The Vendée Globe is the world’s toughest sailing event, bar none. Every four years, a diverse group of solo sailors—men and women, young and middle-aged—depart Brittany, France, in November, leave the three great capes—the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa, Cape Leeuwin on Australia’s southwestern corner and Cape Horn at the tip of the south American continent—to port, Antarctica to starboard, and (hopefully) finish back in Brittany some 28,000 nonstop miles later.
It’s a supreme mental and physical challenge; an almost superhuman level of endurance and skill is required to keep a high-performance 60-footer sailing hard and fast around the clock in often extreme conditions, at the same time conserving the boat’s equipment—one small failure can end a race—and guarding against the ever-present risk of serious injury or death. Just finishing this race is regarded as a victory.
Since the first race in 1989, the Vendée Globe has been marked both by legendary feats of seamanship and heartbreaking tragedy. American Mike Plant was lost at sea on his way to the start of the second race in 1992, and Briton Nigel Burgess drowned soon after the race began.
The Southern Ocean also more than lived up to its billing in the third race in 1994-95. Several boats capsized there, and Italian sailor Raphael Dinelli was saved by Briton Pete Goss in an epic display of heavy weather seamanship. At the same time Canadian Gerry Roufs was tragically lost at sea; his inverted boat, minus its keel, was found several months later.
Although French superstar Michel Desjoyeaux won the 2000-01 Globe, his victory was eclipsed by 24-year-old British rookie Ellen Macarthur’s performance. The two traded places several times, and Macarthur finished just a day behind after hitting a container and damaging her boat.
American Bruce Schwab took a hard-earned ninth place in the 2004-05 event, in which the first three finishers crossed the line within hours of each other. He became the first American to finish the race, setting the scene for Rich Wilson’s campaign in 2009-10, where he too finished ninth.
A new generation of Open 60s took to the water in the 2012-13 race, and several skippers broke the existing 24-hour solo distance record. Francois Gabart, at 28 the youngest victor so far, won in 78 days 2 hours 16 minutes, just three hours ahead of Armel Le Cleac’h—the fastest and closest finish yet.
Gabart’s time was 31 days faster than 1989 winner Titouan Lamazou’s elapsed time, an indication not just of the young Frenchman’s skill but of how far Open 60 design had come in 13 years. Gabart set a 24-hour record of 534.48 nautical miles, at an average speed of 22.27 knots; not all that much slower than the fully-crewed record of 596nm set by Torben Grael’s crew on the Volvo 70 Ericsson 4 in 2008.
For the eighth race, which starts from Les Sables d’Olonne on November 6, IMOCA 60 design has evolved yet again. New design rules aim to avoid the spate of keel failures that occurred in the previous two events, but the most exciting development is the use of lifting foils on several of the newest boats.
Some 300,000 spectators throng the docks for the start of a Vendée Globe, and millions follow the race online; it’s a highlight of the French sporting calendar. For more information go to vendeeglobe.org.
Photo by Jean Marie LIOT/DPPI