x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Lonely are the brave sailors

Groupama's skipper and navigator have seen their decisions take the team off on its own, but their adventures have made the race more exciting

Franck Cammas, left, the skipper of Groupama, with Jean-Luc Nelias, the teams navigator, have made bold decisions in the race.
Franck Cammas, left, the skipper of Groupama, with Jean-Luc Nelias, the teams navigator, have made bold decisions in the race.

I confess to an affinity for pioneers, trailblazers, lone wolves, stray animals and people who stick to daring strategies everyone else deems loopy.

So I ventured to a back office in the Volvo Ocean Race base camps, and I found the Groupama navigator Jean-Luc Nelias, unassuming action superhero of Legs 1 and 2.

Barefoot with flip-flops nearby, the 39-year-old Frenchman greeted me almost bashfully, but did grin when, as a rank outsider, I thanked him for lending intrigue to the early stages of this nine-month, 39,270-mile slog.

In Leg 1 and Leg 2, Groupama has strayed from the fleet, ventured out on its own, sought singular and untold winds, livened up the little chart on the race website.

Monsieur Nelias deflected credit, of course.

"When we make the decision, it's a Franck Cammas decision," he said of Groupama's multihull maven and first-time Volvo skipper.

"It's a skipper decision. So it's good for me. For me it's an easy job because I don't take all the responsibility … My position is not very tricky as you feeling it could be if you are looking from the outside."

No, that unimposing wisp of a skipper, Cammas, turns out to be one rugged little nut.

He gets to the UAE from a grinding two-part leg and promptly goes rock climbing.

And when he makes or sanctions a wrong call, he mans up and brands it flat-wrong, as he did in Cape Town after Leg 1.

In Leg 1, Groupama and three other boats surpassed the Strait of Gibraltar at a crossroads, according to Nelias.

They could go west and hug the scenic coast of Africa, seeing the Canary Islands on their right, or they could go conventional and sear out toward Brazil, as the wind-craving boats tend to do in this befuddling puzzle of a race. "You have to decide in maybe one hour on the water," he said.

They went west, and then they reached that odd life moment when you've decided something and think others have decided likewise but learn nobody has. Uh oh.

Adding to the sensation in this case, the Volvo Ocean Race boats all have an interest in racing adjacent their rivals to glean clues about matters so wildly technical it could boil your brain.

"At that time," Nelias said, "we thought that other guys will be coming with us. We were still thinking Camper would try to come with us."

Camper did not come. Loneliness.

Now, there's a recent precedent in which somebody going the wrong way, wind-wise, wound up in the bliss of lonely accuracy after everybody branded him a lunkhead.

Aksel Magdahl, the navigator for Ericsson 3 in the 2008/09 race, charted a northerly course below South America, had some critics call him daft and reached Rio de Janeiro roughly an epoch before everybody else.

Groupama? "Twelve hours after the decision to go on the African coast, we already know that it's" doomed, Nelias said.

"We took the decision very fast and very fast we know it was not good. And after that you have to deal with it."

They held a lead, but soon encountered the tame areas everyone tries to avoid. They finished a way-off-yonder third. Three boats completed the leg.

But, no worries, Cammas knows he's a newcomer to this event, spoke with commendable bluntness in Cape Town and went on, into Leg 2, into that now-notorious trough.

"The trough moved with us, three or four days trying to find the gate," Nelias said.

"And the gate moved. I think some people say there's no gate. We try to find a gate to cross the trough and sometimes the gate was a little bit to the north, sometimes a little bit to the south."

Then, if you watched on your screen at home, there went those zany French again, this time veering off south.

"We did have some kind of complex after the first leg," Cammas told the Volvo website then.

"We didn't want to go it alone. When we saw that big gate in the south of the front, we went for it, but no one else did."

Puma and Camper appeared they might, so Nelias said, "Hey, we found some guy to go with us!" Then: "They went off north, so they don't want to come with us."

This time, though, Groupama soared. It raged out for a lead it would hold for days until it flunked the dreaded Doldrums and faded into fourth.

But that's OK. In circumnavigation and in life, we still can hail the guy with his neck stuck out.