A first time entrant who grew into the race

Mon, Jul 9, 2012, 01:00

SAILING:A RAPTUROUS crowd that exceeded even the turn-out for the 2009 stop-over marked the end of an era for the Volvo Ocean Race in Galway at the weekend where the six-boat fleet ended their 39,000-mile contest around the planet.

Unchanged from arrival in Ireland or even in France three weeks earlier, Franck Cammas and the Groupama 4 team received the overall trophy for an outcome that even three months ago few would have backed.

Such was the unprecedented level of boat and gear breakages in this edition of the race – the 11th since the Whitbread Brewing company and the Royal Naval Sailing Association held the first event in 1973 – that all bets were off for the outcome.

Just four months ago, barely halfway into the race, Spain’s Iker Martinez on Telefonica appeared to have the whole event sewn up.

Three leg wins, including the opening stage that lore demands the winner of become the eventual victor seemed to suggest it was all over, leading to grumbling commentary that it was all just a bit predictable.

A slew of boat incidents befell almost every team except Martinez, though a weakness in the In-Port race held at each stop-over went more or less ignored in the light of the high scoring leg wins.

Another round of boat breakages in the fourth leg across the Southern Ocean en route to Cape Horn led to howls of derision over the technological standards. Race chief executive Knut Frostad called the carnage unprecedented and demanded that designers and engineers not use the Volvo Ocean Race as a developmental testing-ground.

Quietly in the background, plans were afoot to abandon the 70-footer that has been used for the last three editions of the race in favour of a one-design class, strictly controlled that would deal with the twin concerns of high costs and technical reliability.

Such moves were of only distant concerns to the 66 sailors at sea or on cargo ships and planes as the race continued.

Martinez dominance continued unabated even after minor hull problems in the Southern Ocean.

Cammas was dismasted while leading the fourth leg, allowing the Spaniards to pass through to begin a three-day match-race with American Ken Read on Puma, who had taken over the leg lead.

It was a ruthless battle to the finish where Read prevailed, though Martinez seemed unstoppable. A Volvo Ocean Race win seemed in the bag and plans for the double Olympic medallist to sail at London 2012 with his long-term sailing partner Xabi Fernandez continued apace.

However, as if throwing a light-switch, the wheels came off the Telefonica campaign.

A dead last place in the Brazil In-Port race by missing a mark on the course while leading the fleet was treated as a mild embarrassment. But when this result was followed by another and yet a third last place for an In-Port race, the consistency was a little too serious.

Of even greater concern, Telefonica was no longer featuring on the podium for the high-scoring ocean legs. And at the same time, Cammas and Read were moving higher up the podium.

The rot continued all the way to Galway, accelerated by breaking two rudders on the penultimate leg into France that Groupama won. The Spaniards’ fate was sealed, though in a ruthless twist, they were to depart the podium entirely for the overall standings confirmed on Saturday in Galway.

Various theories have been suggested for the epic turnaround in fortunes for the highly regarded Telefonica entry, including the first half of the race being predominantly upwind.

However, the most popular explanation is that Martinez and his crew literally hit the ground running and continued at that pace through the remainder of the race.

Their rivals were, through inexperience or damage, all slower to find pace. But when they did, their form simply grew until they out-paced the Spaniards.

Which should not suggest that Martinez and his team were sedate. But when all around are losing masts or suffering hull break-ups, changing a proven formula seems riskier than pushing towards the unknown in clearly vulnerable boats.

It was a risk that Cammas and Read were clearly willing to take. They had, after all, nothing else to lose. The reward came for Cammas, a first time entrant in this event though a veteran of many other French oceanic events, and his victory was widely applauded by the other five teams.

The next race, in 2014, will feature new 65-footers, designed to be just as impressive though more controllable and reliable.

The emphasis of the race will switch almost completely to crew ability as the drive towards new technology is given a rest.

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