Groupama, In-Port Race - Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12
The first race for the six yachts competing in the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12: a rather laborious ten-mile course was sailed for the first Inport race off Alicante, Spain, with conditions becoming increasingly light and fluky throughout the hour-long race. Abu Dhabi really stood out and Groupama 4, in fifth, showed that she doesn't have a lot to be envious of in relation to her rivals!
You had to want to win it as well as being both determined and lucky... voracious and opportunistic... Indeed, this first `In-Port' race didn't really reveal much about the potential of the boats and the abilities of the teams in the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR). In fact, the breeze wasn't as steady as forecast and the torrential rain which flooded the port of Alicante just short of midday, gave way to overcast, drizzly skies, swept by a light north-westerly breeze of less than ten knots as the starting gun fired...
The crew of Groupama 4 opted to skim past the Committee boat, positioning itself downwind of the fleet as the six VOR-70s were setting off on port tack to hunt down a bit more pressure offshore. With the New Zealanders, just a few metres to windward, Franck Cammas was holding his position perfectly when Abu Dhabi and Puma positioned themselves slightly further offshore. After a long port tack lasting over five minutes without any notable changes in the hierarchy due to the boats performing virtually identically upwind, Abu Dhabi was the first to launch into her tack change to hunt down the first course mark at the foot of the Santa Barbara cliffs, as the wind gradually dropped to a 5-7 knot north-westerly...
Franck Cammas and his tactician Laurent Pagès opted to distance themselves from the fleet so as to hook onto slightly more pressure offshore and guarantee that they could make the mark rounding without having to put in a double tack change as they did yesterday... Indeed Ian Walker (Abu Dhabi) only just managed to round the mark, followed by Chris Nicholson (Camper TNZ) and Ken Read (Puma), Groupama 4 having conceded five boat lengths as the immense spinnaker was hoisted. At that point the wind had become very light, disturbed by the Spanish landscape, so the top four boats were just about able to eke out an average of eight knots virtually beam on to the wind.
At the leeward mark, the hierarchy seemed to have established since the Emirate leader boasted a hundred metre lead over the New Zealanders, they themselves maintaining the same lead over the Americans and French... However the decidedly flighty wind shuffled things up again as it became lighter and lighter. The mark rounding was very tight behind Ian Walker, who was still leading as he powered off again under Code 0 leaving his three direct rivals continuing to make headway under asymmetric spinnaker! This sail choice cost the Kiwis dearly as they were unable to get air into their sail and found themselves carried off downwind of Puma and Groupama 4...
The wind of change
The decision to opt for the Code 0 (a kind of very large genoa, attached to the bowsprit) initially paid off as Abu Dhabi extended their lead, while Puma and Groupama 4's consistent performance got them past Camper TNZ, the New Zealanders then getting overtaken by Sanya and Telefonica! However, the Spanish race zone certainly wasn't proving easy to predict as a succession of wind holes followed, with light puffs of air dropping down the mountainsides. Within metres of each other, two boats had a completely different breeze! Puma thus overtook Abu Dhabi in a matter of minutes, despite the latter boasting a lead of 200 metres... And for Groupama 4, everything turned on its head in a matter of seconds as the trailing trio hit a light breeze and devoured their deficit in no time!
Further upset came at the final course mark as the Americans took the top of the leaderboard ahead of the Emirate team... in the space of a tickle of breeze! However, with a maximum of just three knots of wind, a reshuffling of the cards was still a possibility. And though Ian Walker walked off with a deserved first victory after a good start and an excellent strategy downwind, the rest of the standing was more reminiscent of a lottery draw than a sports event: the results decided on a mere puff of breeze at the right moment! The final home straight was surreal to say the least as the leader powered over the line like a bullet in twelve knots of wind and a lead of over a mile, while its pursuers were still hunting down a zest of air at the final course mark...
Not for nothing...?
As such it took a further fifteen minutes to discover which of the five pursuers had come off best. The Americans on Puma ultimately took second whilst third place was snatched by the New Zealanders on Camper, followed by the Chinese on Sanya, the French on Groupama 4 and the Spaniards on Telefonica, who performed their penalty on the line... No lessons to be drawn from this chaotic and hazardous race then, other than the fact that Ian Walker and his Emirate crew have managed to earn themselves a few points. However, during the previous two editions, those who were best in the first `In-Port' race have never won the Volvo Ocean Race and those who did least well in this show-course really stood out at the finish! It remains to be seen if this is premonitory.
Three questions for the skipper of Groupama 4:
An excellent start by Groupama 4, and then a very fluky wind?
'It's a shame because we managed to carry out the tactics and get the start we wanted. We were third at one point, but we made a few bad decisions which meant that we didn't always have the same conditions as our rivals and sometimes we weren't in the right spots on the race zone! Luck wasn't really on our side but we always came back well: there wasn't a lot between us in the end but in this type of very light weather, a few metres cost us very dear.'
What is your analysis of this rather unusual race?
'We've improved how we sail because we're communicating increasingly well aboard Groupama 4. The result isn't a true reflection of the progress we've made, but we're not far from being good. We know that these `In-Port' races are our weakness! We still have nine months to improve on this aspect, but it is clear that the training over recent days has borne fruit. The whole team is happy with the way we sailed and that's the most important thing.'
Are these `In-Port' races rather a lottery?
'In Alicante, the course was at the far end of the bay, with an offshore breeze, which has rather pernicious effects... In Cape Town, things will be different because it's windy there, very windy even. Our architectural choices were based on a boat for breezy conditions! However, that's not why we've lost out today: had we sailed brilliantly, things would have panned out better as the level is very high in the VOR-70 domain. We're still lacking practice racing monohulls compared with our rivals but we're going to improve with every leg.'
Of note is the fact that Groupama sailing team is today protesting Camper for using a system enabling them to cant the mast astern, which is strictly forbidden in the VOR race rules. This protest follows on from those lodged by Abu Dhabi, Puma and Telefonica on the same matter, without success.
In this latest process, Groupama sailing team has the benefit of Telefonica as a witness.
(Ed: The protest was dismissed by the International Jury)