Groupama crossed the finish line near Mutton Island in the early hours of Tuesday to secure a remarkable overall victory in their debut Volvo Ocean Race campaign and finally settle the closest contest in the event’s 39-year history.
While Camper were celebrating victory in the ninth and final leg, Groupama skipper Franck Cammas led his team home in second place to take an unassailable 24-point lead with just one in-port race to go.
Cammas, a 39-year-old Frenchman, threw his arms up and pumped his fists in the air while some 38,000 people gathered at Galway Harbour to roar home the team, which includes Irishman Damian Foxall, to a remarkable victory in their first appearance in the race.
For Camper, notching up their first leg win of the race was a longed-for achievement and it all but guarantees they will finish second overall. Puma, in third place on the night, will finish behind them in third overall unless Camper somehow fail to complete Saturday’s in-port race and Puma go on to win it.
However Monday night belonged to Groupama as they reaped the benefits of exhaustive preparation and more than eight months of the most extreme ocean racing.
Not since Lionel Péan skippered L’Esprit d’Equipe to victory in the 1985-86 race has a French team tasted glory in sailing’s toughest challenge.
“This is an incredible moment for me,” Cammas said. “It was always my dream just to participate in this race. The first book I ever read was about the Whitbread [the former name for the Volvo Ocean Race]. It has been an incredible day for me and it hasn’t sunk in yet.
“Without any doubt this is the best [thing I have done]. This is the longest and the hardest event to win. It started badly but every one of us raised our level.”
The team overcame a stream of challenges during the epic race including a testing first leg, disappointing results in the early in-port races and the loss of their mast in Leg 5.
Despite the setbacks, Cammas and his crew continued to improve, pulling back from a 28-point deficit after the Sanya Haitang bay in-port race to take their first offshore win in Leg 4, arriving into Auckland first despite the discovery of a serious crack in the hull within 100 miles of the line. They finally usurped long-term race leaders Telefónica from the top of the standings at the end of Leg 7.
Subsequent wins in the Oeiras in-port race in Lisbon, Leg 8 from Lisbon to Lorient, and the Bretagne in-port race only served to cement their position at the top of the leaderboard and bolster the team’s confidence heading into the final two scoring opportunities.
Despite going into the final 550 nautical mile leg from Lorient to Lisbon with a 25-point margin over second-placed Puma Ocean Racing powered by Berg, overall victory was far from guaranteed as the six boats set sail from Groupama’s home port of Lorient bound for Galway.
With early race leaders Telefónica looking to recover the form that saw them win the first three offshore legs, Puma wanting to better their second-place overall finish in the 2008-09 race and Camper with Emirates Team New Zealand itching to score their first offshore win, the pressure was on the frontrunners from the off.
But with breezy reaching forecast for the sprint out of the Bay of Biscay and across the Celtic Sea, conditions in which the team’s Volvo Open 70 Groupama 4 excels, they were always going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Groupama only needed to finish fourth to secure overall victory but they went two better, seeing off challenges through wild conditions in the English Channel and around the iconic Fastnet Rock to finish second across the line at 1.49am, seven minutes behind Camper, and seal their place in the history books as race winners.
“Even before we started this last leg I knew we were going to win it,” said Camper skipper Chris Nicholson. “It’s been a privilege and I’m proud to have been part of this team. I look at what everyone does day in day out and I think this is the sailing team’s way of saying thank you.”
PUMA finished in third at 1.55am ahead of Team Telefónica, who finished at 1.59am.
At 3am Sanya were around 10 miles from the line, with a narrow lead over Abu Dhabi.
Six points will be up for grabs for first place, five for second, four for third, and so on when the final in-port race of the epic 39,000 nautical mile ocean race takes place in the bay this Saturday.