Racing: Pip Hare and the Vendée Globe

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An hour after midnight on a bitingly cold day this past February, English sailor Pip Hare crossed the finish line of the Vendée Globe. After 95 days alone at sea, she was suddenly surrounded by crowds of people. Lit up by the crimson of the handheld red flares she was holding and the flashing lights of photographers and TV crews, Hare’s expression was one of absolute elation: a look the hundreds of thousands of loyal fans she had earned along the way could instantly recognize, an almost childlike delight that said, “I really have done this, and I loved it!”

When the 47-year-old sailing instructor and race coach had left France three months earlier, she’d been a relatively little-known prospect sailing the oldest boat in the fleet—a 21-year-old slow-coach IMOCA 60 apparently destined to be a tail-ender. Most observers ranked her as a plucky adventurer who would be lucky to simply make it all the way back to France.

Hare, though, is anything but that kind of sailor, and her 19th-place finish out of 33 starters was one of the great feats of this edition. She’d never aimed to “just finish.”

Her daily blogs and video diaries had also succeeded in amassing one of the largest followings of the race. Sailors and non-sailors alike were drawn to her. Her candor and determination made her easy to care about. That big smile and pinch-me joy at being alone at sea was a tonic when so many of us were feeling trapped and uncertain with the pandemic.

Hare at sea in the run-up to the 2020-21 Vendée Globe

Hare at sea in the run-up to the 2020-21 Vendée Globe

From Square One

They say simply getting to the start of the Vendée Globe is the hardest part of the race. Yet even by customary measures, Hare’s road there was a tortuous one. While other sailors were launching new yachts and fine-tuning their campaigns, she was still trying to find any boat she could afford, with no connections and no support network. “I started with nothing in January 2019, absolutely nothing,” she says. “All I had was a personal loan from the bank.”

On a bare-bones budget, there were few options until late 2018 when she received an e-mail offering her a 1999 vintage IMOCA 60 for roughly $2,700 a month. Built and launched for Swiss sailor Bernard Stamm in 1999, Superbigou was solidly made if massively outdated. In the years since, over the course of no less than five subsequent generations of class development, IMOCA 60s have been transformed into semi-foiling yachts that sail a good 5-7 knots faster on average and 10 knots faster on a reach. They are also managed in a fashion that is only vaguely comparable. The technology, the communications, the sailhandling—every aspect is radically different. To put things in perspective: Superbigou had already done two round-the-world races by the time the first iPhone was released.

Hare fully appreciated the fact that Superbigou would be much slower. But never having set foot on an IMOCA 60 before, even she didn’t fully realize how much harder her older boat would be to sail. It was an absolute beast.

“The boat has no protection outside at all, just a tiny lip that comes off the coachroof that I can sit behind,” she says. “Once I step outside I am fully out in the open. Waves come down and body slam you, and you are up to your knees. When I reef the boat I have to go to the mast. I can furl headsails from the cockpit, but because I have full bulkheads not ring frames, I can’t drag them through the boat. They have to go out through the hatches.”

Another big challenge is the boat’s canting keel. While others swing their keels from side to side at the press of a button, Hare had to use a block and tackle taken to an electric winch. “I have to go down into the engine room, ease it down manually, lock it off, go back on deck, tack the boat—we get flattened coming out of the tack—then go back below and cant the keel on the electric winch. Everything is harder. It takes an hour to empty the ballast tanks. I sleep on the floor because there are no bunks. There is no nav station.”

Finally, the simple fact of the boat’s being slower would also make things more difficult as a result of her having fewer routing options. In the Southern Ocean, a quick boat can be positioned ahead of a cold front and then chase depressions, sailing fast in smoother seas before being finally overtaken. A slower design, on the other hand, will simply be overtaken, at which point it gets mashed up in the cross seas these fronts leave in their wake.

None of this mattered, though, compared with finally having a boat to race with. Hare was sure she had the drive, resilience and skills. Sponsorship, funding and help would be nice but weren’t absolutely necessary. She’d just have to take her chances and trust things would all fall into place.

It takes incredible grit to compete in the Vendée Globe, especially aboard an older boat

It takes incredible grit to compete in the Vendée Globe, especially aboard an older boat

In Search of Adventure

Historically, the gateway class for the Vendée Globe has been the absurdly over-canvassed 21ft Mini 6.50, which is raced solo from France to the Caribbean in the biennial Mini Transat race. The class has served as the crucible for such cutting-edge innovations as water ballast, canting keels and wing masts. The intensity of competition has bred a particular type of predator sailor as hungry as the wolf. For Hare, the class served as a training ground as well, though her path there was a circuitous one.

She grew up messing around in boats on the east coast of the UK. Her grandfather owned a clinker-built wooden Folkboat, and her mother and father would take their four children on sailing holidays. “My earliest memories are of being on that boat. I remember us sleeping on board and Mum cooking us dinner on the single-burner paraffin stove,” she recalls. “But it was never just about sailing. It was about adventuring. I didn’t think of sailing as a sport.”

When her parents bought a 33ft cruiser they started going farther afield, across the Channel to France, Holland and Belgium. “I definitely didn’t really enjoy sailing then. It was all a bit stressy,” she says. At 16, though, she enrolled in an RYA Young Skipper scheme, and everything changed.

Sailing out of Plymouth on bilge-keelers, she was taught the basics of seamanship and navigation. She and her class made passages, rowing into port and drying out. “We navigated on paper charts on our laps. It was really proper sailing with a huge amount of responsibility and the freedom that you were looking for as a teenager and couldn’t find anywhere else,” she says. “From then on, I was obsessed.”

Following her RYA training, she got on the water by volunteering for a disabled sailing program through a British seamanship foundation. Captivated by the feats of Ellen MacArthur and Isabelle Autissier, she began dreaming of competing in the Vendée Globe, despite the fact that early on, in particular, racing remained largely out of reach.

“The thing about the performance pathway is you need to come from a family that is able to deliver that for you,” she says. “Mum and Dad worked full-time. It wasn’t a question of money, but one of time. They were working as hard as they could to create the life we enjoyed, so if we wanted to do stuff, we had to do it on our own. We saved our own money. We cycled to the club. I worked as a cleaner, I waitressed, and I saved up enough for the train fares to the south coast as often as I could.”

At 18, she decided she had no interest in university and “came home one weekend and broke my parents’ heart.”

Her first job was as an apprentice at a sailing school, earning the equivalent of $25 a week. After that, she taught with Sunsail before moving to the Caribbean and then New Zealand. Back in the UK, she and her then-husband, naval architect Laurence Hildesley, decided to buy an Oyster Lightwave 395 called The Shed and go cruising. “We started in the UK and cruised the North and South Atlantic on a tiny budget of $350 a month. When we ran out of money we would fly back home and work. I lived on board for 11 of the 13 years we owned her.”

When the couple split up, Hare kept the boat and sailed singlehanded from Uruguay to the UK to enter her first solo race, the 2009 OSTAR. The following year she decided she’d have to part with The Shed to get any farther, so she sold it and bought a Mini 6.50 to race in the 2011 Mini Transat. The training and race was every bit as tough as she’d read, but she finished 17th out of 79 sailors—and loved it.

In 2013 she returned for another Mini Transat, but then collided with a growing number of debts and had to sell. For the next two years, she worked in the sea-safety department of the RNLI, Britain’s charity sea rescue organization, while competing in ultra-marathons (including the grueling Three Peaks Race, which she finished despite breaking her ankle six miles from the finish) and completing a distance-learning degree in modern languages and linguistics. Eventually she tired of her desk job and returned to racing and coaching in Class40s, eventually competing in the doublehanded Transat Jacques Vabre.

Everything is a bit tougher when you’re sailing a late-generation IMOCA 60,

Everything is a bit tougher when you’re sailing a late-generation IMOCA 60,

Nearly Bankrupt

Although Hare started out with enough money to charter Superbigou for the race, things got tough during the lockdown last year when her finances and hopes began to ebb. She’d actually been Googling “how to go bankrupt” only a week earlier when, miraculously, a potential sponsor contacted her out of the blue. The CEO of Medallia, a global company that collects and analyzes customer and employee information, is a keen sailor and had read about her. “I got this one-line e-mail asking if there were any opportunities available to sponsor me. Two days later I had a letter of intent and three weeks later I’d signed a contract,” she says.

The white knight sponsorship, a “six-figure sum,” according to Hare, came just in time to do a refit and employ an experienced technical boat captain to help whip Superbigou—now Medallia—into shape. It was still a tiny project by Vendée Globe standards (in which teams capable of developing a new yacht will have budgets of $20-25 million), but it was enough.

On a sunny, cool November 8, Hare finally crossed the starting line off Les Sables d’Olonne, France, and started heading south. Again, in the minds of many, she was just another also-ran. But two weeks later, as the fleet was charging toward a rapidly forming tropical storm, she began to make a name for herself. Most of the rearguard sailors chose to duck it. Hare, though, saw an opportunity and jibed toward the center, aiming to slingshot out the other side on the strong winds. Months of heavy-weather training in the English Channel paid off. By the time the fleet reached the Doldrums, Medallia and Hare were where no one ever thought they would be: well ahead of many of the much quicker boats, including two of the latest multi-million foiling designs.

She remembers thinking: “If I could be with these boats now, why not for the rest of the race? It got me hungry.”

In the Southern Ocean, a place she’d never sailed before, Hare experienced exhilaration more than fear. Borne along by the region’s famously big winds, she soon found herself both surfing at 25-26 knots and logging her first 400-mile day.

“I couldn’t eat or sleep at first,” she says. “I was standing by the companionway with the autopilot remote in my hand, watching the numbers, listening intently to the boat, my stomach doing somersaults. Was I pushing too hard? Was this reckless?”

Eventually, though, she decided to trust her instincts. “What are you doing out here if you’re not going to try?” she remembers telling herself as a first step to settling in to the sailing in that part of the world.

And it wasn’t only herself she was telling this too—she also made a point of telling her growing number of fans how things were going. Each day, she explained the conundrums, showed us the weather, explained the jobs she was doing and confessed feelings of fatigue or weakness. Just as keenly, she communicated the excitement of big speeds and big seas, with an authentic, almost childlike glee.

Not surprisingly given her boat’s age, she had her share of mechanical problems and then some. Sometimes there were multiple things to fix in a day. She reckons 30 percent of her race was spent dealing with or trying to fix gear failure. Throughout, though she handled these problems with the same aplomb.

Her biggest test came deep in the Southern Pacific Ocean when her port rudder stock cracked. Replacing it with a spare rudder was a procedure she had practiced before the start, but only at the dock. Further complicating the situation was the fact she was likely only to have one chance to get it done, during an expected eight-hour lull between gales. The seas were running around 10ft when Hare set about the swap. Under bare poles, Medallia was still making 5 knots, so she deployed a drogue, assembled everything she would need and went for it.

First, she heeled the boat over and drilled a hole near the bottom of the rudder. Next, she packed a flare container with 165lb of anchor chain to act as a counterweight to overcome the rudder’s buoyancy and help pull it out. Another line was taken from the bottom of the rudder through a ring on the chain and then back via a block to a winch. This, in combination with a third line led from the top of the rudder through a boom block, allowed her to pull the rudder out of its bearings and up on deck. The same lines were then attached to the new rudder in order to winch it down where it belonged and pull it into position through the bearings.

In all, the procedure took around two hours, after which Hare immediately returned to racing. Only much later did she realize the mental and physical toll it had taken. Looking back, she says it took around two weeks to fully recover from the experience.

Another close call came when she lost one of the cups from her masthead wind sensor, which both compromised her autopilot and made it much harder to judge the best time to change sails. For a full two weeks, she had to constantly listen and watch for wind shifts without ever being able to switch off. “The fatigue ate away at me,” she says, “but I would not give up.”

Once past Cape Horn, she faced the terrifying prospect of having to climb the mast and fix it. Worse yet, no sooner had she done so than she was stung on the back by a jellyfish that had somehow been scooped up into a sail, which led to a violent allergic reaction. Swollen, fiery hot and in pain, she shared her despair in blogs and videos. Her fans were horrified. “That was the hardest part of all,” she says. “I was really quite ill for the better part of two weeks.”

Nonetheless, undeterred by illness, breakdowns or the inevitable North Atlantic gales, she continued clawing her way to the finish. Vendée Globe veterans say the return leg through the Atlantic, when the boat and sailor are already pretty much worn out, is the hardest part of all, and it felt that way on Medallia. Still, Hare kept at it, driving her boat as hard as she could, hoping to save or make up as many miles as possible. Had it not been for the loss of a fractional gennaker halyard two days before the finish, robbing her of two places, she is certain she could have beaten at least one of the modern foilers. She was still gaining on the two foilers immediately in front of her when she finished.

In the small hours of February 12, she finally crossed the line mere hours after the target she’d quietly set herself at the start. The only sensible benchmark, she’d reckoned, was Ellen MacArthur’s time aboard Kingfisher back in 2000—94 days and 4 hours—a then record-breaking pace on a boat of the same vintage. Hare missed it by just seven hours.

The Road Ahead

Since the moment Hare stepped ashore in Les Sables d’Olonne, she has been adamant she would do another Vendée Globe. This race was “only the warmup” and a more competitive boat would show what she was really capable of, she says. To this end, in May Medallia signed up with her for another campaign in the 2024-25 Vendée Globe, and Hare bought Bureau Vallée, the four-year-old foiling IMOCA that had just finished in third place. “I wanted a boat designed with foils, but the 2020 boats just don’t seem like ones I’d easily get to grips with. This boat is suited to my style of sailing, one I can grit my teeth and push,” Hare says.

Apparently, as part of the deal, Medallia has not set out any race-winning expectations. “They just want me to do as well as I possibly can, to be part of my journey,” Hare explains. At the same time, though, she says, “It’s impossible for me to say how well I could do. I’ve never, ever sailed a foiling boat before. Then again, in 2018 I’d never sailed an IMOCA either!”

One way or the other, it is already abundantly clear Hare’s next campaign will have a very different focus and tone from this past one. “It is really exciting. There was no one to help me before. I had to do absolutely everything. Now my ultimate goal is to spend some time in my life being a sailor, being coached and learning,” she says.

She adds that while she gave the 2020-21 race her all, there is always more, and you can never be sure whether you’ve truly reached your limit. “There is always a little question in my mind, could I do better? That’s what life is all about isn’t it?” she says. It will be fascinating to see what this most indefatigable of sailors is capable of when the next Vendée Globe rolls around. 

July 2021

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