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Peter Stoneberg: My conversation with Elise Bakhoum, Groupama Team France wing manager

HOW DO YOU SAY "See you soon," in French? I ask because, after speaking with shore team wing manager Elise Bakhoum, this is likely not the last we will see of Groupama Team France in the Cup despite their elimination from the Louis Vuitton America's Cup Qualifier last week. So we will not say, Adieu.

Elise tells me that her team will remain in Bermuda to train with the other challengers and prepare for AC36, which, as skipper Franck Cammas said in Saturday's press conference, they hope will be in the same boats at the same venue.

"We expected to do better," Elise admits. "Very quickly we understood the level we were at and tried to stay realistic about that. Our challenge was to lose well and that's exactly what we did. We won two beautiful races and are very proud to have worked together. If Team France continues, we must continue like Artemis. If you don't play to win, don't play. You can play to learn, that's what we did this time, but next time we must play to win."

Two wins is a great indicator of the French team's potential, especially given that they are a team with fewer resources and capital than some of the others. But I wonder is this enough to bring in new sponsors and renewed support?

"I know Norauto will continue, Groupama will give an answer by the end of June, but our plan is to bring in international investors because we don't expect to find 12 million Euro in France. The good thing about our team is that we are really open to new people. Our design manager is German, the building manager is Argentinian, the shore team manager is Australian, and the skipper is French. We have a lot of strong people and we want to find that in sponsors as well."

When it comes to nature vs nurture, the French team struggled more with lack of resources in their environment rather than their Team Prada DNA. "The base of the design team is the former Prada AC team, which was really good because it meant we didn't have to start from zero, we started where Prada left off. All the designers are really modest and humble. It was a great fit."

Additionally, there were no signs of a weakened immune system in the shore team. "We didn't have a lot of long nights of repairs or re-designs. The strategy was to make a very sure boat that would not break because that is the one thing we can win with. Sometimes we sacrificed technical performance, but we didn't miss a single day of practice sailing in an entire year to fix an engineering problem."

I joke that maybe the Brits should take a lesson from the French after what we saw yesterday, the poor guys!

"Yes," Elise agrees. "The difference with BAR and us is that BAR wanted to bring the Cup home, we just wanted to do a good campaign. That's why I don't blame them, they pushed more than us. If you want to win you must push."

The young, knowledgable Frenchwoman also provided some insights into what may have gone wrong with BAR's wing camber. "Something similar happened to OTUSA during the last Cup, and it happened to us during the World Series in New York. When you round the buoy you put a lot of pressure on the rig and the boat crashed hard on the waves. So maybe it's more likely that the bows crashing caused the breakage than the breakage caused the bows to crash."

This reminds me of a great quote by Colin Chapman, engineer, inventor and founder of Lotus Cars that goes something like, "I've built the car too strong if it crosses the finish line and doesn't disintegrate."

Born in Italy and raised in Paris, Elise discovered the world of yacht racing later in life and moved to Brittany, where she lives now, to work on off-shore racing boats in the Vendee Globe and Volvo Ocean Race. When asked about the rumor that two giant foiling trimarans are being built she confirms, "they are very big, but the skippers have a lot of experience. The difficulty is not to foil, it's to not foil, because when sailing off-shore it can be dangerous. The goal is to design a foiler that doesn't always fly."

Thinking back to the time I sailed in the Transpac on John Sangmeister's LENDING CLUB when we hit a telephone pole in the middle of the Pacific, destroyed our center foil and spent 10 hours fixing it (which cost us the record), I shudder to imagine what it would be like for one of those giant foiling trimarans to hit a telephone pole, iceberg or other obstacle at 45 knots.

"I believe the target is 40 knots, maybe they'll go faster. But they'll train with a crew of 5 people or so, and work on improvements until it can be sailed single-handedly. It would probably take about 44 days in total. For sure the challenge is not to go fast, but to finish," Elise explains.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Peter Stoneberg is a life-long racing sailor who lives in the Bay Area. He's a multihull aficionado who currently owns the ProSail 40 SHADOW and is a former champ in the Farr 40 and other monohull classes. A past Commodore of St Francis Yacht Club, he also counts auto racing and fine wine as avocational pursuits. A car as well as boat buff, the only problem with his Tesla, he says, is where to plug it in. Peter is in Bermuda to enjoy the AC ambience, do a little J-Class racing, and to file the occasional story with SAILING ILLUSTRATED. Your Ed. and Peter go "way back," and I very much appreciate his reportage and texting all day with local color and the latest scoop. Also with thanks to Meg Ehman for helping to craft this article. –TFE

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