It’s a rare coup when a world-class sailor also happens to possess great writing skills, as this is the winning ticket to capturing the true grit of offshore racing. When you start talking about premiere-level events such as the Whitbred/Volvo Ocean Race, or the Barcelona World Race (BWR), a double-handed, non-stop, around-the-world race, the number of people capable of participating is small, but when you cross reference this with those sailors who have the writing chops to tell it like it really is, the numbers become minute. Meet Sidney Gavignet. At age 38, Gavignet is already on his fourth “lap” as co-skipper on Delta Dore in the BWR. This piece, The Inside Story was originally published in the BWR’s publication, Duo, and was written prior to the race’s November 11, 2007 start, but the BWR’s OC Group (the race’s management company) kindly let SAIL re-publish the article. We think you’ll agree: few pieces of sailing writing convey the fears, joys, and trials of high-latitude racing to the same degree that Gavignet achieves here. Read on – you might just find yourself shopping around for an Open 60, a co-skipper, and a race in which to take the plunge.—David Schmidt
The Inside Story
Sailors are men of few words. Or at least, so the clich says… But they also are the only ones capable of actually ‘telling it the way it is’ after they’ve disappeared behind the horizon. Sidney Gavignet, co-skipper of Delta Dore in the Barcelona World Race is not only a talented sailor with three circumnavigations under his belt, he’s also a rather delicate writer. And there’s nothing like first hand experience when it comes to trying to capture the reality of life at sea.
One, two, and then three round-the-world journeys… With the Barcelona World Race pending, it's another circumnavigation dawning upon me, and memories start rushing back in ‘replay’ mode. My first experience was during a Whitbread Race, aboard the French Maxi La Poste. My first professional contract, the joy of leaving for a new adventure, young and inexperienced… The goodbyes on the dock were tearful, and I felt nervous before jumping into the unknown. Unknowns which in this case included the Roaring 40s and the Furious 50s, as we left Punta Del Este for the Southern Ocean leg.
As a young sailor, I was disturbed by the fact that Michel Desjoyeaux, who represented the experience and the sense of security I was lacking, left the crew for family reasons precisely at this point. Without him, the perspective of the Southern Ocean seemed even more frightening! But years later, what’s left in my mind are thick grey skies blocking the sunlight for 10 days, the first albatrosses I saw and their motionless flight, the icebergs and the minefield of growlers we had to sail through. I’d been at the helm, following the directions given by a crewmate posted at the bow, steering almost blindly to avoid the impact. My heart was pounding and everyone on board was on the edge. Now, that’s a great memory! And there was also that time when, still in the Southern Ocean, we were on our way towards Brooksfield, whose crew had sent a distress signal after a rudder breakage had left a gaping hole in her hull. We were riding enormous waves, and I can still feel this subtle but crucial moment of indecision when I had to chose between launching the boat into a wild surf, at the risk of sending it crashing into the back of the next wall of water, or deciding it was all too risky to go on like that… Two hours at the helm, engraved in my memory, my hands swollen and bloody – I loved that too.
After La Poste, my dream was to return to the Southern Ocean, but alone. Things did not turn out like that, and I greeted the great capes once more during the Volvo Ocean Race, another fully crewed adventure. I was older, more mature and more experienced… this round-the-world race was altogether very different. More than sheer adventure or the discovery of a new territory, what I encountered this time was the secret and fascinating human alchemy at work. I got to understand how a crew of 12 persons and a shore team can work together for a year and a half, always heading in the same direction, reaching for the same common objective… and, at the same time, keeping the flame of passion alive, even in that very professional environment. Essentially, a world in which sailors can prepare and take part in a round-the-world race almost as if it were ‘just another job’. True, today this type of adventure tends to get more and more common, as people head out around the planet as they would have left for a Transat years ago. Wait – then again, ‘common’ is not the right word. It never will be.
Sometimes, at sea, it’s real hell and the opportunity to feel miserable is certainly given to you on a regular basis. Water creeps down every single wall inside, the boat slams its way from wave to wave, nights are pitch dark, freezing, and grey days can just pile up without a single sunny moment of relief. At that point, one can only wonder why on earth one even set foot on that dreadful boat in the first place. It’s difficult to give an accurate account of what the conditions really are when the going gets tough. It’s so far away from what an ‘earthling’ can imagine! What would his reaction be if he were just dropped onto the deck in the middle of the maelstrom, without any further notice? A nervous breakdown would probably be the most likely outcome. A circumnavigation is a major milestone in every sailor’s life, an experience that leaves permanent traces on the body and the soul. My second one certainly still lives on in my memory and I recall vividly the tornado that swept across the fleet right after we left Sydney, or the three crazy days we spent at 55S, avoiding icebergs that should never have crossed our path… It was like playing Russian roulette. These moments – violent, dangerous, extreme – are the ones that remain, they just make you forget the tedious months of preparation and other inevitable boring periods. A round-the-world journey is 85% monotony, 15% unforgettable.
With the ABN AMRO campaign, during the last Volvo Ocean Race, it would have been difficult to be more professional or more serious; yet, the notion of the unknown was still on the menu. The speed of the boats had increased so much that some of us started to ask ourselves the following question upon arriving in Cape Town: Are we ready to tackle the Southern Ocean on such beasts? We eventually did, our main preoccupation being to be cautious enough to get the boat to the next stop-over finish line in one piece.
The Barcelona World Race, my fourth circumnavigation, has a very special flavour to it. I am very aware of the great chance that presents itself, since I will be at the start of a competition that is simply unprecedented in the history of round-the-world racing. I’ve never had a go at a non-stop event. Three months? That will be my shortest experience yet, and I’m really glad about that [editor ’s note: a typical RTW race with stopovers amounts to a 9 months event]. It will also be the longest period I will have spent at sea without being able to set foot ashore! With only a mere 70 days before the start at the time of writing, I’m taking the full measure of what a long journey now confronts me. I expect the Barcelona World Race to be intense, gigantic… something like the ascent of Mount Everest without oxygen. And it will only be two of us on board. Only two. Jrmie and myself have not sailed together very much. We’re leaving on a mission. Endurance, tenacity and clairvoyance will be the key factors. Our bond is based upon complimentary personalities and a common craving for performance. Our main enemies will be complacency and self-satisfaction, we will have to be supportive of each other, but also be able to challenge one another to be sure we’re always at our maximum. One thing is certain, it won’t be a walk in the park! Everything about this race will make for a tough event – the course, but also the crew configuration and the absence of stopovers.
Now, after this one, my next fully-crewed circumnavigation will seem easy! I’m tackling the Barcelona World Race with a knife clenched between my teeth, as I’ve always done. I always begin a race preparing myself for a fight, one I’ll face shoulder to shoulder with my teammates, trying to find the right balance between aggressiveness and sensitivity. Setting out to sea makes me go through a wide array of feelings, my heart beats heavily as I leave my family behind, but also jumps in my chest with excitement hearing the call of the high seas, as if I were heading out to the battle front.