THE OUT­SIDERS

Sailing World - - Contents - BY BRUCE GAIN

Groupama Team France’s fear­less leader rides in on a dark horse.

Groupama Team France might be small in scale and short on fund­ing, but its leader is big on re­sults.

FRANCK CAM­MAS has just fin­ished his ear­ly­morn­ing work­out and is look­ing for­ward to a proper French- fare break­fast. He’s think­ing about the vi­o­lent storm that’s pound­ing his team’s base, more than 3,000 miles away in Lori­ent, France. On this par­tic­u­lar day in Ber­muda, how­ever, the weather is fine. It’s balmy where he and his Groupama Team France team­mates have only re­cently re­lo­cated as they await the ar­rival of their AC50 and all the con­tain­ers that come with it.

To­day, Ber­muda is cer­tainly the bet­ter place to be. But the thought of weather in France is merely pass­ing; more press­ing is the buildup to what he and his team will face in a mat­ter of weeks.

The un­der­funded and un­der­staffed Groupama squad will en­ter the first of­fi­cial race of the Louis Vuit­ton qual­i­fiers — against the Amer­ica’s Cup de­fender, Or­a­cle Team USA. It doesn’t seem quite fair to be pit­ted against the re­gatta’s bull­dog so early in the re­gatta, but Cam­mas is prag­matic de­spite his team’s place in the base­ment of the Amer­ica’s Cup World Se­ries stand­ings.

The odds are ob­vi­ously long in­deed, yet the French team has all to gain and noth­ing to lose.

“Against Or­a­cle, there could be some sur­prises in store,” says Cam­mas. “But we also re­al­ize we have only a few weeks to pre­pare, so there will be no room for er­ror.”

Wait­ing for their boat, and ob­serv­ing other teams, espe­cially Land Rover BAR, in Ber­muda,

has been ben­e­fi­cial, says Cam­mas.

“Or­a­cle is the ref­er­ence by which we have mea­sured our­selves,” he says. “They cer­tainly have a faster boat and a crew that can do the maneuvers bet­ter since they have had more time to prac­tice. But we have been watch­ing how they do cer­tain things, which we can learn how to do bet­ter.”

Cam­mas’ cau­tiously op­ti­mistic at­ti­tude is an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic fa­cade. In France espe­cially, his rep­u­ta­tion is that of com­bat­ive, de­mand­ing and, quite of­ten, con­tro­ver­sial skip­per. But his di­rect, re­sults-fo­cused man­age­ment style is not some­thing his sailors take per­son­ally. In­stead, says Michel Desjoyeaux, a two-time Vendée Globe win­ner and Groupama’s am­bas­sador, they see his in­ten­tions are to mo­ti­vate them to per­form bet­ter, in ways they might not have thought pos­si­ble.

“Cam­mas is not re­ally a dif­fi­cult skip­per be­cause he wants the best for the boat and the team,” says Desjoyeaux. “If you agree with that, fine. But if you don’t think his way and de­cide to leave the team, that is not a prob­lem for any­body.”

While Cam­mas may be the ul­ti­mate de­cider in this French cam­paign, he will heed al­ter­na­tive opin­ions. “The team re­tains its Latin cul­ture,” says Desjoyeaux. “This means there is room for ev­ery­one to ex­press their points of view. Franck lis­tens, then he de­cides — he doesn’t just make de­ci­sions and ev­ery­body else fol­lows.”

But one bet­ter have a solid case should one ques­tion Cam­mas’ in­ten­tions. “Sure, Franck will en­ter into a tac­ti­cal de­bate with you. But let’s just say you bet­ter be ready to give ev­ery­thing

you’ve got to de­fend your­self,” says Groupama team mem­ber Olivier Herledant. “And if he does not think you are per­form­ing the way you should be, he is go­ing to let you know.”

Cam­mas’ per­son­al­ity has taken him a long way, and there should be lit­tle sur­prise that he’s been tasked with lead­ing this all-french ef­fort. Af­ter grow­ing up in a trailer with­out run­ning wa­ter, he mus­tered the dis­ci­pline to en­ter France’s elite Mathé­ma­tiques Supérieures high school, one of his hard­est-won bat­tles, he says. There, his rig­or­ous stud­ies in math and physics gave him the ca­pac­ity to dive deep into the tech­nolo­gies of the mod­ern Amer­ica’s Cup boats — the stuff best left to ex­pe­ri­enced en­gi­neers and de­sign­ers.

As a pro­fes­sional sailor, Cam­mas was also not a pre- race fa­vorite be­fore win­ning the Route du Rhum in 2010 or the Volvo Ocean Race for the French team as a skip­per in 2012. Should he fol­low form — and there’s no rea­son to believe he won’t — there’s all the more rea­son for his com­peti­tors to be wary and take the chal­lenge se­ri­ously.

“Peo­ple won­der just who these French guys are and what they are do­ing in the Amer­ica’s Cup, but trust me, Franck doesn’t care about what peo­ple say or think,” says Desjoyeaux. “At the be­gin­ning of the Volvo Race, the Ki­wis said the Volvo was not a French­man’s race. ‘Go back home, Frenchie,’ they said. But you know how that story ended.”

Now, in Ber­muda, Cam­mas and his team are at­tempt­ing to mas­ter Groupama’s new Amer­ica’s Cup Class cata­ma­ran, and among other things, how to sail on the boat’s foils from start to fin­ish in a race. A key chal­lenge with the ACC de­sign in par­tic­u­lar is suc­cess­fully com­plet­ing a foil­ing tack. By May, Cam­mas and his team will have had only a few weeks to mas­ter the com­plex three- di­men­sional dy­nam­ics of the hy­draulics, boards, grind­ing and wing ad­just­ment while foil­ing. They also must be able to do this, of course, in the nar­row con­fines of Ber­muda’s Great Sound.

As of March, Groupama had yet to suc­cess­fully com­plete a foil­ing tack in one week’s time since its ACC boat was ready in March. This was af­ter sev­eral weeks since late fall, when the team be­gan to study how the other teams foiled on their ACC boats, with a fo­cus on how Or­a­cle and Land Rover mas­tered the ma­neu­ver. But ac­tu­ally ap­ply­ing what they learned by watch­ing has been a dif­fer­ent story on their boat. The foil’s po­si­tion in the wa­ter, grind­ing power, and trim­ming the wing must be done ex­actly right, which, to say the least, is very chal­leng­ing, says Herledant.

“We are even­tu­ally go­ing to get there, but the ma­neu­ver is in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult,” he says. “Win­ning will re­quire a com­plete mas­tery of foil­ing, whether you are tack­ing, jib­ing, or sail­ing in a straight line. And if you want to win, do­ing all of that well is just a pre­req­ui­site.”

In­stead of two or three prac­tice boats, Groupama had only one. Its ACC boat is a re­fur­bished ver­sion of its prac­tice boat, with which it shares 90 per­cent of the same com­po­nents. While the team’s ACC boat was be­ing built in France, the team could watch the other teams prac­tice on ACC- ready boats only be­tween De­cem­ber 2016 and March 2017.

Aside from a rel­a­tively small bud­get, Groupama also suf­fered a ma­jor set­back in De­cem­ber 2015, when Cam­mas’ foot was nearly sev­ered when he fell from the helm of the team’s GC32 dur­ing a train­ing ses­sion off the coast of Quiberon. In the af­ter­math of the ac­ci­dent, Cam­mas had to re­main shore­bound and was un­able to sail with the team un­til spring 2016

Cam­mas, how­ever, says he was able to make the most of this ma­jor set­back by us­ing the down­time to work more closely with en­gi­neers on the team’s AC boat, with ex­tra at­ten­tion paid to its hy­draulics sys­tem and foil de­sign. In the im­me­di­ate fu­ture, given the short time the team will have had to train on their boat lead­ing up to the first race against Or­a­cle in May, Cam­mas says he will opt for sta­bil­ity over speed. He will thus use larger foils in­stead of smaller and faster but more-un­sta­ble foils.

“If we had more time to train, we would prob­a­bly have been able to use a less-sta­ble foil com­bi­na­tion for more speed,” says Cam­mas. “We will have only about two months to pre­pare, so we will lean to­ward the most sta­bil­ity.”

The very ex­is­tence of the French team’s cam­paign is also a re­flec­tion of the rad­i­cal changes the Amer­ica’s Cup has un­der­gone. With the more- af­ford­able one- de­sign plat­form pack­age, Groupama will com­pete on a bud­get of 30 mil­lion eu­ros. While ad­mir­ing the tech­nolo­gies the AC72 in­tro­duced, and to a lesser de­gree, its sheer size and speed, the scale and cost of tak­ing part in the last Amer­ica’s Cup was pro­hib­i­tive for a French team, says Desjoyeaux. “I am cer­tain we would not have been able to com­pete if the last de­sign rules had not changed,” he says. “The cost and bar­ri­ers of en­try would have been too high.”

The pre­dom­i­nantly French team, how­ever, is not a pas­tiche coun­try squad that has strug­gled to put to­gether a first-and-last cam­paign. In fact, Desjoyeaux says this is the first of more to come. And as far as a tal­ent pool goes, France cer­tainly has some of the world’s best sailors, although they mainly stand out in off­shore con­tests and ocean record pas­sages.

The French have also been a good source of tal­ent for re­cent Amer­ica’s Cup teams. Loick Pey­ron, for ex­am­ple, served as a helms­man for Alinghi dur­ing the last two Amer­ica’s Cups and serves in a key per­for­mance and coach­ing role with Artemis Rac­ing. Philippe Presti, of course, has re­tained his role as the coach of Or­a­cle af­ter play­ing a de­ci­sive role in Or­a­cle’s great come­back to win the 34th Amer­ica’s Cup.

How­ever, the French sail­ing team re­mains largely un­known, to the point that an out­sider might even think the team is se­cre­tive and in­tro­verted. This is not in­ten­tional, how­ever, but rather the re­sult of a mea­ger mar­ket­ing bud­get. Even in France, where sailors in the off­shore clas­sics like the Vendée Globe and the Route du Rhum have celebrity sta­tus, Groupama’s Amer­ica’s Cup cam­paign is largely un­known. For that to change, Groupama must show re­sults, even in the short term.

“I am go­ing to af­firm that de­spite all of the chal­lenges, it is our am­bi­tion to win the Amer­ica’s Cup one day,” says Cam­mas. “We must do well to also in­still in­ter­est back home. We have to be pa­tient though. When we start do­ing well, of course, we are go­ing to get more sup­port from home.”

Groupama, nev­er­the­less, re­mains the team with the small­est bud­get and the least amount of time to pre­pare for the great race, and whether they do well or not says Desjoyeaux, they will be bet­ter pre­pared for the Amer­ica’s Cup in 2020.

And yes, Desjoyeaux is con­fi­dent they will one day take the tro­phy to France, and the weather in Lori­ent will, of course, be fine. Q

“PEO­PLE WON­DER JUST WHO THESE FRENCH GUYS ARE AND WHAT THEY ARE DO­ING IN THE AMER­ICA’S CUP, BUT TRUST ME, FRANCK DOESN’ T CARE ABOUT WHAT PEO­PLE SAY OR THINK .”

Groupama Team France is the true dark horse of the chal­lenger fleet. Its poor re­sults in the Amer­ica’s Cup World Se­ries aside, the “Made-in-france” ef­fort tapped do­mes­tic tech in­dus­tries and sailors in its quest to be the Cup’s first-ever French vic­tor. P

Whereas other teams each built a ded­i­cated AC50 for rac­ing in Ber­muda, Groupama Team France de­vel­oped its pro­to­type be­fore trans­form­ing it into an AC- le­gal plat­form. PHOTO : ELOI STICHELBAUT

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