What to make of the Vendée Globe solo, nonstop round-the-world sailboat race set to start off Les Sables d’Olonne, France, November 6? Is it the ultimate expression of France’s insatiable appetite for all things offshore sailing? The ultimate in monohull sailing technology? The ultimate sailboat race? The ultimate sporting event, period?
Truth be told, the quadrennial classic, first held in 1989-90 with only seven of the 13 starting skippers making it to the finish, is all those things and more. At press time, 30 skippers planned to take on the 24,000-mile course, down the Atlantic, around Antarctica and back, aboard their heavily canvassed IMOCA 60s—10 more than for the 2012-13 running of the event.
Among this year’s competitors are no fewer than 15 sailors for whom this is not the first time around. A refreshingly international contingent given the traditional French dominance of the event, there are also no less than 10 different nationalities represented. These include not one but two Americans: 66-year-old U.S. sailor Rich Wilson aboard Great American IV, a veteran of the 2008-09 Vendée Globe, and 32-year-old Conrad Colman, a native of New Zealand who moved to the United States when he was 15.
As was the case in his first Vendée Globe, when he finished 9th at the end of a race in which scarcely a third of the fleet even made it back to France, Wilson will be sharing his experiences with thousands of schoolchildren around the world via his “sitesALIVE” educational website. (sitesalive.com)
How exactly the oldest skipper in the fleet will be able to manage filing reports and fielding 10 questions a week from his young followers is an open question. But with tens of thousands of offshore miles under his belt in a variety of settings, if there’s one thing Wilson has plenty of it’s toughness.
“I believe the Vendée Globe is a human adventure first, and then a competition, because even for whoever wins the race, it will be a difficult human challenge first,” Wilson says. “No one will have a smooth, uneventful voyage. It is a mental, emotional and physical challenge without equal.”
As for Colman aboard 100% Natural Energy, while this may be his first Vendée Globe, he brings a wealth of experience to the event, having competed in the Mini Transat, the the Route du Rhum and the 2014-15 doublehanded Barcelona World Race, in which he finished seventh overall aboard the IMOCA 60 Spirit of Hungary. He also won the doublehanded Global Ocean Race in 2011-12 aboard the Class40 Cessna Citation.
With regard to the rest of the fleet, it would be hard to imagine a more committed or experienced group of sailors. Among those returning for a second, third or even fourth go at the Vendée Globe are Armel Le Cléac’h aboard Banque Populaire VIII, who finished second in 2008-09 and 2012-13; the UK’s Alex Thomson aboard Hugo Boss, who finished third in the last race; and Jean-Pierre Dick aboard StMichel-Virbac, who took fourth in the last race, despite having to complete the final 2,500 miles without a keel. Then there is Vincent Riou aboard PRB, who would love to repeat his win in 2004-05.
In terms of technology, there are a half-dozen brand-new boats in the fleet—including Banque Populaire VIII, Hugo Boss and StMichel-Virbac— featuring the latest in curved daggerboard technology, which doesn’t get them entirely airborne, but still provides an impressive boost in terms of boatspeed. Of course, how these cutting-edge beasts will fair in the Southern Ocean remains to be seen. For the latest on the race, visit vendeeglobe.org.
Photos courtesy of (clockwise from top) Y.Zeda-BPCE; Stephanie Gaspari; by Peter nielsen