Of all the historic capes in this race, Finisterre is definitely the least well known. Located on the northwestern end of the Iberian peninsula, it is a beautiful rocky outcropping that juts out dramatically into the Atlantic Ocean. Overseen by a 53 foot high white lighthouse and an accompanying two story house built in 1853, the name Finisterre is a derivative of Latin meaning “the end of the Earth” and, to no surprise, Romans believed it was truly the end of the world.
For Vendee racers, however, the cape is the beginning, the first major landmark they will pass on their way around the world. Their journey from Finisterre past the Azores, the Canaries, and the Cape Verde Islands southward to the Cape of Good Hope is their first chance for both the boats and sailors to stretch their legs and find their literal and metaphorical footing over these first 6,000 nautical miles. With milder weather, closer harbors, and a tight, bunched up fleet, the journey south through the Atlantic is a chance to make repairs before entering the far more treacherous Southern Ocean. Historically, a good portion of the fleet will not make it past the Cape of Good Hope to the south, choosing instead to abandon the race due to mechanical failures or other issues with their boats.
The Atlantic leg is dominated by a few key hydrography features. The North Atlantic in November has strong trade winds which provide a steady breeze. Sailors can expect good, fast sailing. As they move toward the equator, the Doldrums, a wavering band of extraordinarily light air that has vexed mariners since the invention of sailing, await.
Further south and to the east lies the St Helena High, a stable but meandering stretch of high pressure that plays a key role in shaping the weather in the Southern Atlantic. With consistent strong southerly winds along the African coast, most racers tend to veer westward in the Atlantic and draw a big swooping arc southward to Good Hope.
The Cape itself is a fierce obstacle. Strong currents rolling down the eastern coast of Africa collide with Atlantic currents sweeping down the western coast, creating strong contrary currents and fierce seas. These currents act like a vacuum, sucking in debris from both oceans and concentrating it beneath the cape. Unidentified Floating Objects (UFOs) can be anything from pieces of wrecked boats to entire cargo containers which have fallen off ships. The latter is especially dangerous as the 40 ft sheet metal containers can take more than a month to sink and can often linger just beneath the surface of the water for weeks on end, relatively invisible to the naked eye and impossible to see from the deck of a sailboat. With over 1,500 containers a year going overboard, the risk of a collision is much higher than you might think.
For spectators, the Atlantic leg is the time to get to know the individual racers. My flimsy grasp of the French language means that, despite satellite broadband connections, about three quarters of both the racers and the race coverage is hard for me to follow. There is some great English language coverage of the race provided by sailing websites and Youtubers, but the truth is that I’m following the Vendee Globe because of one man – Alex Thomson.
Alex is a character. He’s someone you want to root for. He’s maybe the best or second-best known sailor in the world, brushing shoulders with people like F1 driver Lewis Hamilton and appearing on the cover of GQ. Millions of people have watched his “keel walk,” “mast walk,” and “sky walk” stunt videos on Youtube. He’s known as an aggressive sailor who pushes his boats hard. When he was 25 he became the youngest skipper to win the Clipper Round the World Race and has twice set the 24 hour distance record for sailing.
Yet, despite his humble-yet-proud demeanor, Alex hasn’t actually won that much. He had to abandon his first two Vendee races. In 2004 and 2008 he did significant damage to his hull and rigging. In the 2012 edition, Alex finally broke through, finishing third. He followed that up in 2016 by finishing second despite breaking one of his two foils 13 days into the race. Even beyond the Vendee, he has a spotty record. Mostly either placing well or abandoning races, I think Alex feels like he has a lot to prove in this iteration of the Vendee. After all, he is incredibly well financed and he’s coming off a second place finish. This is the year he would break through, right? This is the year he would become the first non-French skipper to ever win the race.
Alex’s magnetic personality is what drew me into the race and, if it weren’t for him, I’d have no idea that the Vendee even existed, so as the fleet continues its westward path from Les Sables D’Olonne I am focused on the black and pink icon representing Alex and his boat.
The first five days of racing have been a fascinating display of tactics, seamanship, and endurance as the fleet has mostly been sailing upwind to the west. I’ve watched the tracker as the fleet has fanned out from Les Sables D’Olonne like fireworks shot out of a cannon. Colored lines zigzag across one another and have sharp twists and bends that tell the story of the opening days of the race — frequent laborious sail changes, fickle changing wind, and a clear lack of rest and sleep. Each line each moves independently of the others, but they all roughly follow a northwestward path, looping southward after a few hundred miles. Some of these lines are mavericks, turning and maneuvering outside of the boundaries of the bulk of the fleet. At the end of each line is a little sailboat icon representing each racer’s current position.
To say the wind has been problematic for the racers over the first two weeks would be an understatement. First coming directly from the west and then from the south, Alex, Boris, Pip, and the rest of the fleet are forced to beat, bash, and drive their boats into the wind and into the accompanying waves. This type of sailing is exhausting and slow with the boats taking on a violent motion as the waves slap and slam against the hull. At angles this close to the wind, foils are useless and the fleet moves at a relative crawl. Shifty winds keep sailors on high alert, forcing frequent course corrections and sail changes. Sleep is either non-existent or a quick 15 minutes when the seas are calm enough to trust the autopilot.
A surprise squall on November 11th brought confused seas and 50 knot winds, damaging boats across the fleet, including to pre-race favorite Jeremie Beyou aboard Charal. Leading the race for the first two days, he suffers a cascading set of failures. First, a sheet block (a pulley through which a line passes) snapped off the back of his boat, spraying carbon fiber throughout the cabin. Going below to fix the problem, Charal hit something in the water hard enough that it turned the boat, bringing the back of the boat through the wind and, in the process, violently slamming the boom across the boat in a process called a crash-jibe. Jeremie was lucky, suffering no immediate damage from the unexpected jibe. Jibes (passing the stern of the boat through the wind to change direction) are considered risky maneuvers even when they are controlled; unexpected jibes often result in destroyed rigging, ripped sails, or capsize.
Whatever he hit, it damaged his starboard rudder. After a night spent waiting for more favorable winds so he could begin repairs, one of the two backstays (lines which hold the mast up) snapped. It had likely been damaged by the block failure or the crash-jibe. The damage was too severe for Jeremie to attempt to fix at sea so he turned his boat around and began the 600 nautical mile crawl back to Les Sables D’Olonne, where he would be allowed to tie up to one of several mooring balls and can re-enter the race as long as he departs by November 19th.
Jeremie’s damaged boat and his return to France underscores how difficult the opening three days of the race have been, with the fleet now stretched out over nearly 700 nautical miles of the Atlantic Ocean creating a line approximately parallel to Lisbon at its northernmost end and Marrakesh to the south, with the bulk of the fleet positioned between the Canary Islands and the Azores. Unfortunately, difficulties would continue.
While Jeremie heads north, the remaining 32 boats turn their attention toward tropical storm Theta which the front of the fleet will collide with in the next 24 hours. Of course, the sailors have been watching this storm system develop in the middle of the Atlantic for the last two days
For the front half of the fleet, led by Alex Thomson, Jean Le Cam, and Thomas Ruyant, they will have to handle the full throated power of Theta. Spanning over 250 miles and cruising southwestward at 10 knots between the Canary Islands and the Azores, the storm brings winds in excess of 50 knots and waves as high as a two story building. Yet, hidden in this terrifying maelstrom many of the leading boats sense opportunity; opportunity to outfox their competitors, take more risk, and use the power of the storm to catapult themselves into the first substantial lead of the race.
During that day’s video stream from the fully enclosed black and pink carbon cockpit of Hugo Boss, Alex Thomson reiterates this logic. “There are very few chances to take the lead in the Vendee… and when you have them, you have to exploit them,” he says directly into the camera. A second later the video shifts and Alex pokes his head out of his fully enclosed cockpit via a hatch on the starboard side of his boat. “Three miles that way is Thomas [Ruyant],” he said pointing back and behind him. The camera shifts to the port side of the boat and, once again, Alex’s head pops out of a hatch. Pointing behind him and to his left, he said “And four miles that way is Jean [Le Cam].”
With everyone so bunched up, now is the time to seize the lead, but such risks must be balanced against the challenge of keeping your boat in one piece. With attrition that nears 50%, most often the winner is the skipper who suffers the least amount of damage and a storm with as much energy as Theta is a true risk to the integrity of these racing machines. The beauty of the next 24 hours will be watching the knife’s edge on which the boats operate, attempting to get close enough to the storm’s center to get the ideal amount of wind while not straying too far into the danger zone of ultra-high wind and waves closer to the eye of the storm.
Big storms like Theta are not uniformly powerful or destructive. Just like a whirlpool, they’re weaker around the edges and exponentially more violent as you near the center until you get to the eye — an odd place of calm surrounded by chaos. The place no sailor wants to be is in the northeast quadrant of Theta. Hurricanes north of the equator rotate counterclockwise and, for reasons that are beyond my understanding of meteorology, tend to have the strongest winds and steepest waves between 12 and 3 oclock. Instead, the fleet has positioned itself to pass behind the eye of the storm. With favorable winds (which will come from the north) this path not only ensures that the sailors miss the worst of the wind, but also that as the storm continues its eastward course, it will be moving away from the path of their boats.
As Alex, Boris, Jean Le Cam, and the other boats in the front half of the fleet prepare for the ferocity of the storm, those farther back will have the opposite problem. In the wake of big storms like Theta there is often stillness. Like a battery running low, the atmosphere has given all of its energy and power to Theta, leaving little breeze for the sailors who will have to traverse the ocean in the storm’s wake. So, not only does Theta represent a chance for a race leader to emerge, it also threatens to completely split the fleet into two groups with the current leaders surging ahead on the power of the storm while the rearguard falls farther behind and off the pace.
As the day wears on and the boats continue to surge southward, conditions deteriorate. While the waves remain a modest six to seven feet early in the day, they build to nearly 16 feet and, worse, the period between them shortens. Instead of long, rolling waves coming every minute or two these are sharp and short, with each successive wave coming within seconds of the previous. The result is a series of non-stop slamming impacts on the boat as it surges southward through the storm. The waves are so frequent and tall that the decks of the ships are constantly awash in foamy white sea, making it impossible to tell where the ocean ends and the boat begins. The noise inside of the cabins becomes a deafening roar as the winds increase in speed, howling through the rigging with a demonic and somewhat taunting tone. The boats creak and grumble as they are flexed, stretched, and smashed by Theta’s ferocity.
The next day, Alex will describe the conditions he and Jean Le Cam experienced as “potentially boat-breaking.” Sailing closest to the eye of the storm, these two sailors were subjected to even more intensity than the rest of the fleet who remained further west. While sustained wind speeds were forecasted to be in the 35 – 40 knot range, they topped out closer to 50 with gusts as high as 60. Waves peaked at nearly 23 feet high. Enduring these conditions, however, meant fewer miles sailed while also being slingshotted southward out of the storm via its strong north-north westerly winds.
When Alex reappears on his video stream the next day, he looks elated and exhausted. There’s a joyful cadence to his voice as he shouts over the roar of the boat — he’s done it. He entered Theta with a 20 mile lead and departed it with nearly a 100 mile lead over everyone except fellow risk-taker Jean Le Cam. Perhaps because Jean Le Cam took this same boat around the world in the 2016 Vendee, he felt more comfortable subjecting the boat to even more extreme conditions than what Alex experienced. Either way, these two boats benefited greatly, cementing a lead over the rest of the fleet from which they can now dictate the pace and course of the race through the southern Atlantic.
The remainder of the fleet wasn’t nearly so bold or so lucky. For the majority of the leading boats, the crossing was rough but safe. Charlie Dalin traversed Theta about 90 miles west from Alex and Jean’s position and the others like Clarisse Cremer, Kevin Escoffier, Boris Herrmann, Sebastien Destremau chose routes between Charlie and Alex. Clarisse, a first-time Vendee participant but a 25 year old rising star in the sport later admits that Theta, “freaked [her] out.” Outside of minor damage and one water-rushing-into-the-boat scare that awoke Kevin Escoffier from a quick nap (the seacock which failed was stopped up and the water drained over the next few hours), Theta was a very bumpy, scary, but ultimately safe ride for everyone up front.
For the trailing part of the fleet, Theta’s wake left little wind in which to operate. While the head of the pack reported ideal conditions and sustained wind speeds of 20+ knots in the days following Theta, wind speeds between the Azores and Canaries remained under 10 knots, limiting the speed of foiling and non-foiling boats and further separating the fleet. That doesn’t mean they were spared excitement. Louis Burton aboard Bureau Vallée 2 was forced to bring out saws, epoxy, and pre-cut carbon fiber boards to repair a structural bulkhead in his boat that was damaged previously during the first low pressure system the fleet encountered. Despite the successful repair, Burton admitted “I’m apprehensive the next time we go upwind in heavy seas.”
Frustration at the back of the fleet becomes palpable as Armel Tripon, in 27th place aboard his black and yellow L’Occitaine laments “three days of wandering aimlessly in this calm is galling. Each ranking shows the situation getting worse. The rich are getting richer but here at the back we are still chomping at the bit.”
The strong reaching conditions which propelled the front of the fleet due south toward Brazil turned on November 16th, becoming another violent and unexpected squall. Five days after Theta, the fleet is once again subjected to huge waves and seas, with 60 – 70 knot sustained winds howling at the boats for nearly 12 hours.
With winds this fierce, the sailors deeply reefed their sales (that is, reduced the area by making them smaller). These reefs are held in place by lines which are cleated off in the cockpit and can reduce the size of the mainsail by as much as 70%. Alex, sailing under his third reef, almost lost his entire mainsail when the cleat holding the reef slipped. Suddenly, the sail worked its way free and started to violently flap in the huge breeze. Making what I imagine is a terrifying noise, this situation is extraordinarily dangerous. Not only can it cause the entire boat to broach (capsize), but the sail itself is at risk. With no replacement on board, a torn mainsail would end Alex’s 2020 Vendee after less than two weeks at sea.
While Alex managed to wrestle the sail back onboard with no damage, others were less fortunate. The tracker shows the turquoise blue line of Corum, the seventh place boat skippered by Nicolas Troussel, perform a 360 and then make a sharp turn straight for the Cape Verde Islands. Plagued with earlier autopilot troubles, Nicholas had been cruising for three days at 25+ knots slowly gaining on the race leaders. On the night of November 16th, however, the violence of the unexpected storm brought Nicolas’ mast crashing down onto the deck, leaving him unable to continue southward. Unhurt, but unable to continue, Corum now slowly limped toward the Cape Verde islands, the first boat to officially drop out of the 2020 Vendee Globe.
Outside of this one squall, the sailing after Theta has been ideal and conditions remain good for the next few days of sailing toward the equator. Strong winds push the boats along at 20+ knots, those with foils lifting almost completely out of the water and propelling themselves to nearly 30 knots. These are the conditions IMOCAs are designed to flourish in and video streams from all the sailors show long streaming white wakes blasting away from the back of each boat, drawing a crisp white line through the deep blue of the ocean. You can hear the excitement in each skipper’s voice and even the boats themselves look happy and content. Conditions are so ideal that both Charlie Dalin and Thomas Ruyant cover nearly 500 miles in a single day, coming just short of setting a new 24 hour distance record and winnowing Alex Thomson’s lead to a mere 34 nautical miles as they approach the equator.
Waiting at the equator is a meandering band of calm air known as the Doldrums and crossing them quickly depends equally on a strong understanding of weather systems, forecasting, and dumb luck. While many of us associate the equator with rum-spiked drinks, white sand beaches, and beautiful sunsets, the equator is feared among sailors for its exceptionally erratic weather. With the sun directly overhead for most of the day, the air at this latitude is heated uniformly, creating stretches of ocean with little to no apparent wind. Because of the heat, the Doldrums can also produce intense squalls and violent thunderstorms seemingly out of nowhere and, for most of maritime history, they were more than an annoyance. Sitting on a glass-surfaced ocean for weeks on end, crews would run out of food and water, sometimes never to be heard from again.
With modern weather routing and engines in case of a true emergency, the Doldrums may no longer be a physical danger to sailors, but for those intent on winning the Vendee Globe the area around the equator is where leads can either completely evaporate as boats get stuck in pockets of no wind or be extended for hundreds of miles by a favorable breeze. Looking at the upcoming weather data, the Doldrums are mostly the dark blue color associated with wind under 5 knots. Yet, as I scrolled through the next 72 hours wisps of light blue, green, and even yellow began to appear. Running north to south, these temporary pockets of heavier air caused by highly localized variations in temperature are temporary bridges which pop in and out of existence on an hour by hour basis.
On November 18th, only two days after Corum dropped out and a day after Jeremie’s return to the race, Alex Thomson and Hugo Boss cross the equator. The forecasts have been favorable, with large patches of stronger wind propelling the the front half of the fleet into the Southern Atlantic Ocean, effectively splitting the fleet. The first 15 boats are within 500 nautical miles of each other, while the last 15 are anywhere from 600 to 1,700 nautical miles back.
There isn’t much time to celebrate, however, as the Southern Atlantic is far more chaotic than usual. Passing within a few hundred miles of the coast of Brazil, prodding and probing their way south, the leaders now start looking for a path into the strong westerly breezes of the Southern Ocean. Standing in their way is the St Helena High, an area of high pressure centered on the tiny Atlantic island of St Helena, most famous for being the location of Napoleon’s second and final exile from Europe. This high pressure system stretches hundreds of miles in each direction and, usually, plays a traffic cop role. It keeps southerly wind off the coast of Africa away from northerly running down the coast of South America, but in 2020 this all seems to be in disarray. Instead of nice northerly breezes that will let these boats reach and run downwind as they had prior to the equator, the Southern Atlantic is relatively still with only patches of wind.
Winding the forecasts forward and backward, it becomes clear that there are going to be two likely routes into the Southern Ocean and who will be in the lead as the boats steer past the Cape of Good Hope rests largely on which of these routes they choose. What the sailors and I are looking at is a strong persistent “ridge” in the forecast, an area of persistent high pressure that has little to no wind. Like a small mountain range, sailors either have to choose to go north of the barrier or pass to its south. With neither route appearing decisively better than the other, this decision will come down to reading the metaphorical tea leaves and hoping that you’ve chosen correctly.
The choice is simple. Taking the northern route will mean traveling fewer miles and the fewer miles you sail, the faster you arrive at your destination. However, the northern route’s wind isn’t predicted to be strong. The southern route boasts stronger (but not very strong) winds, but will require those following it to take a more southerly route for longer, leading to a larger eastward turn toward the Cape of Good Hope.
By the morning of November 22nd, the boats had already started to make their turn toward Africa, with their courses moving from 180 degrees to about 130 degrees, creating a long graceful curving line on the tracker. Alex Thomson no longer holds the lead, relinquishing it by about 40 nautical miles to Thomas Ruyant. Charlie Dalin nips at Alex’s heels. With the rest of the fleet ~250 nautical miles back, the choice to pass north or south of this ridge will likely break the virtual tie between the three leading boats.
I check the tracker throughout the day, but it’s unclear who has chosen which route and, with the high pressure ridge rapidly approaching I think the three leaders may have all chosen the northern route. There’s a saying in sailing that “it’s better to be lucky alone and unlucky together.” In this situation, the least risky thing for the three leading boats to do is to follow one another. They’ll all experience roughly the same weather and it’s unlikely major miles will be gained or lost. On the other hand, taking the route your fellow competitors don’t take means that if the forecasts are wrong (and they almost always are) you could get a lucky break by yourself which could catapult you into the lead.
It’s not until late in the evening that the die is cast. Hugo Boss makes a sharp southward correction while LinkedOut and Apivia continue on their more northerly course. Fitting his personality, Alex has taken the high risk, high reward path and, as the rest of the fleet passes the same point other racers are faced with the same decision. The ever-practical Jean Le Cam stays even further north than Thomas Ruyant and Charlie Dalin and the rest of the fleet chooses to follow Alex, heading southward and hoping to catch the big winds of the Southern Ocean sooner.
It’s clear, however, something isn’t completely right with Alex’s boat. Less than a week after his triumphant slingshot out of Theta, Alex’s course takes an unexpected wobble on the tracker. While he does put his boat on a more southerly course, his speed drops precipitously. His course remains somewhat erratic. My first thought is that he’s caught in light wind, but the breeze, blowing about 12 knots, is more than enough for him to be moving faster than the 6 knots he’s currently doing. The boats who followed Alex south surge past him, with Samantha Davis aboard the red and white Initiatives Cœur, Yannick-Bestaven aboard the red and black Maître-CoQ IV, and Louis Burton aboard Bureau Vallee 2 all blowing by a suddenly foundering Alex Thomson.
Later that evening, his team released a statement — “Yesterday evening (Saturday 21st November), while Alex was carrying out a routine inspection onboard HUGO BOSS, he spotted what he believed to be some structural damage in the bow area of the boat.” Alex is slowing the boat down so he can affect repairs. Later, Alex himself appears on Youtube. Wearing a headlamp and not perched in his enclosed cockpit, Alex explains that something in the boat “didn’t feel right” and after poking around he found a problem, specifically a structural problem in the bow of his boat. “It’s fairly significant,” he says with his typical British even-keeled demeanor. Crawling forward through a tiny hole in the main bulkhead of his boat, Alex shows us the damage. There are bulkheads running horizontally across Hugo Boss and one giant support structure that runs down the middle. This middle structure is cracked in four different places and completely delaminated from the hull in another. The damage is circled with a white marker which stands out sharply against the black carbon fiber of the boat as Alex somberly explains that he’s been in touch with his engineering team and will attempt to make a repair.
It’s hard to say what caused this damage. Maybe it was a structural flaw in the boat that went unidentified because of the shortened race prep time thanks to COVID 19. Maybe Theta or the follow-up storm which Alex so masterfully navigated took a bigger toll on Hugo Boss than we all thought. Either way, Alex has turned the deck of his boat into a workshop and is frantically cutting, epoxying, and bracing the boat.
Under most circumstances, this type of multi-day repair would be a disaster for a sailor who had aspirations of winning the Vendee Globe. Fortunately for Alex, the conditions are relatively benign. With less than 10 knots of wind, not only is his boat a safe, stable platform on which to work, but his rivals cannot put serious miles between themselves and him. So, despite the unbelievable heat and humidity in the forward compartment of his boat where he’s forced to work, he is in no danger. The work is grueling. Cutting carbon fiber, mixing epoxy, and laying it all up so it can cure is a frustratingly time-consuming process that fills the cabin of the boat with the awful smell of epoxy. With no one else aboard, Alex has to turn to video calls with his team to ensure the repairs are made correctly and, worst of all, epoxy takes about 12 hours to cure meaning that large portions of Alex’s time are spent literally watching paint dry.
As Alex races to reassemble his boat on the fly, the fleet roars past him. Thomas Ruyant and Charlie Dalin race out to a nearly 300 mile lead over 3rd place boat Jean Le Cam with Kevin Escoffier, Yanick Besthaven, Samantha Davis, and Louis Burton all nipping at their heels. While light winds prevent the lead boats from truly pulling away from Alex, he’s still falling behind by about 240 nautical miles for every day. Each evening, when the Vendee reports the position and distance behind the leader to all of the racers must have been painful as Alex found himself further and further behind. Every time I look at the tracker and Alex’s boat I hope to see speeds return to the 15+ knot range, but the fastest I see him go is about 4 knots as he drifts along with the currents.
On November 24th, at the end of two long days spent bobbing around the southern Atlantic Ocean, Alex makes his triumphant return to the race. These repairs have kept him cooped up and, like a middle schooler sprinting home after the last day of school, he blasts back into the race. His face lights up on his update that day as the wind is finally blowing and Hugo Boss is chugging along. His position could certainly be worse. He only trails Charlie Dalin by 600 miles and remains in 11th place. It’s entirely possible that he can still claw his way back in front and become the first non-French skipper to win this race. His video that day is taken from the foredeck of Hugo Boss and a smiling Alex shows his viewers the black sails of his boat catching the wind and driving him forward.
The Vendee, however, is a race of the highest highs and lowest lows. Six days after his jubilant video celebrating the completion of his repairs, disaster strikes. Only hours earlier, Alex had reported he was back up to full speed, flying along at 21 knots under a reefed main and a smaller jib. Down below, Alex heard a loud bang and the boat violently turned upwind, going completely broadside to the wind in a broach. Unable to get a response from the rudder, Alex furled his sails to get Hugo Boss upright and began to investigate the damage.
It quickly becomes apparent that Alex has done a tremendous amount of damage to his starboard rudder and, despite the fact that IMOCAs sport two rudders (one on each side of the boat), they are located so far apart that losing one means that the boat is nearly uncontrollable when it is heeled (tipped) over to the side with the damage. With a half-crippled boat and facing 5,500 miles of open ocean sailing through the Indian Ocean, Alex has no choice but to drop out of the Vendee Globe, becoming the second boat unable to finish. This is his fifth Vendee and the third he has been unable to finish.
Atypical of Alex, the announcement of the damage and subsequent decision to head to Cape Town doesn’t come directly from him. Instead, it’s his shore team that issues a press release describing the incident and the decision. For a sailor who has shared his highest highs and lowest lows, a lack of anything for his fans to consume speaks to both the physical and psychological damage this collision has caused.
It takes two days for Alex to resurface. I tracked his slow but steady progress toward Cape Town, noting the dramatic difference in the speed of Hugo Boss depending on the tack he was on. When Alex finally posts a video, on November 30th it’s unlike his others. Instead of standing in his carbon black and pink spaceship cockpit, he’s sitting in his sleeping hammock. The camera is angled downward at him rather than the typical straight-on view. His face and voice are devoid of emotion, but his eyes have a sadness in them. It is a stark contrast to the elated, upbeat sailor who had just triumphantly returned to the race. His tone is flat as he begins speaking: “It’s taken me a few days to digest what’s happened and gather my thoughts. I’m normally a very positive person but if I’m honest right now I feel pretty broken.”
For Alex, offshore sailing and racing has been his life. He’s spent the last twenty years of his life trying to become the first non-French skipper to win the Vendee Globe. From a calendar perspective, five full Vendee Globe races would equate to roughly a full year of time away from his friends, his family, and his other obligations. That year is just the race time. It doesn’t take into account time spent training, spent competing in other races and spent raising money. Alex’s whole life has led up to this Vendee Globe. It truly felt like this was his shot at winning it all. He had a fast boat, he was coming off a third place finish, and yet here he was, limping toward Cape Town.
His voice remains even and understated, a sea of emotion swirling just beneath the surface and he can barely hold back tears as he thanks his family, his team, and his sponsors. I’ve never seen Alex so defeated, not after losing a foil in 2016, not after requiring a rescue from his stricken boat in 2005. In those cases, he bounced back quickly and found the positive in his experience. Here, as he speaks about the end it’s unclear whether he’s just talking about the end of this particular race or the end of a 20+ year sailing career.
Concluding the video, he reiterates that he will head for Cape Town and, once there, officially drop out of the 2020 Vendee Globe. This is a heart-wrenching end to one of the pre-race favorites. Alex’s retirement, however, was just the tip of the iceberg.
A day later, on December 1st, Kevin Escoffier’s orange and black PRB dramatically splits in half, sinking in a matter of seconds in the middle of a storm. Jean Le Cam aboard Yes We Cam is the closest boat to the incident and is dispatched by the race committee to Kevin’s last known position. While Jean finds Kevin almost immediately, he loses him in the 30 knot winds and 15 foot waves which prompts the committee to route Boris Herrmann, Yannick Besthaven, and Sebastien Simon to assist in finding Kevin’s liferaft. They set up a search grid and, thankfully, by the next morning, Kevin is safely aboard Yes We Cam. The full rescue is covered in the prologue.
According to Kevin, “the boat split in half in front of the mast bulkhead” leaving him only seconds to grab his survival suit and get into his life raft. He sent a single message to his team, “I’m sinking, this isn’t a joke” before he was forced to abandon ship. After briefly spotting Jean Le Cam, he spent the next 11 hours adrift in the middle of a storm in the Southern Ocean. When he was asked if was frightened during his ordeal, Escoffier replied: “No. As soon as I saw Jean I was sure I would be saved.”
At 1900 UTC on December 2nd, Samantha Davis, wife of fellow racer Romain Attanasio, hit something in the water that does an absolutely massive amount of damage to the keel of her Initiatives Cœur, nearly ripping the bright yellow keel off the bottom of her red and white boat. Unlike the other collisions in this race, this was not a glancing blow. Samantha suffered bruised ribs when she was flung through the cabin of her boat — “It was as if I had run aground on a rock. The boat speed went from 20kts to zero.” Checking below decks after the collision Samantha reported that she could see cracks around the keel box and ultimately had to use a pump to keep water from sinking the boat. All of this happened in exceptionally bad weather, so Samantha was forced to ride out the storm, putting as little stress on the boat as possible, until she could turn northward toward Cape Town.
Almost simultaneously, Sebastien Simon, who had just helped rescue Kevin Escoffier and was in fourth place, struck another submerged object. The impact badly damaged his starboard foil and its housing, along with the starboard rudder. To fix the damage, the hull would have to be repaired from the outside, something that would be extraordinarily dangerous in the Southern Ocean. So, like Samantha Davis and Alex Thomson, Sebastien changed course, heading to Cape Town, South Africa. “I gave everything I had,” he says despondently.
In the span of four days, one boat has sunk and three more have removed themselves from the race after suffering damage. All told, nearly 20% of the boats which started in Les Sables D’Olonne less than a month ago have retired.
Hitting things while you’re solo sailing is more common than you’d think, especially around the Cape of Good Hope where the South Atlantic current meets the Indian Ocean current. Not only do these colliding currents produce incredibly devastating weather events, the water flow tends to collect garbage from across both oceans and funnel to the tip of Africa. Of particular danger are the nearly 900 containers which fall off ships during transport every year. These containers are often slow to sink and can spend weeks mostly filled with water bobbing just at or right below the surface of the water.
With the fleet now stretched out across 3,000 miles spanning almost the entire Atlantic Ocean, the race has split into a set of mini races. Off the southern coast of Madagascar, Charlie Dalin has a 200 mile lead over a pack of 10 boats will likely be the group vying for a podium finish in two months. Behind this first group, the middle pack of 8 boats is about 800 miles the leaders. Not fully out of contention, each will have to work to get back into the podium discussion. Last but not least is a trailing group of boats 400 miles off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. Jeremie Beyou has finally caught up to them, covering an absurd 2,2000 miles in slightly more than 2 weeks. With only a few exceptions, each of these races becomes relatively self-contained with each sailor simply trying to out-sail the boats nearby.
The biggest question about placement or ranking concerns the fallout from Kevin Escoffier’s rescue which forced four boats to deviate course or, in the case of Yannick Besthaven, to turn back to lend assistance. To make the race fair, each sailor is entitled to a time bonus which will be applied at the end of the race to compensate them for the time they spent rescuing Kevin. Awarding time bonuses isn’t easy nor is it without controversy because not only will the race committee give the sailors the raw number of hours spent rescuing Kevin, they will have to consider whether any material advantages were lost. For instance, did a sailor miss out on a huge storm that could have propelled them farther along had they not had to rescue Kevin? By deviating from their prescribed course were they forced to leave a strong weather front that could have carried them hundreds of miles farther?
The committee also has to plan how to extract Kevin from Jean Le Cam’s boat, which has now returned to racing. The plan that emerges is that Yes We Cam! will rendezvous with a French destroyer which is currently departing from the Kerguelen Islands, a desolate French research station about 300 miles south of the course that the Vendee participants will race. This plan will mean that Kevin will remain aboard Yes We Cam! for another few days. During that time he is forbidden from offering any assistance to his fellow Frenchman while aboard. It must be fairly awkward as Jean Le Cam continues to race, trim his sails, and monitor the weather while Kevin effectively can only sit and watch.
Less than a month into the race and nearly 20% of the fleet has retired or been forced to turn back. Charal (Jeremie Beyou) turned back to Les Sables D’Olonne to make repairs, ultimately re-entering the race and catching the rear of the fleet off the coast of Uruguay. Corum (Nicolas Troussel) was dismasted near the Canary Islands. Hugo Boss (Alex Thomson), Arkea Paprec (Sebastien Simon), and Initiatives Cœur (Samantha Davis) all struck objects and were forced to retire. PRB (Kevin Escoffier) sunk.
For those 28 boats pressing on, the real race begins as they enter the Southern Ocean and are forced to contend with some of the harshest, least forgiving sailing conditions on earth. The next installment will cover the fleet pressing eastward, passing Cape Leeuwin in Australia, and then rounding Cape Horn to prepare for the final leg home.