The 9th edition of the Vendee Globe has been epic. Taking place every four years, this edition faced its own challenges, but the magic of this special race was not lost. Departures and arrivals took place behind closed doors and permission had to be granted for the chosen few to break curfew so they could celebrate the intrepid sailors’ accomplishments after 80 days at sea.
8 competitors finished in under 24 hours and Benjamin Dutreux arriving in 9th place finished within 38 hours of the first boat. In comparison, the last edition of the race, in 2016, had the first nine boats arrive over the course of 19 days!
The Vendee Globe organisation worked flat out to accommodate the finishers and welcome them in through the infamous channel at the fishing port of Les Sables D’Olonne. The VIP arrival dock with the red carpet had the organisation, the sponsors, the team, and close family members offering the skipper an emotional and intimate reunion. Smiles, hugs, and champagne flowed. The skipper was then whisked off to a press conference streamed live with simultaneous translation, a clear indication of how international this race has become.
In true style, typical of the Bay of Biscay in the depths of winter, the weather wanted to remind us of the difficult conditions the sailors have endured throughout their 80 plus days on the water. It delivered rain and strong winds that increased over the weekend. The storm was so strong that 11th place Armel Tripon waited out the depression off the coast of Portugal before he entered the Bay of Biscay. He made his way to the finish line and arrived on early Monday, closely followed by Clarisse Cremer making her the first female to finish the Vendee Globe in 12th place.
Now we also feel exhausted
As is often typical with offshore sailing races, most of the finishes have been during the night and the boats have often had to wait outside the harbour before they could enter due to the tide. This has not stopped what has been a finishing spectacle for all of us to follow, no matter where our current COVID travel restrictions have allowed us to be. I was not in Les Sables D’Olonne for the arrivals but gave the commentary for the first five boats from a shed in the depths of the UK. Despite being so far away I was able to feel the emotion of each sailor and the pride each team had welcoming home their heroes.
Having been there myself I guess it helped, as I had a rush of memories and emotions come flooding back to me from my arrival in February 2009. I have shed a tear for each arrival. Every sailor has touched their fans on an emotional level, they all have their own story to tell, and what a drama that has been, keeping us captivated for 81 days.
I am exhausted for them and yet, it is only now we are seeing the true extent of what they have been dealing with on their boats as we see the damage and hear the stories of all the issues each boat faced. To finish this race is a win, as we know not everybody achieves that. They deserve their glory and the accolades that accompanies such an achievement.
Highest number of boats ever to finish
This edition of the Vendee Globe will go down in history as the greatest ever race. The race has the highest number of boats ever to finish at 75%, this includes those still racing as I write. There are 9 nationalities making the race truly international, but the aim should be to improve on that. The race had six female sailors competing, itself a record and there are four whom remain racing which remains a record. The race saw a dramatic rescue carried out with success and great seamanship.
Also, for the first time ever the race had the first five boats pointing at the finish line and no way of telling who would win. The complexity of the finish times, with a time compensation awarded to three sailors, by the International Jury on December 16th for being part of the rescue of Kevin Escoffier on PRB when it sank, having the potential to shuffle the finish results. A Hollywood director could not have written a better script.
The rules are extremely simple
The Vendee Globe film plot is simple, to sail around the world solo, without stopping and without assistance. If we look at the race as if it were a film plot, we can follow the same stages. First comes the exposition; allowing us to meet the 33 skippers that crossed the start line. We learnt about the sailor, their experience, and their boats. Then next stage of the film is conflict. Each sailor faced storms, the areas of no wind, the intense heat of the doldrums and then the cold of the Southern Ocean.
Then the film delivers its rising action, sailors battling their technical issues, the sailors having their dreams crushed by retiring from the race, a boat sinking, mast climbs, lead changes. But unlike a normal film plot there is not any sign of any decrease in the action. The battle for the win was the climax of the race and this went all the way to the finish line with continuous action.
Even now, with some of the fleet still racing there remain small battles continuing with boats that have been sailing together. Now after 80 days, there has been the resolution of the film. The climax played out last week as the sailors finished and the ranking decided. But we could never have predicted the outcome. The film has been a real cliffhanger!
The order the boats finished, is not how they sit on the leader board. Some people may feel conflicted about this, however with the rescue time compensation being decided back in December and the rescue incident itself taking place on the 30th and 31st November 2020, no one could have predicted that it would influence the overall standings to the extent that it has.
The sailors that have finished, have been asked about the time compensation and have all categorically supported the redress, agreeing that we need to support the unwritten law of the sea that a sailor goes to a fellow sailor’s aid if asked and when required. After all a sailor’s life was saved and it was a team effort that made that possible.
A search pattern in strong winds
The seamanship required to carry out a search pattern in strong winds and waves of the Southern Ocean is testing both physically and mentally. Jean Le Cam managing to locate the life raft and then carry out the recovery of Kevin Escoffier is outstanding and was rightly acknowledged by the President of France, Emmanuel Macron on a video call.
To manage an IMOCA slowly and under control in a sea state and wind is difficult, add to that the darkness and the fact that you are looking for a friend and the stress levels rise exponentially. Boris Herrmann and Yannick Bestaven even stated that it took them some time to get over the ordeal and get their mind back on the race again. It was an early decision from the International Jury, but I can understand why that was necessary. It avoids any unconscious bias when awarding the time, as they had no means of knowing the affect it would have on the overall rankings at the end.
Advantage through technology?
From the start of the race, there was a discussion on the speed of the foiling boats against their older and presumed slower counterparts. The expectation was that records would be broken, and amazing speeds achieved. It is a fact that the new foiling boats are between 10% and 15% quicker than a standard daggerboard boat, but the sea state and angle of the waves has a big impact on these boats being able to be sailed at 100% of their potential.
The foiling boats were having to throttle back when the standard daggerboard boats could continue to push at 100%. I feel this race has possibly opened the eyes of any young sailors with aspirations to race in the Vendee Globe. Realising that it is not necessary to have the newest boat and the biggest budget to be competitive in the race.
Big budget campaigns are no guarantee to win
Race favourites Alex Thomson with Hugo Boss and Jeremie Beyou with Charal, were both big budget campaigns and new boats topped to be race winners. Alex was out of the race before the first Great Cape and Jeremie was forced to return to the start and find the resolve and resilience to start again nine days after everyone else. Nicolas Troussel with Corum and Armel Tripon with L’Occitane en Provence were both launched late with little preparation time.
Nicolas was sadly dismasted at the Cape Verde Islands and Armel had rig issues which he stopped to fix off the Spanish coast causing him to miss a weather system that never allowed him to catch up in the race.
Sam Davies on Initiative Coeur and Sebastien Simon on Arkea Paprec were both forced to retire into Cape Town. Sam decided to complete the racecourse to continue her charity work raising funds to save children’s lives by providing much needed heart surgery in France. The leader board shows the array of boats clearly. In the top 8 boats that finished within 24 hours of each other, there are two new boats, four modified foiling boats built in 2015 from the last race and two daggerboard boats built in 2007.
I think this illustrates that reliability of the boat, experience of the sailor with that boat are key and that there is no right or wrong way to participate in the Vendee Globe.
I send, therefore I am
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.
Communication on a new level
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.