I’m back in the States now, having endured the indignity of the presidential election results while in France, and finally have a moment to drop a word or two about the actual start of the Vendée Globe. This was almost a week ago now, and I’m still sort of buzzing from the experience. There really is nothing that compares to this in the sport of sailing.
As I mentioned, the day before the start access to the main dock is much more restricted, and it was possible for me to loiter a bit and inspect the boats in a bit more detail.
Flags flying madly the day before the start
Alex Thomson exposes himself to prying cameras in front of the Great Black Beast Hugo Boss
Are you really sailing solo if you take a dog along???
Mainsheet controls on Gitana 16, a new boat with J-foils. The sheet and vang are both behind the rudder had and are only a few feet apart. The lines and blocks used also look remarkably light to me. I saw similar arrangements on other new boats
Spares waiting to be loaded aboard. The biggest bag is for electrical stuff
Seven of the 29 boats in the fleet are carrying the new J-foils. Maître CoQ, sailed by Jérémie Beyou, is the only older boat (she was built in 2010) with retro-fitted foils. Her foils, seen here, are also the only ones with little auxiliary fins on them. I assume these are to provide more lift to windward (as opposed to lift out of the water). I do not know if they were deemed necessary due to retrofitting limitations. The actual work of fitting the foils, removing the old daggerboard cases and installing new cases for the foils, must have been very challenging
No Way Back is the only new boat fitted with J-foils being sailed by an unsponsored Corinthian. Originally built for an Italian campaign that ran out of money, the boat was picked up by a wealthy Dutch businessman, Pieter Heerema, age 65, who has a great deal of experience racing Dragons and RC44s, but very little singlehanded ocean-racing experience. I admire his gumption, but if I were him I would have chosen a more optimistic name for the boat
All the boats now carry a pair of hydro-generators, and one of the big chores for most of the teams was sorting out recent updates for the software that controls these units. They are by far the dominant alternative-energy source on modern Vendée boats. Solar arrays are generally small, and only a couple of boats carry wind generators. Installations like this one, with the hydro drive leg sliding up and down on a track, seem the easiest to manage. Installations with pivoting legs looked much more complicated
One of the feel-good stories on the dock was that Conrad Colman, sailing a shoestring-funded green-energy boat (no fossil fuels onboard), found a title sponsor at the very last minute. Here you see the new stickers in boxes in his cockpit that rebranded his boat, originally named 100% Natural Energy, as Foresight Natural Energy just 24 hours before the start
The fleet’s only Spanish competitor, Didac Costa, is sailing Ellen MacArthur’s famous old Kingfisher, originally launched in 2000 and now named One Planet One Ocean. Costa, 35, is a Barcelona firefighter on sabbatical. Unfortunately, his boat was struck by lightning just weeks before the start and he had to reassemble his electrical and electronic systems at the last minute. Then during the start, he had an onboard ballast-tank plumbing crisis, which drowned the new electrical system. He had to turn back immediately to sort out the problem and restarted days later after receiving lots of volunteer help from other race crews and local French firefighters
Brian Harris, the only American I know of who ever earned a living preparing Open 60s to race, stands beside the very first boat he ever worked on, Josh Hall’s old Gartmore, which was launched in 1998 and is one of the oldest boats in this year’s fleet. She is also one of the simplest, with a fixed keel and no daggerboards. She now is sailing as faceOcean and is skippered by Sebastien Destremau, age 52, who is racing in his first Vendée Globe
The night before the start I had dinner with Brian and his family and afterwards spent a few moments in this appropriately festooned church, where earlier there had been a blessing-of-the-fleet ceremony
The morning of the start found the last edition’s winner, François Gabart, giving a TV interview in the race village’s open-air studio. Gabart posted a race record last time, circling the globe in 78 days, and now sails a 100-foot trimaran
The race boats peeled off the dock one by one on a rigorous schedule. This is Rich Wilson, on Great American IV, waving to the crowd (he’s the one in the white bibs steering) as he heads out at 9:54 exactly
The crowd lining the canal that led from the marina to the open sea numbered over 300,000 people
Spectator boats (but not necessarily helicopters) were kept well away from the pre-start area. Competing boats were allowed to have full crews aboard until 5 minutes before the start. At 4 minutes to go only the skipper can be aboard. Conditions were ideal, with 15 knots of breeze from the north-northwest blowing straight on the beam
Once the gun sounded the spectator boats could go wherever they wanted and the waters off Les Sables d’Olonne, in spite of the perfect conditions, quickly became a vast stew of choppy boat wakes
I was on one of several small ferries that were being used as press boats. We were fed lunch and were much more comfortable than the maniacs buzzing around in RIBs. The wind was moderate enough that we were able to keep pace with the race boats no problem. We chased them out to sea for almost an hour, then turned around after one woman started screaming her brains out. I never did find out why she was screaming, but presumably she was OK, as there were no medical people waiting for us when we reached shore again
This should give an idea of how crazy those RIB guys were
And more madness
Of course I have been following the race closely since the start and now just six days after leaving Les Sables the lead boats are jetting past the Cape Verde Islands far to the south and are setting up to cross the equator. The foiling boats have performed strongly, but so far have not been absolutely dominant.
This is the lead group, now sailing with the northeast trades on their port quarter. Of these seven boats two are running with daggerboards instead of foils–PRB (the orange boat here), sailed by veteran Vincent Riou (this is his fourth start), and SMA (the white boat), sailed by Paul Meilhat (making his first start). The current leader (enlarged blue boat) is Armel Le Cleac’h, the pre-race favorite, aboard Banque Populaire. Alex Thomson, on Hugo Boss (the grey boat) is running a hot second, having picked up five places since yesterday. Thomson, age 42, is making his fourth start and wants badly to become the first non-Frenchman to win the race
Rich Wilson’s Great American IV (the enlarged white boat in this shot) has just passed the Canaries and is currently in 21st place