Despite this year’s myriad cancellations and postponements, the show will go on for the IMOCA 60 class. The Vendée Globe is scheduled to move ahead as planned, with sailors setting out from Les Sables d’Olonne, France, November 8. The Vendée Globe—a nonstop, solo, unassisted, circumnavigation—takes place every four years and is wildly popular with ocean racing fans. Despite only being visible to spectators for a few hours, it’s known for drawing enormous crowds, with millions of people turning out to see the boats off and welcome them back months later.
Due to Covid-19, things onshore are sure to look a little different this year. However, solo ocean racing really is the definition of social distancing, so pandemic or not, the race itself will be much the same. For race organizers, proof of concept came in the form of a summer shakedown event called the Vendée-Arctique-Les Sables d’Olonne. This race allowed competitors to get in their final qualifying sails before this autumn’s Vendée Globe and provided a glimpse of what fans could expect for the main event, with no crowds, and sailors having their temperatures checked and being quarantined on their boats before the start. Still, the 10-day lap of the Atlantic provided plenty of exciting racing in a variety of conditions—a favorable portent for the Vendée Globe.
One of the things that makes the Vendée Globe so popular is the personalities, and this year’s lineup is an international who’s-who of ocean racers, including British Vendée and Volvo Ocean Race veteran Samantha Davies aboard Initiatives Coeur; England’s Vendée Globe regular, Alex Thomson aboard Hugo Boss; and German sailor Borris Herrmann on Seaexplorer-Yacht Club de Monaco, who at just 39-years-old is leading the IMOCA Globe Series—a three-year series based on the amassed scores of the class’s biggest races. There will also be the usual contingent of French sailing stars, including Fabrice Amedeo (Newsrest-Art & Fenêtres), Jérémie Beyou (Charal) and Kevin Escoffier (PRB).
Though there are no Americans registered, English-speaking fans can also keep their eyes on the other two Brits in the lineup—Miranda Merron aboard Campagne de France and Pip Hare aboard Medallia.
“It’s my year to come in first,” says Thomson, who despite his longtime status as a favorite has also had his share of back luck over the years, including the loss of his starboard foil less than two weeks into the 2016-17 Vendée Globe. “I came in third and then second last time, so now I’ll be first.”
As part of this effort, Thomson has had a brand-new “Boss Boat”—named for his long-time financial partner, Hugo Boss—commissioned for the race. Thomson and his team recently made several additional adjustments to the boat and did not participate in this summer’s Vendée-Arctique-Les Sables d’Olonne competition, so it’s yet to be seen how it will stack up.
What’s also special about this race is that it’s not just the front of the fleet that has fans cheering. The Vendée Globe is a test of human perseverance as much as boatspeed, and each racer has a story of grit and integrity seemingly more astounding than the last. Among this year’s underdogs is a former record holder for the youngest solo unassisted circumnavigation, Kojiro Shiraishi of Japan, who will be making his second Vendée Globe attempt aboard DMG-Mori Global One. After seeing his countryman, Yukoh Tada win the 1982-83 BOC Ocean Race (making Tada the first Asian sailor to ever win such an event) Shiraishi was inspired to seek Tada out and become his apprentice. The relationship forever changed Shiraishi’s sailing career, and after Tada died tragically in 1991, Shiraishi dedicated all subsequent races to his beloved mentor. In the 2016-17 Vendée Globe, Shiraishi was dismasted south of the Cape of Good Hope.
The course record for the race, which was first run in 1989, currently stands at 74 days, 3 hours and 35 minutes, as set by Armel Le Cleac’h in 2017. Having the start in early November ensures the fleet will be in the Southern Ocean during austral summer. Top finishers can be expected back as early as January. At press time, there were 33 entrants from six countries, with the vast majority, as always, from France. Six women will be competing—up from zero female skippers in the previous edition. For the latest on the race, visit vendeeglobe.org.
The IMOCA 60 Design
The Vendée Globe is sailed on IMOCA 60s, also known as Open 60s. The class is governed by a box rule—a set of basic design parameters within which there is still plenty of room for innovation. These parameters include things like a length specification (59-60ft), maximum draft (15ft) and flotation, self-righting and other safety requirements. Designers are free to get creative with things like mast height, sail area and the cockpit layout. Teams tend to be tight-lipped at first about whatever new ideas they might be trying out, but afterward, there is often a major trickledown effect. Things like twin helms and continuous-line furlers, both pioneered by the IMOCA class, are now readily available on cruisers. Even dramatically curved lifting foils—the current-cutting edge of the class—have started to make their way aboard such production boats as Beneteau’s Figaro 3.