July 17, 2012

Known as the Everest of sailing, the Volvo Ocean Race is a grueling, around-the-world challenge in which a winner usually emerges early and remains in the lead.

But this time around, not so much. In fact, the finish was the closest in the race's 39-year history. And it came right down to the last two legs.

By the ninth and last leg of the nine-month, 39,270-nautical mile race held once every three years, the race locked into a tight fight with the lead boats -- Groupama, Puma and Camper -- competing for a scant few points in a neck-and-neck dash. It was anyone's race.

In the end, though, the French boat Groupama finishing second in the ninth leg -- a short 550-mile sprint into Galway, Ireland from Lorient, France -- earning the team 25 points, enough to secure their victory in the overall points race with 250 points.

Groupama was followed by Camper/ETNZ (Spain/New Zealand) with 226 points and Puma's Mar Mostro (U.S.) with 220 points. Telefonica (Spain) came in fourth with 209, followed by Abu Dhabi (UAE) 124 and Sanya (China) 40.

When Groupama skipper Franck Cammas sailed across the finish line, greeted with cheers from more than 100,000 people, he became the second French skipper to ever win the Volvo Ocean Race.

"This is an incredible moment for me," Cammas said at the race press conference. "It was always my dream just to participate in this race. The first book I ever read was about this race and it hasn't sunk in yet."

Like all the great contests, the Volvo Ocean Race began as a simple gentleman's challenge with square rigged clipper ships more than a century ago. Originally, it was not an overall race around the world, but a competition between vessels for the fastest time between ports. Commercial sailors raced along trade routes deep into the Southern Ocean and around the world's most dangerous capes. It was sailed for bragging rights.

Then came the idea of fully crewed yachts racing those same trade routes around the world. Finally in 1973, the first race -- then known as The Whitbread Around the World Race -- presented the most dangerous and challenging contest in the history of sailing.

In that very first race three competing sailors were lost after being washed overboard during storms. Professional sailors called for future Whitbread races to be cancelled. But the race continued, being staged every four years (until 2008-2009, which was held only three years after the '05 --'06 race). In 2001 the contest was given its current name, the Volvo Ocean Race, but professional sailors often just refer to it as the "Everest of Sailing."

Cammas was known in France as a top single-handed sailor and a team sailor, but was largely considered an outside threat to the fleet since it was the first time in 18 years that France competed in the race. At one stage, Cammas and his team were 28 points behind Telefonica, winners of the first three legs, but his crew dominated the second half of the race by capitalizing on clutch mistakes by other boats.

"The race started badly for us but every single member of the team raised their level and that's what saw us home," Cammas said after his win. "I think the secret was that we were outsiders at the beginning and we were forced to learn all the time."

That learning curve worked throughout the entire race.

"We had to learn to race against the best crews in the world and eventually it got easier," Cammas added. "We made mistakes at the start but all the time we tried to get better, right until the finish in Galway."

The destination port of Galway proved poignant for two Volvo Ocean Race sailors, Ireland's own Justin Slattery, a bowman on Abu Dhabi, and Damian Foxall, Groupama's helmsman and trimmer. Though Cammas jokes Foxall is the most French of the Groupama crew, Foxhall is from County Kerry and as Irish as they get. He joked about the condition sailing home.

"The Atlantic always has a surprise for us," Foxall told the Irish Prime Minister. "You go all the way around the world and sometimes the roughest, toughest stuff is off the west coast."

With the 39,000 nautical mile race over, Galway staged the final in-port race, the last of a series of races primarily for spectators, sponsors and television. The grim forecast of drizzles, mist and northerly winds didn't hold back the crowds of spectators as they swarmed prime viewing spots like Salthill's promenade, Mutton Island causeway or took to Galway Bay in every type of vessel known to man.

Puma's Mar Mostro, with crew wearing Irish rugby shirts, was first over the line, followed by the Spanish/New Zealand Camper and Spanish Telefonica.

"[The in-port race win] tastes very sweet," said Puma skipper Ken Read, who at 51 is the oldest sailor in the race. "To race against the best sailors in the world and come out on top is all we can ask for."

But in the end, after pushing themselves and their boat to the extremes, it was the Groupama team sailing home with the overall victory.

John Clarke covers sports, business and entertainment. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Variety, Rolling Stone, and ESPN. He covers sports, business and the Olympics for Forbes SportsMoney.

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