Volvo Ocean Race - Confident onboard Groupama 4

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 8 - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12 eighth leg, a 1,940-mile race between Lisbon and Lorient, France got underway on Sunday 10th June. For this penultimate offshore race the six VO-70s will initially have to traverse the high pressure, since the course will take the fleet around the island of Sao Miguel. This passage through the Azores will be the nerve centre of this leg, as the sprint across the Bay of Biscay promises to be very quick, thanks to a depression which is making for Brittany. The finish is scheduled for Friday night or Saturday.

Conditions were very shifty for the start off Belém Tower this Sunday at noon UTC, with a north-westerly breeze of around a dozen knots. Franck Cammas set off in the middle of the start line on starboard tack and tried to force the Spanish into an error, but the on-the-water umpires believed there wasn't a penalty… Puma and Camper made the most of this confusion to make good their escape along the shores of Lisbon, with gusts of over fifteen knots occasionally accelerating the pace as the fleet headed upriver on the Tagus to make for the windward mark.

Groupama 4 tried to get free of the wind shadow of the leaders by sailing in the middle of the Tagus, whilst the crew on Abu Dhabi had some major issues with hoisting their gennaker. When it came to passing beneath the impressive bridge, which straddles the river, Puma and Camper were benefiting from a fine gust, which quickly propelled them towards the first mark, whilst behind them the fleet floundered in an extended zone of calms. There was considerable separation between the boats at that point and Telefonica managed to slip under the French and Chinese boats, whilst the Emirati boat really put a spurt on in the middle of the Tagus, where the wind was more stable…

As a result the mark rounding was rather laborious for Groupama 4, which was bringing up the rear and was nearly eight minutes astern of the American leader, who were being closely tailed by the New Zealanders. The fleet then headed downriver and out to the open ocean, passing Belém Tower a second time and then slipping past Cascais as they made it out into the Atlantic, where the north-westerly breeze quickly picked up to around twenty knots. Franck Cammas and his men were then able to make the most of these lively conditions to begin to make up their deficit.

On what was already a pretty rough sea, the crews ensured they had all their sails aloft to accelerate in these Portuguese tradewinds, which should stay with them until Monday evening, before gradually easing the closer the fleet gets to the Azores High. It's on Tuesday that things will really start to get tough as all the boats approach the centre of the high pressure, which is settling into position directly across their route to Sao Miguel… Fortunately, once the fleet round the Azorean island (780 miles from Lisbon), the westerly wind will fill in to around twenty knots before increasing to thirty and more under the influence of a depression which is slowly shifting towards the Bay of Biscay.

It's thanks to this disturbance that this course is forecast to be short, since the system will reach Brittany on Thursday and it's probably on Friday that the frontrunners will come into view off the island of Groix. However, the end of the course is likely to be a little more complicated as the breeze will ease progressively as it backs round to the South. These conditions are favourable for Groupama 4, which is particularly fond of reaching conditions in a steady breeze, but essentially it's the passage beneath the Atlantic archipelago, which could influence the hierarchy. And even though Franck Cammas and his men were a little over two miles behind the leaders on exiting the Tagus, there is still a long way to go before they get back home…

Quotes from the boat prior to the start in Lisbon
Franck Cammas, skipper: 'We're going to try to finish in Lorient not too badly placed. Since Miami it's been important not to miss a spot on the podium as an average or mediocre result would be crippling. You mustn't take too many risks either and you have to take care of the boat: there's going to be some strong winds over the last few days. We have to make sure we sail our own race, as we'd have too much to lose by controlling a rival: we'll use our own strategy and the closer we are to first place, the more favourable it'll be for the overall standing. We're in a positive phase, but the top three boats have very similar speeds offshore.'

Jean-Luc Nélias, navigator: 'The important thing is to come out of our obligatory passage through the Azores High without leaving too many feathers behind us. There may be no breeze, wind shadows from the landforms and the effects of the coast to contend with… We have to have nerves of steel: it's one of the last big heaves we have to give. After Sao Miguel, we'll enter a depression with strong winds and there's a chance we could break gear. Light airs and a storm aren't the perfect combination for a leader as things could go either way! We might make the finish on Friday evening… though other models suggest Saturday evening.'

Laurent Pagès, tactician: 'It would be a mistake to focus on the overall standing: we need to tackle this leg as if we were tied on points. It's a restart. In principle, the conditions suit us and we're fairly confident, even though we're going to get shaken about in the Bay of Biscay. It's already a big satisfaction to be the leader at the start in Lisbon and that gives us a slight edge. We've evolved a great deal in terms of making strategic decisions since the start in Alicante: it's a long race where consistency is key. On a personal level, I reckon our most serious rival is Puma: the Americans are in a dynamic phase at the moment with a vast amount of experience, whilst the Spanish seem to be having some difficulties.'

Standings on 10 June 2012 at 1600 UTC:
1 – Puma 1,890.4 miles from the finish
2 – Abu Dhabi 0.2 miles astern of the leader
3 – Camper 0.4 miles astern of the leader
4 – Telefonica 0.8 miles astern of the leader
5 – Groupama 2.5 miles astern of the leader
6 – Sanya 3.5 miles astern of the leader

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 8 - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12

Groupama Sailing Team during leg 8 - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12

Groupama Sailing Team website