The sailors and designers look to weather models to analyse what the race will look like, but the weather this edition was unlike any other year ever seen. A huge North Atlantic low called Storm Theta gave the fleet their first real obstacle to deal with. For those not pushing south hard, a large area of no wind that they had to endure meant they were left behind by the front runners. The Southern Ocean did not have its typical depressions to surf, often being frequented by high pressures allowing the fleet to compress.
Christmas witnessed an unusual sight of five boats all being becalmed within sight of each other in the Southern Ocean. Incredible footage seen and the chance for the sailors to not feel quite so isolated. I think it was these contrasts that made the windier conditions feel more extreme, as the sailors spoke of storms, but rarely saw any extreme wind speeds sustained in the South.
The communications have taken the race to a whole new level in this edition. The skippers could communicate by WhatsApp and even had their own chat groups to stay in touch and support each other. Back in 2008 when I was racing, we were still on dial up speeds and had only just transferred from tapes to digital video, it was painful. Technology not only allows the spectator to get a feel for the race from the sailor’s videos and interviews, but it also plays a super important role in the safety of the race.
Kevin Escoffier had to abandon his yacht, PRB, within minutes. He managed to grab his phone and send a WhatsApp saying; “I am sinking, No joke, Mayday.” This was critical in the race organisations knowledge and the team’s response to a serious incident and put the whole rescue mission into action.
While there is a media requirement within the race instructions, it can only come to life when a sailor is willing to share their adventure with the public. All the sailors have done an incredible job of sharing their race with the fans and the coverage of the race has grown as a result.
Boris Herrmann posted a video every day and took fans and media with him on his circumnavigation. This was the last one before the collision with the fishing trawler just 100 nautical miles from the finish.
The first non-french winner… not this time
Sadly, the race does not always have a fairy-tale ending and last week the race seemed to deliver its final blow. Boris Herrmann was poised to change history. He had the potential to top the podium and become the first non-French winner of the race in history. However, the race had a final sting in the tail for Boris.
Historically the race has often delivered a catastrophic blow to a sailor in the final miles. Mike Golding losing his keel in 2004 in the final few miles and had to sail to 3rd place without a keel. The same happened to Marc Guillemot in 2008. He sailed for 1000 miles to finish in 3rd place. In 2016, Conrad Coleman was dismasted in the final 700 miles and sailed to the finish line under a jury rig.
Now, this time, in this race, it was the turn of Boris Herrmann. Just 90 miles from the finish line he collided with a fishing boat. Lucky not to lose his rig, he limped home to 5th place becoming the first German to complete the Vendee Globe.
Lessons will have been learnt, notes will have been taken and jobs lists will have been made. The teams will de-brief, the skippers will download and the IMOCA class will address common and major issues collated from the fleet. Plans for what comes next will be made in time, but the priority is to allow the skipper to rest and recover.
Recuperation always takes longer than they think from this level of intensity in an endurance race of this nature. They have given everything and will be more tired than they think. They need time to process what they have just done and catch up with real life again. Only then can they turn their attention to where the future will take them next.