deal to Groupama today. However, above all else it's a great sense of pride for all the Group's 50,000 representatives and 38,500 colleagues after all the work accomplished by the teams, both at sea and on shore. Indeed it is representative of the tenacity, the faith in an ambitious objective and the ability to rally together and motivate a team, whatever unknown factors come their way. It is also extremely symbolic in the period we're going through right now, which further adds to the beauty of this win. Thank you to Franck, to his crew and to all the teams onshore for having written a new and fantastic chapter in the history we've been building together for what is now some 15 years.'