The French team win the leg from China to Auckland despite last minute drama

“Groupama is the one to watch,” said Mike Sanderson shortly before the start of the 5,220 mile leg from Sanya, China to Auckland. He was right.

Having modified their fore and aft trim before the previous leg 3 along with some important sail shape changes, Franck Cammas’ green and dayglow orange Volvo 70 found several new gears. In particular her reaching performance, which had always showed signs of being one of her strongest points, was now even more impressive. Leg 4 proved it, not even the previously dominant Telefonica could reel in the French boat’s lead.

Yet Cammas, a first time Volvo Ocean Race competitor, said the race was won and lost on a bold decision made by navigator Jean-Luc Nélias.

“The key thing for this leg was to be quick and to make good decisions,” he said. “We knew we had to do both of those things and we did. This is where we ended up.

“The turning point in the leg was when we made a very bold call with Puma in the north and it paid off. That was the decisive moment.”

From there on the team dominated the leg finishing at 10:33:47 UTC/23:33:47 local on Saturday, more than 80 nautical miles ahead of second placed Puma.

But their victory wasn’t without some last minute stress when a leak in the bow was discovered as the boat pounded through eight metre seas and 30 knot headwinds.

Yann Riou, Media Crew Member on board Groupama 4, reported that the bow had become two-thirds filled with water after damage likely caused by repeated banging in the upwind conditions.

“All pumps, buckets and scoops as well as most of men are requisitioned,” said Riou. “After a few minutes, we saw that the water level had dropped. Relief.”

Martin Krite said he and fellow bowman Brad Marsh had found the leak after noticing that the boat was digging more deeply into the water than normally.

“I went downstairs to have a look in the bow and discovered we had a lot of water in the boat and more water was coming in,” said Krite.

“For a while you couldn’t tell how much water there was,” Marsh said. “Each time we opened the hatch you just get flooded with more water.”

Once ashore the team set out repairing the damage to the bow. According to Groupama’s build manager Pierre Tissier, the damage had been caused by two days of crashing through huge seas to the north of New Zealand – but he also suspected something had hit the bow.

This is the second time that the boat has suffered structural problems in her bow sections, the last time being on the leg to Abu Dhabi.

“We have a zone under the collision bulkhead which has delaminated, and we are now in the process of repairing it,” Tissier said.

Groupama’s performance on this leg sees them displace Camper in the overall points to take second place, trailing Telefonica who finished third on this leg, by 18 points.

Camper’s fourth across the line in Auckland will have been a big blow to a team who both wanted to win in home waters and showed every sign of doing so in the opening stages of this leg. Once again Chris Nicholson’s team was pipped at the post by Telefonica who, after 5,200 nautical miles took the podium position by just a matter of boat lengths. A cruel blow for Camper in home waters.

The fact that Telefonica was forced to finish third will be of scant consolation to the Camper crew who cam tantalisingly close to forcing the Spanish team to count a fourth. Instead all the team can be thankful for was that Iker Martinez’ Spanish team have finally had to concede an offshore leg and as such have been reeled in, albeit only slightly.

For Ian Walker’s Abu Dhabi team the task of keeping the faith is a much tougher one. They finished fifth, just ahead of Sanya but their main concern will be yet another display of an apparent lack of pace against the rest of the fleet.

The critical moment on Leg 4 for Abu Dhabi came when they slipped from third to fifth as Telefónica, Camper and Sanya cut the corner through the Solomon Islands.

“It’s a bit harder if you’re leaking miles, that forces you to rake risks at times, which is not something you want to do because you’re sailing against the best in the world and inevitably you come unstuck,” said skipper Ian Walker. “You don’t want to go spearing around taking risks because then you’re just gambling and that’s not what we’re about.

“It’s tough to keep it tight, keep battling away and wait for opportunities but that’s what I thought we did on this leg.”

Walker is hopeful of finding further opportunities in the five remaining legs and the promise of what has been illusive so far – downwind racing.

“We’ve still not really gone downwind, let’s face it,” he said bluntly.

“Telefónica look like the gun boat but everyone’s going to have their weaknesses at different times. We’ve got to hope. We’ve done six weeks sailing in this race so far and I think four and a half have been upwind. We have to get the spinnakers up and maybe it will be a different story.

“You just have to keep believing, keep trying your best and good things will happen.”