Vendée Globe: Road to Ruin or Glory?

Despite the fact that the starting fleet of 20 boats was about a third smaller than the 2008/09 fleet, there were the same number of finishers—11 in total.
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The seventh edition of the Vendée Globe solo round-the-world race was by many measures the most successful ever. Despite the fact that the starting fleet of 20 boats was about a third smaller than the 2008/09 fleet, there were the same number of finishers—11 in total. It’s a startling reminder of just how tough it is to race a boat around the planet nonstop in one piece. Even the best can suffer, as former winner Vincent Riou found out when his Open 60 PRB hit a submerged object off the coast of Africa, forcing him to withdraw just days after the start. And Riou was not alone. The procession of broken masts, broken hydrogenerators and snapped keels must surely have race organizers pondering the event’s future.

Despite the carnage, or perhaps because of it, interest in the Vendée Globe is at an all-time high. Record crowds made the trek to Les Sables-d’Olonne for the start, almost two million people were expected to visit the Race Village by the time the last boat came home, and another 60 million followed the action remotely. For a sailing event, these are extraordinary numbers. 

At its heart the Vendée is a very simple race: nonstop, alone, no assistance of any kind, start and finish in the same place. Contrast this with the convoluted course and complicated boats of the Volvo Ocean Race, and it quickly becomes apparent why one event is ascendant, and the other is not. 

The epic battle between first-place finisher Francois Gabart on MACIF and Armel Le Cléac’h on Banque Populaire will go down as one of the longest match races in history. The 3 hours and 17 minutes that separated the two at the finish is the closest delta in race history, and Gabart’s time of 78 days, 2 hours, 16 minutes and 40 seconds knocked more than six days off the course record. 

The fact that Gabart and Le Cléac’h both circumnavigated in under 80 days is simply remarkable. To put this in perspective: the first boat ever to circumnavigate in less than 80 days was the 86-foot catamaran Commodore Explorer, skippered by French sailing legend Bruno Peyron with a full crew, which did so with just hours to spare in 1993. Gabart’s time was almost two days faster. In 2006 the Volvo 70 ABN AMRO 1 skippered by crack Kiwi skipper Mike Sanderson, again with a full crew, knocked up a 24-hour record run of 546 miles. Midway through this last Vendée Globe, Gabart sailed a record 545 miles in 24 hours, by himself, on a much smaller boat.

These kinds of performances will undoubtedly keep the Vendée at the forefront of global sailing for some time to come. However, there is a fine line between a class that pushes the envelope and a class that plunges over the cliff into extinction. Something must be done about all those keels that keep breaking off (no less than three in the 2012-13 race at press time) and masts that keep snapping. 

That having been said, the winner of this year’s human drama award has to be Jean-Pierre Dick on Paprec Virbac. South of the Azores his ballast bulb snapped off, ending his run for what looked like a safe podium finish. Nonetheless, he managed to sail the last 2,500 miles without it, eventually finishing in fourth position to a hero’s welcome. It’s the kind of story that warms the hearts of the race organizers and further solidifies the reputation of the Vendée as one of the world’s last great adventures.

Photo courtesy of Vendée Globe/Olivier Blanchet

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