Around the World in 80 Daunting Days of Deprivation

Boris Herrmann 2020
Boris Herrmann, © Jean-Marie LIOT / Malizia

In early December, I wrote about the Vendée Globe, sailing’s most daunting solo challenge. This round-the-world, non-stop race demands a combination of both physical and psychological stamina that is unmatched elsewhere in the world of adventure sports. Since Wednesday morning, I’ve been glued to my computer, watching as the race’s leaders reach the finish line in Les Sables d’Olonne, France. As I write, Jean Le Cam is the 8th and most recent skipper to end his punishing journey. As if in answer to the ghost of Jules Verne, those that will soon stand on the winner’s podium, have completed the brutal contest 80 days after setting out to circumnavigate the globe.

Taking place once every four years, the first Vendée Globe was held in 1989. This year’s race began on November 8, 2020. Some in the race piloted boats that were 4 years in the making, employing the latest generation of technical and structural advances. Others, sailed much older vessels, betting on the skipper’s savvy and experience to win out over technology. In the end, weather, luck, and mental and physical endurance seem to have played the most significant roles in determining the top 8 finishers.

This edition of the Vendée Globe was far from the fastest. The all-time record was set in the 2016/2017 race when Armel Le Cléac’h finished in a little more than 74 days. However, this year’s contest, which will not be completely over until the last boats reach France weeks from now, may indeed go down as the most exciting. Never has there been a more tense and spectacular conclusion and never has the first man to cross the finish line failed to be named the winner. What follows are some of the highlights from this remarkable competition.

A Brief Recap

If you missed my earlier post, you should check out the following video which animates the route of the Vendée Globe.

Much of my post was devoted to the story of Kevin Escoffier, a Vendée skipper who, on November 30, slammed into a wave that destroyed his boat and left him stranded 1000 miles off the southern coast of Africa. Fortunately, Escoffier was able to board his ship’s life raft. The wait for help, however, was harrowing as his dingy was tossed about by 15-foot, icy-cold waves. Three of the Vendée Globe skippers who were sailing in the area, changed course to try and find him: Jean Le Cam, Boris Herrmann, and Yannick Bestaven. After many hours, Le Cam was able to extract Escoffier from the sea and take him to safety.

A panel of experts estimated the time lost by each sailor who participated in the rescue. This is standard practice in the world of sailing. At the end of the race, the respective compensatory times are deducted from each skipper’s final clock. This equitable practice is one of the factors that made this year’s race so interesting. In the final weeks, then days, then hours, onlookers considered not only each sailor’s position but how the compensatory rewards would impact the outcome:

SkipperTime to be deducted from finish time
Le Cam16 hours and 15 minutes
Besthaven10 hours and 15 minutes
Herrmann6 hours and 15 minutes
Compensatory times awarded for aiding Kevin Escoffier.

Besthaven Bested

Jean Le Cam
Jean Le Cam, “On a vécu un truc de malade”

In the weeks that followed Escoffier’s shipwreck, Bestaven, Le Cam, and Herrmann made up for lost time. By December 18, they held 1st, 4th, and 5th positions, respectively. It appeared that any one of them might win, even without the time adjustment. Bestaven’s lead continued to grow as he rounded the Cape of Good Hope and began his ascent of the Atlantic, returning to France. Exploiting winds created by a high-pressure system to the south, by January 8, 2021, Besthaven was 440 nautical miles ahead of the nearest competitor. I was happy to see that one of the 3 good samaritans was well-positioned to win but Besthaven’s luck was about to change.

Nine days later, on January 17, Louis Burton had taken the lead. The 35-year old sailor was the first to guide his craft across the equator and return to the northern hemisphere. Shockingly, on December 21, Burton had been in 11th place and 938 nautical miles behind Bestaven. A series of setbacks had slowed his pace, forced him to reset his mainsail, and make other repairs. Now, however, Bestaven trailed Burton by roughly 7 hours. Things were really heating up. Four other skippers lay between Burton and Bestaven, including Charlie Dalin, a race favorite, and Boris Herrmann. The Vendée Globe was beginning to resemble a regatta rather than a multi-month challenge of endurance.

Une Belle Bagarre

Louis Burton, courtesy Vendée Globe
Louis Burton, “C’est le mental qui joue”

At the end of day 79, January 26th, 5 boats were vying for first place and another 3 had the potential of knocking any one of them out. The weather was precarious. Many of the sailors were nursing battered sails and equipment. One skipper, Louis Burton, had run out of cooking fuel two weeks earlier and his drinking water was nearly out. He hadn’t had a reasonable meal in several days. As the boats approached Les Sables d’Olonne, some skippers had chosen a northerly route, others approached from the south, and some were choosing to come from the west.

Throughout the day of January 27th, Charlie Dalin maintained his lead. It was clear he would be the first to cross the finish line but roughly 6 hours behind him, and sailing from the south, was Boris Herrmann who would have his time reduced by 6 hours and 15 minutes. I’d grown fond of Herrmann watching his upbeat, onboard reports. He was a positive and unassuming character, supportive of his rivals, and grateful to be in the race. On his boat, he’d carried a sizable load of extra equipment to gather data for climate scientists. His ship had not suffered nearly as much as many of the others and he appeared to be in good spirits.

Adding to the suspense was the faithful Yannick Bestaven. Approaching from the north, Bestaven’s position was roughly 10 hours behind Dalin, and he would have his time reduced by 10 hours and 15 minutes. Also in the mix, were Louis Burton and Thomas Ruyant. The 61-year old Jean Le Cam was in the 8th position, but his final time would be reduced by more than 16 hours. There was no predicting what might happen. These men had sailed over 27,000 miles, encountered a variety of hazards and hardships, yet their estimated finishing times were far too close to call a sure winner.

Vendee Globe, January 27, 2021
Position of boats on the evening of January 27, 2021

High-Seas Drama

Boris Herrman, courtesy Vendée Globe
Boris Herrmann, “I saw this big wall…”

As night fell, all of the skippers other than Dalin, had several hours to go before reaching shore. Sleep deprivation is one of the inescapable hardships of sailing the Vendée Globe. Those further from shore burrowed down in their cabins to get one last nap before they reached the finish line.

At approximately 19:50 (7:50 pm) in France, Herrmann was awoken from a deep sleep as his boat crashed into a large fishing vessel. Having no idea what was happening, he scrambled from his bunk and peered out of his cabin. All he could see was a huge wall. His boat was somehow hooked to the side of the trawler and as it continued to move along it slammed against the larger ship. The successive blows transformed Herrmann’s earlier optimism into panic as he listened to the sound of his sails ripping.

Fortunately, his boat broke free and after performing a routine check, he was somewhat relieved to find that the collision had failed to compromise the hull. No water was seeping in but the shroud, mainsail, and one of the foils were destroyed. He would be able to continue in the race but, still 85 miles from Les Sables, his crippled ship could no longer attain racing velocity. Herrmann would later report that the cause of the crash was a complete mystery. His infra-red cameras, radar, alarm system, AI software, and auto-pilot had worked flawlessly throughout the trip and there was no evidence of failure. It was possible that the trawler had turned off its AIS, a tracking system designed to prevent ships from colliding with each other.

Pop the Champagne

Charlie Dalin, courtesy Vendée Globe
Charlie Dalin, “Il va falloir être dessous!”

Roughly 40 minutes after Herrmann struck the trawler, Charlie Dalin was the first to cross the finish line at 20:35 (8:35 pm). Normally, the marina would be packed with cheering fans but due to COVID and the country’s 6:00 pm curfew, the shipyard was dark, quiet, and relatively empty. Happily, numerous mariners surrounded Dalin’s boat, shooting off flares, blowing horns, waving, and welcoming him back to shore.

Dalin’s joy was contagious as he raised his arms in victory, jumped about the deck of his ship, and swung from the riggings. Dalin had more than earned these moments in the spotlight. His first-place ranking was likely to evaporate, but he had led the Vendée Globe more than any other skipper—a total of 225 times.

Reshuffling the Decks

Yannick Bestaven
Yannick Bestaven wins the 2020/2021 Vendee Globe

While Herrmann managed to hold his ship together, his speed dropped off rapidly. At one point earlier in the day, it had seemed like he might have a chance of passing Burton. Now, as he limped along, Herrmann received the news that Burton had come in second. Meanwhile, Bestaven managed to leapfrog Ruyant and the two were third and fourth, respectively, to cross the finish line. Bestaven’s adjusted time, however, pushed him into 1st place, unseating Charlie Dalin.

As the hours passed Seguin then Padote reached Les Sables. Herrmann’s pace was now so slow, I began to wonder if his 6-hour advantage would come to nothing. When he eventually reached the end, however, Herrmann’s total sailing time as the 7th finisher was recalibrated, leaving him in 4th place. All eyes now turned to Jean Le Cam and his 16.25-hour compensatory award.

Finally, on the evening of January 28th, Le Cam arrived. After reducing his total race time by 16.25 hours, Le Cam bumped Herrmann and moved into 4th place. The final standings are as follows

SkipperOrder of finishFinal placement
Charlie Dalin12nd
Louis Burton23rd
Yannick Bestaven31st
Thomas Ruyant46th
Damien Seguin57th
Giancarlo Pedote68th
Boris Herrmann75th
Jean Le Cam84th

An Unspoken Kinship

Damien Seguin, courtesy Vendée Globe
Damien Seguin, emerges as Captain Hook after reaching the finish line

There is so much more to this story that I haven’t covered. If you’re interested in learning about the hardships that these athletes face, I encourage you to visit the official Vendée Globe website. There you’ll find answers to a variety of questions. What’s it like to be thousands of miles offshore, alone in the pitch black of an overcast night? What will be your first meal upon reaching land? What has been the hardest test you’ve had to face? How did you cope with the months of solitude? How difficult is it to single-handedly replace a cracked rudder or scale the mainmast to fix a camera? Do you plan to re-enter the race in 2024? The answers to such questions vary widely from one mariner to the next and can lead an observer down a rabbit hole of wanting to learn more.

The Vendée Globe is a test like no other. The men and women who undertake this challenge must possess many fine qualities: mental toughness, sailing acumen, strength, intelligence, and endurance to name a few. The press conferences that followed each finish inadvertently showed off many of the sailors’ linguistic abilities as they took questions in English, French, Italian, and German.

Replies to questions ranged from Le Cam’s reticence to describe the indescribable to Pedote’s profound, philosophical conclusions. All avowed that the challenge had been harder than expected. Even Le Cam who had just completed his 5th Vendée Globe was visibly humbled by the experience. I don’t recall ever witnessing a sporting event throughout which the participants acted with such humility, integrity, and grace. Whenever a skipper saw his finishing position knocked back, he welcomed and congratulated his rival. In turn, the rising skipper credited much of his standing to good fortune and genuinely contended that his spot on the podium should be shared.

You don’t often see a sporting event where all of the participants leave knowing they did their best and carry zero ill-will for those that may have had better luck with weather or various unforeseeable obstacles. Indeed, the early finishers showed the utmost respect for their opponents and proffered words of encouragement to those who were still en route. Perhaps their deep-seated sense of goodwill and unspoken bond of fraternity is best explained by this quote from the Shakespearean play Henry V:

For he today that sheds his blood with me. Shall be my brother

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About Carol A. Seidl

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

6 Comments

  1. Thanks, Carol. Fascinating!

  2. A gripping narrative. Hard luck for Herrmann especially, being trolled by a trawler just a few hours before the finish. It’s painful to imagine the frustration of being thwarted by that after weeks of travail.

    The good sportsmanship is remarkable, but perhaps it’s the camaraderie that comes from sharing a harrowing experience far beyond what most people ever know.

    • Exactly Infidel. I think you nailed it. Surprisingly, Herrmann’s only moment of regret seemed to come when he expressed concern about possibly disappointing his onshore team. Given their lack of sleep, the emotional highs and lows are staggering but somehow these skippers are able to push forward and take the long view, even after a near brush with disaster.

  3. It’s an astonishing escapade and a gripping story, well told. If only that esprit could be distilled and more widely distributed among humankind…

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