The Vendée Globe, Sailing’s Most Daunting Solo Challenge

While many of us are tired of the isolation and solitude provoked by the Coronavirus pandemic, a few dozen of the world’s elite sailors are currently putting our notion of hardship to shame. On November 8th, 33 skippers set off on a solo, non-stop sailing race that circumnavigates the globe. This world-class event, known as the Vendée Globe, is the high seas version of climbing Mount Everest. Those that are lucky enough to finish will have traversed more than 24,000 miles of ocean, enduring numerous weeks of physical exertion with little or no sleep. The front-runners will put an end to their torment sometime in mid-January.

The race begins in France’s department of Vendée. From there, racers head south along the coast of Africa, then turn east to pass beneath the Cape of Good Hope. For weeks they hug the southern 45th parallel, crossing the Indian Ocean, passing Australia’s Cape Leeuwin, traversing the Pacific, and skirting beneath Chile’s Cape Horn. From there, they head north, hugging the coast of South America, then crossing the Atlantic to arrive at their starting point, the French city of Les Sables-d’Olonne. The video below makes the treacherous route look like a pleasure cruise. In fact, the competitors personify the expression of being trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The Race’s History

The French yachtsman, Philippe Jeantot, founded the race in 1989. Since 1992, the Vendée Globe has been held every four years. Those willing to take on the ultimate sailing challenge can receive no outside assistance, including customized weather or routing information. The race is open to monohull yachts belonging to the Open 60 class. Given the danger involved and the fact that competitors are usually far from emergency responders, the boats must also conform to numerous safety regulations.

Samantha Davies
Samantha Davies

Over the years, fewer than 90 people have finished the race. An often noted fun fact is that more people have been in space than have solo-sailed around the planet without stopping. This year’s roster includes 6 female skippers, a record turnout. Since the race’s inception, only one woman has made it to the winner’s podium. Ellen MacArthur took 2nd place in the 2000-2001 race. In 2008-2009, British sailor, Samantha (Sam) Davies, took 4th place. Davies came back this year to race against her partner, Romain Attanasio who is also a professional skipper. They are the first couple to compete in the Vendée Globe. Their 6-year old son will remain behind, shattering all records for overcoming parental separation anxiety.

Only one sailer, Michel Desjoyeaux, has succeeded in winning the Vendée Globe more than once. He first won in 2000-2001, then again in 2008-2009. This is a contest where experience may count as much as stamina. The youngest person to complete the race was then 23 year-old Alan Roura. The oldest, 66 year-old Rich Wilson.

Having What it Takes

Alex Thomson Hugo Boss
Hugo Boss, skippered by Alex Thomson

Obviously, the Vendée Globe requires tremendous endurance, but skippers must also be skilled craftsmen that know how to fix everything that might possibly break. Several of the competitors hold high ranking degrees in naval architecture or engineering. What’s more, when a boat runs into a problem, there’s no opportunity to dock or hook up to a nearby vessel while making the repair. Instead, skippers must rely on the materials on board and their own acumen to resolve all failures. According to Sam Davies, who studied mechanical engineering at Cambridge, she uses her degree “pretty much every day.”

Other challenges include surviving on 2 to 4 hours of sleep per night, managing the hallucinations that come with such deprivation, interpreting oceanic weather data, and raising the 10 to 15 million euros necessary to fund a boat. In addition, the psychological burden of spending months thousands of miles from land, in unfathomably deep water can provoke a range of emotions, from mortal fear to ecstatic joy. Lastly, even the most talented, mentally stable, and well- prepared skippers can simply run into bad luck.

Having a high tolerance for pain and exhaustion is an understatement when describing Bertrand de Broc. de Broc gets the Johnny Rambo award for having stitched together his own tongue after being slammed in the face by a rope while adjusting a sail on his boat. de Broc had been in second place before the frenetic rope left him with an injured eye and caused him to bite through his tongue. After de Broc sent out a distress call, a doctor on land stood in front of a mirror, swaying from side to side to simulate storm conditions while composing the instructions needed to repair the blood-spewing wound. Add rigorous adherence to instructions and sewing to the list of useful talents.

Lurking Beneath the Surface

We’ve all heard about the huge swaths of garbage clogging up our oceans. There is a common misperception that such patches can be spotted by satellites and readily avoided. This is rarely the case. Before writing this article, I hadn’t thought about chunks of refuse large enough to bring down a ship, also known as UFOs (unidentified floating objects). One of the biggest hazards is drifting shipping containers that lie just beneath the ocean’s surface. Apparently, bad weather and or chaotic currents can throw up rogue waves strong enough to knock such containers off the massive shipping vessels that transport them. According to the Maritime Executive, a fully loaded container ship can carry as many as 14,000 containers. Earlier this month, the boxship ONE Apus encountered a storm in the Pacific Ocean that dislodged at least 1,900 containers. Even after years of preparation, sailors encountering such hazards face the possibility of crushing disappointment and sometimes death.

British champion, Alex Thomson has competed in the Vendée Globe 5 times. He’s one of the world’s most accomplished solo sailors, having broken multiple records and received countless accolades. In 2012-2013, Thomson finished in third place. In 2015-2016, he came in second, completing the course in less than 75 days. This year, Thomson was among those favored to win. His boat, featuring a bold new design, was the product of more than two years of painstaking planning and construction, carried out by more than 100 naval architects. On November 27th, he crashed into discarded fishing gear which irreparably damaged one of his rudders. Sadly, he was forced to retire from the race. Below is the heartbreaking message he sent to fans from his crippled vessel.

A Perilous Rescue

Kevin Escoffier
Kevin Escoffier

Three days after Thomson’s accident, French sailor, Kevin Escoffier who was then in third place, encountered disaster when he slammed into a wave while traveling at 27 knots. This year’s ships are sleeker and faster than ever. Escoffier’s boat, built by the PRB team, was equipped with foils to lift much of its hull out of the water so that from certain angles, it looked as though it was flying. Escoffier watched in horror as his boat bent in two. According to the seasoned veteran, “In four seconds the boat nosedived, the bow folded at 90 degrees. I put my head down in the cockpit a wave was coming. I had time to send one text before the wave fried the electronics. It was completely crazy. It folded the boat in two. I’ve seen a lot before but this one…”

Escoffier’s text message read, “I need assistance. I am sinking. This is not a joke.” Luckily, he managed to grab his survival suit and liferaft. His devasted ship automatically activated an emergency distress signal upon impact. The Race’s direction quickly called upon the nearest rival sailor, Jean Le Cam, to divert his course and locate Escoffier. The 61-year old Le Cam, a Vendée veteran, had entered the race for his 5th time. Within 3 hours, Le Cam spotted Escoffier but his boat was traveling too rapidly to get close to the bobbing raft. As he sped past, Le Cam assured Escoffier that he was turning around and would be back. Unfortunately, by the time he did so, he’d lost sight of Escoffier in the rough sea.

Meanwhile, three more competitors were enlisted in the search, Germany’s Boris Herrmann, and Frenchmen Yannick Bestaven and Sébastien Simon. Back on shore, weather forecasters worked to predict Escoffier’s position making use of ocean current data and drift simulations. Nightfall came and Escoffier still had not been relocated. Le Cam crossed a triangulated region 6 times before spotting a flash of light reflecting off the ocean’s surface. As he drew closer, he confirmed that the light was coming from Escoffier’s raft. Once within a couple meters of the dingy, Le Cam threw a life ring to the wandering mariner. A relieved Escoffier pulled himself to Le Cam’s boat and climbed aboard. The video below show’s the bone-weary Le Cam describing the rescue.

Oddly enough, the perilous rescue reversed roles played out in the 2008-2009 Vendée Globe. That year it was Jean Le Cam who capsized 200 miles west of Cape Horn. Le Cam was trapped inside his upturned boat for 16 hours until Vincent Riou, who was that year’s skipper for the PRB team, managed to reach him. Not knowing whether Le Cam was still alive, Riou called to his fellow competitor. Unsure of whether he might be hallucinating the sound of someone shouting his name, Le Cam managed to emerge from a hatch in his boat’s stern and was eventually pulled to safety.

How to Follow the Action

As of this morning, December 11, 28 skippers out of the original cast of 33, remain in the race. Among the casualties was Samantha Davies, who was forced to take refuge in Cape Town after a violent collision damaged her keel. After making repairs, however, she has vowed to complete the course even though she is now disqualified. Another unfortunate retiree is Sébastien Simon, one of the skippers who changed course in an effort to locate Kevin Escoffier. Simon was yet another victim of floating debris that badly damaged his starboard foil, causing a massive tear that was impossible for one man to repair in the middle of the ocean.

Also as of this morning, Jean Le Cam, who detoured to rescue Escoffier, was in 5th place. Skippers Yannick Bestaven and Boris Herrmann were in 3rd and 8th place respectively. Final sailing times for these competitors will be adjusted at the end to account for time lost while searching for and aiding Escoffier. Romain Attanasio, Samantha Davies’ better half, was in the 12th position. You’ll find the latest standings here.

Below are links to a number of sites that are reporting on the race and upon which I relied to write this post.

Other Resources

Endnotes

If you read my post from last week, you know that I was dealing with a pinched nerve in my neck. I’ve since started physical therapy and am doing much better. Thankfully, blogging is a far less taxing undertaking that circumnavigating the globe.

Thanks to Jean-Luc Simonin for introducing me to this exciting story.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

10 Comments

  1. Considering the size of the ocean, I would think that damage from bumping into floating debris is a very remote possibility. Yet apparently it happens all the time. Another reason I am not disappointed in never having graduated beyond the little eleven foot Sea Snark on which I first learned to sail.

    • I know. I was shocked by the number of boats that experienced this problem. Some of the containers inevitably must sink so they’re hitting the fraction that are left floating!? Thanks for stopping by Jim.

  2. This takes guts. Since most of the course is basically a circumnavigation of Antarctica, I immediately thought of the Colossal Squid (larger relative of the Giant Squid, big enough to gulp down a human like a between-meal snack). Didn’t know that about loose shipping containers, though. Still, large-scale trans-oceanic trade has been going on since the early Middle Ages, so it’s not surprising if a fair amount of lost junk has accumulated.

    I hope that 6-year-old kid does OK. He’ll be going through a tough time too, and he didn’t get to make a choice about it.

    • Yeah, it truly is for the courageous. I never thought about a colossal squid. Yikes.

      w.r.t. the 6-yr old, I imagine he’s pretty accustomed to parental absences as these sailors enter multiple events throughout the year. Hopefully, he has some wonderful grandparents that look after him.

  3. Carol, this is just the best account of the Vendée Globe that I have read. Love your humor and your deep research at the same time. This race has never been so clear to me.Je vais essayer de partager avec nos participants. Un détail amusant: les Sables d’Olonne est la ville où nous allions en vacances avec ma famille. Merci beaucoup

  4. Whew; I am exhausted simply imagining this effort and all it entails. You have widened my world this morning, Carol, and I thank you for it. Fascinating!

    I was also thinking about that 6-year-old boy. We must assume he’s being well-cared for. And I imagine he’ll be getting his little sea legs quite soon.

    This post reminded me how much bloggers miss who say ”I never read a post that’s longer than 500 words.” You wove a compelling story, and I was with you all the way.

    Merci beacoup (which pretty much exhausts my French)..

    • Thanks for stopping by Annie. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. FYI: as of today, Yannick Bestaven (one of the sailors who changed course to help Thomsen) is in first place. Jean Le Cam moved up to 4th. This does not include the hours that will be deducted from their final sailing time as a result of their detours.

  5. Blogging may be easier, but I’m pretty sure all the pinched neck nerves I’m hearing about relate to Covid and too much screen time. Feel better soon!

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