At the beginning of the Volvo Ocean Race last November, the French yacht Groupama was a stray outlier.
They were seen as a navigational risk-taker, an eccentric unwisely hugging the African coast toward Cape Town until all other boats blew by it from the mid-Atlantic route.
At the end of the race in the wee hours of yesterday, Groupama was the champion.
Completing a comeback from a deficit that once reached 28 points, the first French entrant since 1993-94 clinched the 2011-12 title when it crossed the line for Leg 9 second in Galway, Ireland, its overall lead insuperable with the 25 points for the runner-up spot in the final leg, even with the Galway in-port race of Saturday left to complete.
“I didn’t think we could win,” an exultant skipper Franck Cammas said.
When they did, at 4:49am UAE time, it marked the first Volvo win on the first Volvo try for Cammas, 39, previously a phenomenon in multihull sailing.
It marked the first French win since Lionel Pean’s L’Esprit L’Equipe in 1985-86, and in the closest of the 11 editions of the Volvo race till date, it rewarded a team which did not win a leg until Leg 4.
From the fourth stopover in Sanya, China, Groupama never finished lower than third in any leg, winning both Leg 4 to New Zealand and Leg 8 from Portugal to France, and finishing second in two other legs including Leg 7, in which it almost caught victorious Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing at Lisbon.
LISTEN TO AZAAM SKIPPER IAN WALKER ON OUR AUDIO PLAYER BELOW
All of those 150 ocean points from the last six legs vaulted Groupama to 250 overall, 24 ahead of second-place Camper With Emirates Team New Zealand, and helped Groupama overhaul Spain’s Telefonica, the winner of the first three legs of the race which has wound up fourth after various misfortunes.
“This is an incredible moment for me,” Cammas said. “It was always my dream to participate in this race.
“The first book I ever read was about the Whitbread (the race’s previous name). ... Without any doubt this is the best. This is the longest and hardest event to win. It started badly but every one of us raised our level.”
As Cammas’ exhilaration marked the morning, so did a bookending of ill luck for Azzam, the debut Abu Dhabi entry.
Slowed by an unknown hindrance all through the tiny final leg – with damage suspected underneath – the boat that began the race with a broken mast on the first night ended it with a lobster pot on the final.
Azzam, already secured in fifth place of the six boats overall, finished the last leg sixth after a “crashing halt” off the Arran Isles.
“We stopped dead in the water,” skipper Ian Walker said, “and could only watch as Sanya slid right by three lengths away from us (into fifth place). It took us nearly 10 minutes to back down and free ourselves dropping us into sixth place.”
He also said, on the race website volvooceanrace.com, “As always, the lads on board have given their all and just as breaking our mast was not how we intended to start the race, this is not how any of us would have wished to end our round-the-world odyssey.”
Team Leg 9 Total
Groupama 25 250
Camper 30 226
Puma 20 220
Telefonica 15 209
Abu Dhabi 5 129
Team Sanya 10 50
Team Leg 9 Total
Camper 5 39
Puma 4 39
Groupama 6 38
Abu Dhabi 2 35
Telefonica 3 23
Team Sanya 1 15