AUCKLAND // French boat Groupama overcame an 11th-hour scare when a huge hole opened up in the hull filling the bow with water before claiming a first leg win of the Volvo Ocean Race yesterday.
Franck Cammas's crew were forced to bail out with victory almost in sight as they passed the New Zealand coast after their 5,220-nautical mile journey from Sanya, China, in the fourth leg of offshore sailing's premier race.
After several frantic minutes, the source of the leak was found and a wooden plug was used to seal it.
Early indications were that the bow had suffered a serious gash caused by massively testing conditions as the fleet approached New Zealand with waves rising to eight metres high.
Swede Martin Krite said he and fellow bowman Brad Marsh had found the leak after noticing that the boat was dipping deeply into the water.
"I went downstairs to have a look in the bow and discovered we had a lot of water in the boat and more water was coming in," said Krite on, appropriately, French Day at the Auckland race village.
"Then Brad and myself went looking for holes in the boat and managed to find a leak."
With the hull showing signs of considerable damage, Groupama limped home after 19 days of sailing into an Auckland dock that was packed with sailing fans welcoming the race back into the "City of Sails" after a 10-year gap.
The French win broke a winning streak for Spanish boat Telefonica, which had taken the previous three legs of the 2011/12 edition.
Groupama crew member Yann Riou said that the bow had become two-thirds filled with water from the damage which was caused by repeated banging from waves.
"All pumps, buckets and scoops, as well as most of the men, were requisitioned," Riou said.
"After a few minutes, we saw that the water level had dropped. Relief."
Marsh became the first of the 20 Kiwi sailors in the race into New Zealand.
"It feels amazing," Marsh said. "It's a childhood dream for me. I didn't allow myself to think about winning up until today. But the excitement set in as we came down the coast and I realised it was all going to happen."
The rest of the six-strong fleet, including overall leaders Telefonica and New Zealand campaign Camper, were closely bunched together a further 100 miles behind Groupama and were expected to arrive around 4pm local time (7am UAE time) today.
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing were on course to finish fifth.
Groupama, whose win took them to an aggregate total of 103 points, now face a busy week of repairs to be ready for the race's next competitive action in Saturday's Auckland in-port race.
The next leg to Itajai in Brazil begins on March 18.
The 39,000-nautical mile race, which covers 10 ports, four oceans and five continents, is scheduled to finish in Galway, Ireland on July 8.