Waterlines: Vendée Globe Sailors are a Breed Apart

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Photo courtesy of Charlie Doane

Alex Thomson on the dock in Les Sables d’Olonne, wearing earbuds to drown out the roar of the madding crowd, the day before the start of the Vendée Globe this past November

The sailors who compete in the Vendée Globe truly are a breed apart

As I write this the two leading sailors in the Vendée Globe, Armel Le Cléac’h on Banque Populaire and Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss, are heading up the Atlantic Ocean toward the Doldrums, and what I’m wondering is this: what the heck is Alex listening to on his iPod? In following the race I’ve noticed he’s wearing earbuds in every video he sends back to race HQ, and it has made me very curious. Just what sort of soundtrack does it take to distract you from the cacophonous madness of racing nonstop through the tumultuous Southern Ocean inside a 60ft carbon-fiber kettle drum?

Do you go over the top and try to drown out the din with some super-loud punk or thrash metal? Do you try to soothe your ragged soul with some Bach violin concertos? Or do you try to inject some mindless humor into your miserable, sleepless life with some Weird Al Yankovic?

There’s one video, in particular, that has really captured the masochistic spirit of this event. Published on Day 34 of the race it shows Alex, clearly exhausted, almost cowering in the jet-black cave of his boat’s interior. “It’s dreadfully uncomfortable,” he confesses. “The boat is flying down waves sometimes at 30 knots before coming to a complete standstill, and it just means you’re being thrown around all over the place. You hear the water rushing over the deck, and…”

Right on cue there is a dull rumble in the background, and Alex winces as though there is someone off camera plucking out his toenails with a pair of pliers. He recovers and finishes his thought.

“Your mind starts to wonder what’s going to happen. What happens if the structure fails? What happens if you hit something?”

What normally happens when you hit something going this fast on boats this light is that something breaks. Alex learned this early onwhen his starboard J-foil broke just after he’d set a record pace on the run from Les Sables d’Olonne to the Cape of Good Hope. In spite of the damage, which left Hugo Boss sliding sideways when sailing on the wind on port tack, Alex fought hard to stay in the lead. It took weeks before Le Cléac’h was finally able to put more than a day’s worth of sailing between himself and the doughty Brit.

And of course, Alex was relatively lucky. Another Vendée Globe sailor who had the misfortune to hit something was Thomas Ruyant, who mercifully was able to reach New Zealand on a boat, Le Souffle du Nord pour Le Projet Imagine, that had effectively broken into two pieces. At the time of writing four other competitors who hit UFOs have also been forced out of the race. Three have been dismasted. Another, Sébastian Josse, was forced to retire after he crushed one of the J-foils and part of the hull structure on his boat Gitana while falling off a wave.

By the time this is published we’ll know who won this race, but there will also be a few brave competitors still out there struggling to reach the finish line. One thing I can’t do is play the clever journalist and make any sort of prediction as to what is going to happen. There are just too many variables and the nature of the competition is too extreme. Armel Le Cléac’h, who came in second in the two previous editions, will certainly have deserved to win this race, but all it takes is a misplaced whale or shipping container, or even just a large piece of driftwood, and it could be game over for the man they call The Jackal. And it will, of course, be a stupendous feat if Alex has managed to win, having sailed most of the course with a missing appendage. But the bald fact is we have no guarantee that either of these sailors will even survive the race, much less finish it.

I can tell you one thing: the tired old cliché is true. Anyone who finishes the Vendée Globe is a winner. Hell, I’ll go one better. Anyone who even starts this race is a winner, and they all, whether they’re wearing earbuds or not, deserve our respect and attention.

SAIL’s Cruising Editor, Charles J. Doane, sails on the Maine coast and down in the West Indies whenever he gets the chance. He is the author of The Modern Cruising Sailboat, published by International Marine, and is a contributing blogger at SAILfeed.com

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