In November of 2020, thousands of die-hard fans and reporters should have been making their way to the small seaside town of Les Sables D’Olonne, but with a nationwide COVID lockdown in place, the quadrennial pilgrimage is far smaller than usual. The town itself is quintessentially French, with red roofed homes packed on top of one another resting on a small spit of land sandwiched between a harbor on the east and the Bay of Biscay on the west. Large beaches with sweeping views of the water surround the town. With a population of only 40,000 Les Sables D’Olonne and its harbor are sacred ground, the mecca of solo offshore sailing, hosting and producing some of the sport’s best racers.
Today, on an extraordinarily foggy November 8th, hundreds of fans prepare to give the 33 sailors of the 2020 Vendee Globe the sendoff of a lifetime. Fans, townspeople, and media line the streets that run parallel to the 300 foot wide world-famous canal that cuts through their town. They hang out of windows, stand on roofs, and stop their cars. A cacophony of horns, screams, claps, chants, and cheers is accompanied by a collage of color – banners, flags, and signs are waving in the air. This wall of sight and sound greets each and every sailor – whether you’re a rockstar like Alex Thomson or Jean Le Cam or one of the many unknowns in this race, the crowd goes wild as one by one each participant slowly cruises their boat toward the Atlantic ocean and the start. Elsewhere these sailors might walk by unrecognized, but here even the least-known of them are cheered by name.
Sailors, along with their teams, stand on the boats and wave. Some try to get the crowd even more fired up, raising their arms up over their heads. Others are clearly slightly embarrassed by the display and offer small, wry smiles to the groups of people on shore. For those first-timers, motoring down this canal to head to the start of the Vendee Globe is one of the moments they’ve dreamed about and they’re clearly taking it all in.
France has a long and storied maritime tradition, one which is a point of pride within a country with a lot to be proud of. And, for whatever reason, the French are specifically captivated by the idea of men and women setting off on boats, alone, to cross the world’s oceans — French sailors dominate the sport at all levels. Within France, the Bay of Biscay is the jumping off point for three of the biggest events in the sport, the Figaro Series, the Mini Transat, and the Vendee Globe.
While other solo races might be harder, the Vendee is the biggest, boldest, and best-known. Its course winds some 24,000 nautical miles southward to the Cape of Good Hope, across the Southern Ocean and past Cape Leeuwin in Australia, and then into the teeth of Cape Horn before turning back northward through the Atlantic and home.
The attrition rate in the Vendee is astronomical, so simply rounding these markers is an accomplishment. Across 9 editions dating back to 1989, fewer than 100 skippers have even completed the race and only six of those have been women. Organizers expect that about 50% of the boats who enter the race will not be able to finish and will instead limp back to ports like Cape Town and Sydney with broken masts, damaged foils, and dampened spirits. To offshore racers, completing this race is like summiting Everest — it takes skill, grit, and a great deal of luck.
The race course will take participants past the world’s most remote point from land, prosaically called the “Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility” (“Point Nemo” more affectionately) and, for large stretches of the course, the closest non-racers will be the members of the International Space Station, orbiting ~250 miles overhead.
While this isolation may conjure romantic images of brave sailors facing the elements, it also acutely increases the danger and risk in the race. Not only do sailors run the gamut of risks that come to any reasonable person’s mind – capsize, sinking, dismasting, etc – but the the solo nature of this journey also makes everyday occurrences like falls, bruises, and minor injuries potentially life-threatening emergencies where the closest assistance may be a fellow competitor hours or days away.
At 60 feet long with masts that sweep nearly 90 feet into the air, the boats that will carry these competitors around the world are all part of the same class, the “International Monohull Open Class Association” or IMOCA for short and are the fastest offshore sailboats in the world. The class, however, is an open one, meaning that, while the boats must adhere to a set of rules, builders are given large amounts of freedom when it comes to the details. So, while the rules mean that the boats all generally look alike, the technology within them varies widely.
Constructed almost entirely out of carbon fiber, IMOCAs look less like a stereotypical sailboat and more like a spaceship. Sporting everything from canting keels and hydrofoils to fully-enclosed cockpits and advanced computer navigation systems, these are some of the most sophisticated sailboats in the world, capable of traveling at speeds in excess of 30 mph.
Most of them sport wing-like hydrofoils which, at rest, give you the impression of a bird in flight. Once deployed into the water, these curved carbon fiber blades protrude outward from the hull and give the boat a front-on profile of a W. As the boat picks up speed, the foils create lift by forcing the water that passes above them to move faster than the water that passes below which, in turn, lifts the boat partially out of the water. About half the boats in this year’s Vendee are “foilers.”
Each boat has a sophisticated ballast systems which allow the sailor to move weight around the boat to increase its righting moment (the force that causes the boat to bend or heel over in the wind). The three ballast tanks are located on the left, right, and in front of the mast and can be pumped full of seawater to help balance and stabilize the boat as the wind direction and wave state changes.
Dual rudders improve safety by providing redundancy, but also increase the maneuverability of the boat. Going downwind, two rudders allow the boat to “bite” better into trailing seas, meaning that she will track a straighter course. On reaches and close hauled (sailing perpendicular and into the wind, respectively) twin rudders ensure that one of them always has a firm grip on the water and helps reduce drag by its positioning.
On most boats, the keel is a fixed piece of the hull and sticks down into the water to help the boat move upwind and to prevent it from sliding sideways. On an IMOCA, sailors use a hydraulic pump system to actually swing the keel, to the left or right beneath the boat. Done to increase righting moment, sailors will cant the keel out to the side of the boat the wind is coming over. This helps them keep the boat flat and sail faster.
Each IMOCA is shaped like an arrowhead with the sharp bow designed to slice through waves efficiently when the wind and waves are coming from in front of the boat. When the wind is behind the boat, the broad, flat stern helps the boat surf down the face of waves, achieving both faster speed and a more comfortable motion.
On such a sophisticated boat you might imagine a big complex device for steering, but, unlike sailors of old, who might cling to a spoked wheel during a violent storm while barking instructions, the IMOCAs all sport an almost comically-small tiller. If all goes well for these racers, they’ll spend very little time manually steering , instead relying on their sophisticated and fickle autopilots. While these autopilots aren’t quite as good at steering for speed as a human, they have one distinct advantage — they never tire.
Because sailing fast in heavy weather isn’t as simple as pointing the boat in one direction, ocean-going autopilots are surprisingly complex devices. A good helmsman will negotiate a meandering course through the piled-up ocean, surfing down the backs of waves at an angle, looking for the next flat spot between the trains of waves that run across the ocean surface. He or she will look ahead, heading up slightly before a wave crashes over the stern or bearing off slightly to lessen the impact of a swell. A good helmsman can anticipate changes in wind direction and wind strength and adjust their course accordingly.
For solo sailors, the autopilot is the closest thing they have to a crew. The pilot can steer through bad weather, can steer while the sailor sleeps, or can hold a course to facilitate a sail change. The autopilot is so important that all sailors sport a remote control for it strapped to their arms at all times. A machine that is capable of all of that, nearly 24 hours a day for three months, is an expensive and difficult crew mate to find and some skippers spend more on their autopilots than they do on their sails.
Creature comforts are few and far between on IMOCAs. Most sailors have nothing more than a cot in a corner of the boat, a single-burner gimbaled stove, and a “bathroom” that consists of a toilet – no showers, no walls. Food is freeze-dried meals supplemented with tinned food.
Unfortunately for me and other viewers (and thanks to that very same thick layer of fog), the Youtube livestream doesn’t begin quite on time. I miss most of the early morning festivities, including watching the sailors say goodbye to friends and family and the hero’s sendoff they received in the canal. Instead, my first images of the 2020 Vendee Globe are a beautiful aerial shot of Les Sables D’Olonne, red-roofed homes shining in the bright fall sun which has driven at least some of the fog away.
As the announcers get us oriented, playing footage from earlier in the day, the cameras cut to a truly stunning shot of the fleet. In the foreground, the boats are illuminated by an absolutely radiant fall sun, while behind them the flat-topped mainsails and masts stick up through the dense fog that hasn’t yet completely cleared. Within the fog bank, visibility is poor and the lighting takes on a decidedly ominous tone while boats outside of it continue to be bathed in cheery bright sunlight.
The fog has created a two hour delay in the start of the race which has meant that the fleet has largely been idling, slowly sailing around another in a cluster about half a mile from the starting line. As the cameras pan between the various boats, I start to get a better look at them. Painted in a wide array of color schemes from the majestic white and red of Yannick Besthaven’s Maître CoQ IV to the sleek yellow and black of Armel Tripon’s L’Occitane en Provence they are adorned with sponsor logos across their mainsails, their jibs, their hulls, and even their cabins.
Regardless of how different each boat appears they are all part of the same class. Called the “International Monohull Open Class Association (more concisely referred to as IMOCA), these are fastest offshore sailing boats in the world.
From what I can gather the arrival of the sun has done wonders for spirits aboard the fleet. For the last hour they’ve been stressfully circling one another in the fog while the race committee looked for a break in the weather. That break has finally come and, finally, a countdown clock appears at the top-right of the screen.
One hour to go.
The long delay must have had an impact on the racers. From the emotional high of boarding your boat to motoring down the canal and waving to cheering fans to peering through the fog hoping you don’t collide with another boat and its entourage of dinghies must have been hard. For those race veterans, I imagine they were eager to start. For those new to the race, this must have been a great time to second guess yourself. Am I good enough to be here? Will I make it?
Yet, as the fog slowly lifts I see each of these competitors begin to rouse from their temporary hibernation. From cameras affixed to the boats themselves, to media boats, and to a helicopter circling above I see the wide gamut of reactions as race preparations once again resume.
From my vantage point, the mood remains laid back, as though they’re out for a day sail. A quick shot of Louis Burton aboard the white, yellow, and black, Apivia shows a relaxed or maybe partially deflated sailor leaning against one of his spars seemingly checking his phone while two teammates handle the boat. Flipping through the cameras, we’re treated to views of teams discussing strategy, making repairs, or just shooting the breeze. Some sailors sit on the bows of their boats, taking in the scene.
Trailing each one of the race boats is one or more rigid inflatable dinghies. Each of those flies a flag with the team name, giving each entourage a passing resemblance to a duckling trying to follow its mother around a pond. These support boats follow the sailors’ each and every turn, sometimes scooting up alongside the boat but more often hanging back, ready to help if the need should arise.
Truthfully, not a whole lot happens for the next 45 minutes. Sailors check their lines, ensure that the halyards, cunninghams, boom vangs, water ballasts, water makers, and every other part of their boat is as ready as it can be for this race.
The clock hits 15 minutes.
The boats are still clustered together, about a quarter mile from the start, but suddenly there is a surge of activity. Teams bring a tender alongside their boat and begin the process of offloading team members, equipment, tools, and anything else that isn’t going to make the journey round the world. This is the moment where families and friends say their final goodbyes and, as we zoom back out, each sailor is now alone on their boat.
Well, almost. As we drift closer and closer to the six minute mark, the cameras start to focus on the pink and black Hugo Boss boat skippered by Alex Thomson. While every other team has already said their goodbyes, one crew member in a yellow vest remains visible, crouching on the side of Alex’s cockpit and looking up at the mainsail. He leans down to say something to someone we can’t see and the camera pans back. In the foreground we see the Hugo Boss tender, all eyes on whatever is happening on deck. A little clock in the corner counts the seconds.
With just a shade under 30 seconds until the countdown strikes 5 minutes, the time by which all crew must be off the boats, the crouched Hugo Bosser springs into action. He pops up from his position and quickly makes his way aft.
Another yellow-vested person appears from inside the cockpit, lifting himself onto the deck.
A third and fourth emerge a few seconds after that.
These four are now all on deck struggling to get their life vests on. The clock ticks.
Usually, these team members would be offloaded onto a tender, but chaos seemingly reigns. No tender pulls alongside Alex Thomson’s boat and, instead, each of them make a beeline to the leeward side of the stern. There, in rapid penguin-like succession they cannonball, dive, or otherwise splash into the water off the back of the boat. One clings to the backstay as he jumps and does a somewhat impressive 180.
Bobbing behind Alex’s boat, they are retrieved by the tender as Hugo Boss turns toward the start. Finally free, Alex unfurls his headsails (three in his case) and the boat slowly picks up speed and begins to join the others clustered near the starting line.
The start of a sailing race bears no resemblance to any other form of racing you’ve watched. Instead of an orderly line of vehicles, a countdown, and the roar of engines, sailing races start with the boats all in motion. They dodge, weave, and duck amongst one another, often painfully close to colliding.
Instead of a physical start line, there’s an imaginary line that’s “drawn” between the committee boat and a buoy. Racers must judge their position against this line purely by sight (in other races they may have the line drawn on their plotters).
There is no magnificent engine roar, no clouds of smoke or camera shots zoomed in on athletes staring off into the distance with determined looks on their faces. There isn’t even really a dramatic pause where everything goes still before the event begins.
Instead, as the clock ticks down this stressful knot of boats makes it way toward the start. There are rules that govern this critical juncture in a sailing race and help determine which boats must move out of the way of others, but the goal is not only to be first across the line, but to be first across the line with all the wind and rules stacked in your favor.
Outside of the obvious “be first across the line”, these boats all want to be in the best possible position. In sailing that means being upwind of your competitors on the starboard tack (that is, having the wind coming over the right-hand side of their boat). This positioning confers a right-of-way advantage if you are on a collision course and means that only a faster boat can force you off your line. It’s important to be upwind as well because as your boat passes through the air you “dirty” it, robbing it of some of its power and smooth flow. So, all things being equal, a boat which is directly downwind of another boat will go slower.
In regattas where the event duration is measured in minutes or hours, starting tactics and strategy are extraordinarily important. A five second advantage is a big deal. In the Vendee, where leads can be measured in days or weeks, the stakes are quite a bit lower and there’s far less of an emphasis on being first over the line. Or so you’d think.
The fleet is arrayed in a rough line a few hundred yards from the virtual starting line. They’re clumped together in two main groups, one toward the north and other toward the south where a cluster of three boats – Bureau Vallée 2, Jeremie Beyou’s black and white Charal, and a third I cannot identify – have a small lead on the rest of the fleet.
Most of the boats in these groups have begun their run to the start line, but Louis Burton is ahead and has about a two boat lengths lead on his rivals. Glancing at the clock and eyeballing his speed and position, it becomes immediately apparent that Burton is cutting this close.
The announcers have also picked up on Burton’s eager run at the start line and, collectively, our eyes flit from Burton’s boat to the clock.
What’s at stake is a five hour time penalty, enforced by the race committee sometime during the first few days of the race.
I look back at Burton’s boat. Still close.
Back to the clock.
Boat. Clock. Boat. Clock.
I imagine I look like a spectator in one of those cartoon tennis matches where the crowd’s head goes left-right-left-right. The seconds dwindle down, but the space between Bureau Vallée 2 and line dwindles faster.
Yet his boat eagerly charges forward.
In an unfortunate production mishap, the camera pans away at the exact wrong second to a shot of one of the organizers sitting in one of the race committee boats. By the time it comes back to the view of the start, I see Burton’s boat is almost perfectly bisected by the virtual start line with a second still on the clock. As if to add insult to injury, the cannon on the committee boat fires to mark the official start of the race and the smoke drifts out over Burton’s boat.
One second into the race and we already have the top and, somehow, the bottom of our leaderboard.
The remainder of the fleet surges forward, each boat eagerly slicing through the waves. This may be one of the only times we get to see the entire fleet together and, fortunately, the cameras do not disappoint. From vantage points in front, beside, behind, and above, we’re treated to deep shots of the entire field, each boat’s sails full of wind and elegantly heeling at just the right angle. Behind and to the side are the go kart sized tenders, continuing to zip around like eager little ducklings.
When viewed directly from the side, the fleet resembles something like the water gun race at a carnival. The distance between them is flattened and each boat appears to ride it in its own parallel lane, defined by the white wake streaming behind it.
Just at that moment the PAF, the aerobatics demonstration team of the French Air Force, flies directly overhead, red, white, and blue smoke streaming from their engines.
The fleet is being led by Charlie Dalin aboard his bright yellow and blue, Apivia, with Damien Seguin’s Group APICIL close behind. The rest of the fleet is clustered together, within several hundred yards of one another as they make their way westward and southward.
Just like the departure through the canal, there is an overarching sense of joy in this moment. These sailors have truly achieved something remarkable. There is a shocking amount of effort required to even slip the lines and get to the start of a Vendee Globe and sailing your boat over the starting line represents, for many, of them, a lifelong dream or, at least, the sole focus of the last 3-4 years of their lives.
And the sailors are clearly soaking up the moment, waving as the helicopters and chase boats circle them. They’re laughing and smiling, clearly enjoying themselves before they get down to the serious business of sailing around the world alone.
We’re treated to a waving Jean Le Cam aboard Yes we Cam! (whose logo is a drawing of Jean himself). Le Cam is holding onto the forestay of his boat, his floppy mass of black hair happily bobbing on top of his head as he smiles up at a passing helicopter camera. The oldest participant in the race, Jean Le Cam is half 20 year old kid and half old man and the sea. Despite this being his fifth Vendee start he jumps around on deck as eagerly as every other sailor.
The resolute and oh-so-British Alex Thomson stands at the stern of Hugo Boss. This is Alex’s fifth Vendee Globe and he’s the early race favorite to win it all, though his best finish to date has been second. Alex is known for his wild stunts, aggressive sailing, and the dashing good looks of his boat thanks to his main sponsor, Hugo Boss.
Somewhere in that mass is Pip Hare aboard Medallia who, at this moment, is a complete unknown, but will emerge as one of the most interesting stories of this race. Due to fundraising troubles (she actually took out a personal loan to charter Medallia), Pip had a very late start preparing for this race. She has the smallest team and the oldest boat in the fleet.
And finally there’s the sharp white hull and deep black sails of Boris Herrmann’s Seaexplorer – Yacht Club de Monaco with the cheery and upbeat German perched next to his cockpit waving and smiling for the cameras. Boris is a veteran of offshore sailing, having attempted mostly recently to hoist the Jules Verne trophy and, if he finishes, is in line to be the first German skipper to ever complete the Vendee.
This procession continues for about 45 minutes as the fleet continues on its heading, chased by their tenders and pleasure craft. The bright afternoon sun makes this departure absolutely picturesque and, as a spectator halfway around the world, some of my last images of the fleet before the live stream ends are 33 brightly colored boats with long white wakes slicing through the deep blue water of the Atlantic. Literally and metaphorically, they’re sailing off into the sunset.
And, just like that, the stream ends. The chatter of the commentators dies out, the screen fades to the Vendee Globe logo, and my connection to the fleet is temporarily lost. While it will be restored in brief spurts by helicopters as they round the Cape of Good Hope, their departure from Les Sables D’Olonne marks the last time that anybody will see the entire fleet together and with their own eyes.
From here on out the world’s contact with them is reduced to Instagram, Youtube, and the Vendee Globe tracker. Sure, the Vendee itself conducts interviews, provides weather analysis, and generally tries to keep the public informed about participants’ progress, but this is not the slickly polished presentations most of us are used to. Instead the best information, and the entire story of the race is told through the sailors’ own voices. Their struggles and triumphs are intimately shared from a GoPro or an iPhone and streamed around the world and it’s through these posts that the rest of the world and I will get to know these individuals and learn of their fate.
Continue the journey in Part II: The Atlantic