Jean Luc Van den Heede Wins the 2018 Golden Globe Race

Joe Cooper reports on the septuagenarian who won one of the world’s toughest races
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Van den Heede nursed his damaged rig to a first-place finish

Van den Heede nursed his damaged rig to a first-place finish

Whatever is in the water in Brittany, it must be powerful stuff. Followers of the singlehanded sailing game are used to pretty heroic performances by Breton sailors, but none of them have come anywhere near the recent achievements of a 74-year-old former math teacher named Jean Luc Van den Heede. This redoubtable senior citizen not only won the 2018-19 Golden Globe Race (GGR)—a singlehanded “sprint” around the world in the spirit of the original 1968 event, sailed in small production boats without benefit of electronic navigation—in doing so, he also completed his sixth solo circumnavigation.

The original Golden Globe Race was sponsored by the Times of London, which offered a £5,000 prize for the first person to circumnavigate the globe alone, without stopping. This drama-packed first edition was won by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston on his 32ft ketch, Suhaili.

Robin Knox-Johnston (right), winner of the first Golden Globe race 50 years ago, greets Van den Heede at the finish

Robin Knox-Johnston (right), winner of the first Golden Globe race 50 years ago, greets Van den Heede at the finish

Several years ago, Don McIntyre, an Australian sailor and former competitor in the BOC round-the-world race, decided to organize a 50th-anniversary edition of the Golden Globe intended to appeal to the Everyman. It would be the antithesis of the high-dollar, high-stakes professional round-the-world races we’ve become accustomed to. Boats would be restricted to the type commonly sailed in 1968, cruising boats 32ft to 36ft long, navigation would be by sextant, and ship-to-shore communications would be restricted. On July 1, 2018, 18 sailors from 13 countries departed Les Sables d’Olonne, France, bound around the globe south of the five capes.

One of the sailors pushing off that day was VDH, the former math teacher from Brittany. The tall, smiling, bearded sailor has spent the past 30-odd years as one of the more successful skippers on the French singlehanded sailing scene.

When he crossed the finish line off Les Sables d’Olonne on January 29 on Matmut, his Rustler 36, 45 minutes shy of 212 days at an average speed of 140 miles a day, VDH’s victory marked his fifth podium finish in a solo round-the-world race.

Except for a box of equipment for use in emergencies (and sealed before the start), there was no GPS navigation and position-fixing was by sextant and tables. There was no way to gather weather forecasts, other than looking out the hatch and at the barometer, and certainly no weather routing.

In keeping with a fundamental tenet of the sea and sailboat racing, the GGR sailors were on their own in every sense of the word, especially when it came to repairs. VDH put this to the test in early November.

While some 1,900 miles west of Cape Horn, VDH suffered a knockdown that damaged his mast. He advised Race Control of this fact via his emergencies-only satphone, while running under bare poles as it was still blowing over 60 knots with a 35ft sea.

VDH’s initial plan was to sail to Valparaiso, Chile, to effect repairs. However, this would have eliminated him from the GGR and relegated him to the “Chichester Class,” for those who made one stop. Three days later he called Race Control and said, roughly: Hell no.

“I am going to make the best repair I can and keep going. The worst that can happen is I lose my rig, and I have my jury rig at the ready,” he added. At that point, 130 days into the race, he had already built up a 2,000-mile lead over the second-placed boat. Retiring to the front porch of his yacht club was clearly not in his plans.

Later, with another storm bearing down, VDH went up the rig and repaired the damage as best as he could. An inspection of the top spreaders—think about that for a moment—showed that part of the mast to be undamaged. In another message to Race Control after this herculean effort, VDH revealed that rather than “just” suffering a knockdown he had, in fact, pitchpoled. He further explained that any repair would be temporary, and the only true fix would be a new spar. And so, he was going to continue racing, albeit in conservation mode.

As followers of the race know, VDH survived both his wounded rig and a last-minute assault by second-place skipper, Dutchman Mark Slats, who at one point got to within 50 miles of the Frenchman.

Even by the high standards of the French singlehanded sailing community, VDH’s victory was an astounding achievement at any age, let alone 74. Only five of the original 18 starters were still racing when he finished. At the time of writing, three skippers were still at sea, among them American Istvan Kopar.

Even before the race finished, the organizers had announced the start date for the next event—28 August 2022, the anniversary of famed French sailor Bernard Moitessier’s start in the 1968 event.

This time around there will be two classes—one for one-design replicas of Moitessier’s famous Joshua, the other for the same boat types that competed in the 2018 event. If you fancy your chances against the Southern Ocean, sign up at goldengloberace.com 

April 2019

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