Visiting the War Room

With the start of the Volvo Ocean Race only weeks away, I stopped by the Groupama base in Lorient, France.

Sailing World

Groupama960

--Bruce Gain

On a visit to the Groupama base in Lorient, France, the other day, I was surprised by the transparency of the team's Volvo Ocean Race program. For all respects and purposes, I had the run of the place for an afternoon, with less than three weeks before the 2011-'12 begins in Alicante, Spain.

I didn't have to sign anything, nor did an escort accompany me once I drove past the security gate. Come to think of it, I don’t even think there was a security checkpoint—just a gate that opened automatically as I drove through to the parking late.

Left alone to walk around the base, I got to see where the team members work out, run CAD drawings of boats and sails, and eat meals. (I was surprised, and disappointed, to see they didn't serve wine in the cafeteria.)

Santi Casanova, a Spanish-American, serves as the team’s physical therapist and trainer. He coaches the crew during their 7:30 a.m. workouts, which alternate between weight training and cardio.

Best of all, I got to accompany the team on the water, where they ran a few tests on Groupama 4, which is a redone Ericsson 4, the boat that won the 2008-'09 contest. We ripped along at well over 20 knots in 25- knot winds and 10-foot waves.

The team was trying to learn more about the new deck layout and daggerboard designs. The purpose of the deck changes, explained engineer Yves Mignard, is to improve weight and stacking efficiency. They have improved water flow from the deck, shifted the positions of the grinders (two at the back, one at the front), and redesigned the helm stations.

They've put in a lot of work optimizing the efficiency of the appendages to improve lift, Mignard said. They've repositioned the daggerboards to improve vertical lift without increasing the drag effect. The daggerboard and rudder designs build on the superior designs of Ericsson 4, which, according to Mignard, was already one step ahead of the competition when it won the last race.

For all its transparency, Groupama still has a few secrets to guard, especially regarding technology below deck and under water. For instance, when I was riding along, the team was testing both a smaller and a larger version of the new daggerboard design, one on each side of the boat. When I asked which one was on port and which on starboard, and what they thought about the performance of each, I didn't exactly get an answer.

“Can’t tell you,” said skipper Franck Cammas, the legendary French ocean racer. He grinned and looked down at a WiFi-connected console. “It’s top-secret.”

Everything below deck remained off limits, although I wasn't sure what I would've discovered that competitors would want to know about. The previous time I sailed with Groupama, they let me go below; I only noticed how the high-tech toilet looked more Spartan-like than one you'd find in a prison cell. Other than that, the cabin was crammed with bunks and the ultra-small stove. (For a discussion about the culture of secrecy in the VOR and America's Cup, see "Keeping Secrets" by Ken Read.)

We'll have to wait and see what role the boat's design plays in to the VOR, but there's no questioning the talent on board Groupama 4. After smashing the Jules Verne round-the-world record with the Groupama 3 multihull, Cammas sailed the same boat to victory in the Route Du Rhum solo transat last year, as well. Crew manager/helmsman/trimmer Damian Foxall is a a former round-the-world record holder, three-time VOR competitor, and winner of the Barcelona World Race in 2007. Thomas Coville, who recently attempted to break the round-the-world solo record and won the Jacques Vabre solo transat in 1999, will lend his skills as a helmsman and trimmer, as well. He'll apply his mechanical engineering training by looking after Groupama 4’s keel and hydraulics. The rest of the crew includes a number of transat and Fastnet winners and VOR veterans hailing from Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, France, and the United Kingdom.

I'm guessing that the 2011-'12 VOR will be extremely close. Even after my visit to Groupama’s base, having spoken with crew members and engineers, having seen how the boat sails in decent winds, I hesitate to make any claims about the prospect of Groupama becoming the first French team to win the race since 1986, back when it was the Whitbread Round the World Race. But based on what I've learned, I won't be betting against them, either. With their insurance-giant sponsor signed on through the next contest, you know Groupama's in it to win it.