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Groupama wins crown of yachting world

In the closest finish ever in the 39-year history of the Volvo Ocean Race, Team Groupama’s victory took hard work, perseverance and a little help from Official Logistics Partner DHL.

Photo credit: Hubert Lecinski - Patrouille de France

Experts will tell you that Groupama – led by legendary French captain Franck Cammas – was a race favorite from the start. But it didn’t look that way in the early stages of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012. The French team came in second to last in the first two In-Port races in Alicante and Cape Town and made a poor navigational decision in Leg 1 that left them far behind the leaders.

Yet the team never gave up and now the yachting world is saying that Groupama’s perseverance paid off in the end.

Early legs
Despite a seemingly poor early navigational decision to hug the coast of Africa in Leg 1 as the yachts sped from Alicante to Cape Town, Cammas and crew managed a third place finish and the 20 points that came with it after their competitors met with a series of misfortunes. In what became a damage-laden start to the world’s longest sailing regatta, neither Team Sanya nor Abu Dhabi made it through the Strait of Gibraltar, and PUMA Ocean Racing Powered by Berg dismasted after 17 days on the water.

In Leg 2 from Capetown to Abu Dhabi, which was raced in an unprecedented two stages to avoid the threat of piracy in the Indian Ocean, navigation woes got the best of Groupama again. Gambling on a southeast course in the Southern Ocean, the team took the lead only to see that lead swallowed up by the infamous Doldrums – a low-pressure area around the equator with calm prevailing winds. After finishing the first stage of Leg 2 in fourth place, the team regrouped to win the second stage’s 100-nautical-mile sprint to Abu Dhabi, ending the leg with a respectable 18 points.

Changing tides
After another respectable second-place showing in Leg 3 from Abu Dhabi to Sanya, China, Groupama won the 5,220 nautical mile Leg 4 to Auckland in a grueling race that produced an epic finish and a memorable quote from Media Crew Member Yann Riou: “If we don’t sink, we win!” His now infamous words came when, out in front and nearly home, Groupama suffered a scare as damages sustained to the bow during the leg left nearly 100 tonnes of water in the boat just 100 nautical miles from the finish. Still, the crew managed to keep their vessel afloat, sailing triumphantly into Auckland for their first leg victory of the race.

Credit: PAUL TODD / Volvo Ocean Race

DHL to the rescue

Leg 5 from Auckland to Itajaí, Brazil, is now considered one of the toughest legs in the history of the Volvo Ocean Race, with only one boat making it through without stopping for repairs. Groupama battled the vicious Southern Ocean valiantly and was in a tight race with PUMA for first place as the two boats rounded Cape Horn, only to see their hopes of back-to-back leg victories fade when their mast broke. The crew persevered, quickly heading into the Uruguayan port of Punta del Este where they masterfully set up a jury rig strong enough to complete the leg. Their quick thinking helped the team secure the precious 20 points needed for third place and won them the DHL Shore Crew Award for Leg 5.

When the team arrived in Itajaí days later, a replacement mast was already waiting, a feat DHL managed and coordinated. The complex and delicate transportation of the 31.5 meter (103 feet) long, custom-built carbon mast from Amsterdam to Itajaí required fast, innovative thinking.

Credit: PAUL TODD / Volvo Ocean Race

While the team was in Uruguay, DHL launched into action over on the other side of the Atlantic. At the DHL logistics center in Amsterdam used especially for the cargo and sailing equipment for the Volvo Ocean Race, the 100 feet-tall replacement mast was moved out of the warehouse and readied. After clearing all security requirements, the mast was loaded onto a Boeing 747 freighter. Because of its size, the mast could only be loaded via nose – a real feat. And three hours later, the plane was in the air, bound for Curitiba, Brazil, from where it was taken overland to Itajaí.

Watch the video about this delicate operationNew Window

Perseverance pays off
Leg 6 saw a ‘mirror image’ finish of Leg 5, with Groupama coming in third again and scoring yet another 20 points. The points helped narrow the gap between overall race leader and favorite Telefónica, which came in fourth. It was the first time the Spaniards had missed the podium in an offshore leg.

Tropical Storm Alberto was the center of attention in Leg 7, forcing the teams to take evasive action and eventually fight huge seas. Groupama executed a perfect gybe maneuver in the center of the storm that launched them 40 miles ahead of the other boats. Although this surprised the rest of the fleet, Cammas and his crew eventually hit light winds and the chasers caught up on the wings of the Gulf Stream, with Abu Dhabi sailing to an 80-mile lead. Light winds off the Portuguese coast again allowed that gap to close and Groupama came within one mile of the leg winners.

Despite the second-place finish, Groupama celebrated it like a win because it was: the team took the overall race lead ahead of Telefónica with only two legs to go.

Final stretch to victory
The shortest but wildest leg of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012 – Leg 7 from Lisbon to Lorient, France – saw the sailors face grueling seas and set new speed records. It also saw team Groupama “come home” with a commanding lead. Here again a gybe, along with Telefónica’s boat troubles, gave the mostly French team the edge to reach Lorient first and receive a well-deserved warm welcome from their home-town fans.

Credit: PAUL TODD / Volvo Ocean Race

The win put Groupama 23 points ahead of their nearest rival and in a position to win the yachting world’s crowning regatta with just a fourth-place finish or better in the final leg through the English Channel to Galway, Ireland..

The team did two better, finishing Leg 9 in second place in the black of night to become the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012 champions.