The Mount Everest of Sailing. The most grueling race a sailor can enter. An outrageous challenge and an epic adventure. The Vendee Globe race is all of these. Saying it’s a tough race to win is hyperbole; it’s a tough race to merely compete in. Every year, world-class sailors in state-of-the-art boats are forced to abandon the race for a variety of reasons. In 1992, British sailor Nigel Burgess died in the Vendee and Tony Bullimore barely survived after being shipwrecked for five days in frigid Antarctic waters.
This year’s race has panned out in an offshore grudge match with dismasted boats, destroyed mainsails, and an epic capsize that caused competitors, viewers, and race organizers alike to hold their breath in fear for skipper Jean le Cam aboard VM Matriaux. Le Cam was subsequently rescued by teammate Vincent Riou (PRB) whose outrigger got tangled with VM Matriaux’s keel strut and was dismasted in the process, forcing him to withdraw. France’s Yann Elis broke three bones while changing headsails in 18 knots of wind and Sbastien Josse was forced to retire after his rudder system, coach roof and central bulkhead suffered severe damage following a capsize. In all, 17 of the original 29 boats have left the race. As Josse put it, “The Vendee Globe is one of the hardest challenges in the world, sometimes it lets you pass, sometimes it breaks you.”
The magic recipe for those still standing (or sailing, in this case) is part boat, part skipper, part perseverance, and a dash of good fortune. According to this formula, no one could have predicted the emergence of a certain Tortoise who has edged her way alongside of (or very close to) the Hares of the Vendee. British skipper Sam Davies (Roxy), one of only two female skippers (the other being Dee Caffari aboard Aviva), has beaten the odds by not only remaining in the race, but holding a consistent spot in the top five boats. Roxy, at eight years of age, is one of the oldest IMOCA 60’s competing in this race. Before the Vendee began, Sam herself recognized that compared to her competitors (20 of whose boats were built in the past four years specifically for this Vendee Globe cycle), Roxy would fall in an entirely different fleet, one that would likely occupy the bottom of the leaderboard.
Against all expectations, 11 weeks into the race, the year-2000-generation Open 60 Roxy is practically in as good of condition as when she began. Although they were both projected to perform better than Roxy, Brian Thompson’s 2007 model Bahrain Team Pindar is suffering from a malfunctioning alternator and wind generator and Johnny Malbon’s 2008-model Artemis was forced to retire because of a delaminating mainsail.
Roxy was also projected to place below Aviva, which is being skippered by the only other female skipper in the race. Aviva is a brand-new, Owen-Clarke-design and Caffari is attempting to circumnavigate the world for the second time (her previous attempt was against the prevailing winds). Caffari is now contending with a severely deteriorated mainsail that she has been doctoring diligently, even to the brink of depleting her sail repair kit. Roxy, on the other hand, has suffered little damage and remains 500 miles ahead of Aviva.
The bookies were not unwise in their predictions. It would have been silly to project an old boat like Roxy would win or even place well. But Davies still holds a 4th place position, sailing 100 miles ahead of Marc Guillemot’s brand-new IMOCA 60, Safran, with three knots more speed under her bottom.
As for the skipper portion of the recipe for success, Sam came into the race well prepared, but not on par with some of the greats. Sam was practically born on a boat and her sail-crazy parents, who now reside at sea, bred her to love the sport from an early age. The 33-year old worked her way through the Figaro and Classe Mini before entering the world of the Open 60s. She’s sailed in multiple transat races, earning a 6th place in the 2003 Jacques Vabre, and an 11th in the 2001 Mini-Transat, which she sailed in a 21-foot boat. She has made large strides for female sailors as well. In April 2007, her all-girl crew of Jeanne Grgoire, Miranda Merron, Alexia Barrier, and Sharon Ferris set a new all-female Round Britain record in the Calais Round Britain Race. In another all-female mission, this one led by Tracy Edwards in 1997–98, Sam made an attempt at the Jules Verne Trophy. Her boat was forced to retire after a frightening dismast around Cape Horn. A few years back, Sam transplanted herself to Port La Foret to train with the big guys. This location has a reputation for producing extraordinary sailors and it is often called “Valley of the Madman” for all of the single-handers who train there. In Port La Foret, Sam met Michel “le Profesor” Desjoyeaux. He became a friend and mentor and continues to assist Sam throughout this year’s race via e-mail and cell phone.
With this impressive resume, Sam did not enter the Vendee empty-handed. But compared to the high-caliber competition like Vincent Riou, Seb Josse, Loick Peyron, and Le Profesor, her credentials did not place her at the top. Add to that an aged boat, and there is valid reason that Sam was not the favorite at the beginning of the 23,680-mile journey. Today, however, regardless of how she finishes, she will have introduced an element of surprise to the race, not just in her rankings, but also in the manner in which she attained them. Britain’s now-famous underdog has captivated the hearts and minds of many as her Tortoise of a boat continues to race like a Hare.
Girls just wanna have fun
Sam currently has 3,400 miles to go, which is no small distance. But with over 20,000 miles under her belt, that means she’s seen her share of sights in this race. Her light-hearted blog posts talk about a sun that never dips far below the horizon, about moonglow and starlight and birds and whales, and how you can see forever. “The only sadness,” she writes, “is not having anyone to share it with.”
But this happy-go-lucky sailor finds plenty of ways to keep herself company on what could be a very lonely solo journey. She celebrated Christmas by decorating the cabin with a miniature Christmas tree, lights, and presents. She attempted to dine on lobster bisque prepared by her boyfriend, but had to settle for freeze-dried pasta and chocolates because sailing a tight reach in 25 knots of wind “makes your kitchen like a rollercoaster.” She was delighted to open gifts from home, but fretted that her new “grow your own male stripper” might get her disqualified for no longer being single-handed.
A week later, Sam posted a video of herself toasting to the New Year with a bottle of Mumm champagne. Her resolutions, like her, were concurrently silly and sincere: “Stop eating Nutella out of the pot with my fingers…brush my hair more than once a week…Be nice to Chuck (the autopilot)…Complete my trip…Eat less chocolate.”
Even without the holiday distractions, Sam finds constant companionship in her boat Roxy. She talks about her race in terms of “we” and writes love-letter like prose in praise of what she calls Roxy’s song: “the water rushing past its hull; the jockey pole and its stays twanging like guitar strings…the daggerboard whistling…” You can just picture Sam out in the middle of the sea, jabbering away to Roxy like an old friend, giving her enthusiastic updates on their progress. In one blog post, Sam pondered if talking to one’s boat was the first sign of madness. If it is, consider Sam totally nuts.
When she’s bored, she posts videos of herself dancing to “Girls just wanna have fun.” When she’s elated, she rocks out to ABBA on her pink iPod. And when she’s relaxed, she snuggles up in her pink fleecy blanket (the same one that accompanied her around the world 11 years ago in her Jules Verne attempt) and allows herself to become enveloped in either a trashy romance novel or her grandfather’s memoirs of his life as a submarine commander.
Her quirky tactics on board have succeeded in entertaining her as well as a growing number of fans. They’ve come to respect not just her endearing silliness, but also the way in which she seamlessly blends that silliness with a serious passion to compete. With a master's degree in engineering and a lifetime spent sailing, there’s no question that Sam is book-smart, athletic, and able to compete, but she is acutely aware of her position as the underdog. She is constantly on her guard, ever aware of the vulnerability of her position. “Roxy is a few years old,” she acknowledges, “and I am working hard to keep as large a distance as I can between myself and the three modern-generation boats behind.” She’s done a fair job of that—especially toward the end where she’s held her position as a top-five boat—and her goals remain modest. “I can’t stop telling myself that the real victory will be to make it back to the finish in Les Sables d’Olonee.”
She’s got a ways to go until then but in the meantime, Sam will rely on what she considers her biggest asset: mental endurance. “Women sail with our brains, not our brute,” she explains, “but don’t tell the boys I said that or they’d get cross.” In every interview and every video of the race, Sam seems, well, happy. Fellow racer Mike Golding (Ecover) got off the phone with her in December and said, “I don’t know what she’s on. She sounds far too happy.”
In this caliber of serious sailing it is an accomplishment for competitors to remain positive, much less giddy and much, much less fearless. For a self-proclaimed “girlie girl,” Sam has maintained an impressive level of competitiveness that many predict she attained during her tough years of training in Port La Foret.