A few weeks ago I discovered an old shipmate of mine from my square rigger days lives in Les Sables d’Olonne, home of the Vendee Globe singlehanded round the world race, and has connections to one of the teams, as well as one of the two Golden Globe entries from this quiet fishing town on the Biscay coast of France. I messaged him by Facebook and got an immediate invite to be a part of one of the greatest sailing events on Earth.I am a bit of an elite sailing geek. When I’m not getting depressed as hell about the destruction of the NHS and welfare state on Facebook I switch over to my passion of following the America’s Cup, Volvo Ocean and Vendee Globe – not unlike a footie fan switching off by following their team. I’m lucky enough to have a few regular sailing writing clients too, so in some ways I can indulge my passion through my profession. This trip though, was purely social.
People often speak of climbing Everest as the greatest physical challenge to man. It isn’t. I discovered today that something like 3500 people have summited the mountain and survived. Did you know that in the last 150 or so years, only 41 people have sailed around the world singlehanded? Most of those have done it in the Vendee Globe, though you have the odd record attempt such as Ellen MacArthur in 2005. With only 12 people walking on the Moon, a solo circumnavigation is closer to a Moon landing than Everest in terms of numbers of people who have actually done it.
I warned my clients, including my sailing writing clients, that I was off for a few days to indulge my passion, and got in the car last Friday on my crazy adventure. Accuse me of being a midlife crisis boy if you wish, but I’m not going to get a replica boat and wear replica gear and go to sailing event ‘sportives’ like middle aged men in Lycra (Mamils) do on their racing bikes. I was just going down to see and taste the madness around the event. I left at 5 in the morning and got there 15 hours later and caught up with my host who I hadn’t seen since we were hard drinking 19 year old tall ship crew in the US Northeast. Bed (finally) after a 22 hour day…
Outside the village was ‘my friend’s’ Golden Globe boat, a very sturdy and very slow 32 footer that is set to sail its occupant and a steady pace around the world in 2018 in around six to eight months. Unlike the IMOCA 60 Vendee Globe boats, its autopilot is controlled mechanically by a wind vane and its navigation systems are a sextant, speed log, magnetic compass and a paper chart. The racers will leave Falmouth in 2018.
The last Golden Globe was completed by only one man, Robin Knox Johnson, while the rest of the competitors sank, retired or committed suicide. Six months alone at sea is as much a psychological battle as it is a physical one.
Into the village…
My friend and I went down to the race village with our access all areas passes, and joined the crowds. It was estimated that 70,000 people turned up the day before the start – the picture above is just the press to get through security at the gate!
It was an opportunity to see the boats close up, though understandably with 24 hours to go you had to have a wristband as well as an access all areas pass to get on the dock. Our passes gave us access to the press area and a chance to breathe in air that wasn’t flavoured with red wine, garlic and cheese…
Even though I have an aversion to crowds I caught the bug of enthusiasm from the French there. The symbiosis between the town’s government and the Vendee organisers made it a real success. Two months after the summer season petered out, so the local tourist businesses got full tables at the restaurants and many a bottle of wine was sold for a solid week. UK seaside councils could replicate this and really benefit – offer free entry to a global event and let your local businesses have a field day. UK councillors generally don’t understand that events such as this have a direct impact on their tax revenues…
After going sailing on a classic boat that afternoon, so the time came to socialise. We met a Vendee veteran from the UK who was ploughing through the beers, who told us a few stories. While racing on your own you never sleep for more than 20 minutes at a stretch. Alex Thompson, skipper of Hugo Boss, has a shock watch that gives him a jolt if he has been still for more than 30 minutes. My new drinking buddy explained that there’s no sense in practising sleep before – he spent the week before getting drunk and making last minute decisions before waking up at early o’clock and getting into routine once the race had started.
After another extremely late night I was up at 0800 on the Sunday. Coffee and cigarette in hand, I noticed cheering from a crowd. The coast was half a mile away and clearly many of the 350,000 spectators had found their spots many hours before and were using wine to fend off the cold.
The family had national TV breakfast news on and all the skippers were interviewed before they headed out. The French take this event at least as seriously as the Tour de France (unlike the cycling event they have a chance of winning it) and I know that the Vendee Globe race tracker will get millions of hits a day.
I’d paid €75 to join a spectator boat myself. A week earlier and I may have got a €230 place on a boat with lunch but it is worth shopping around – it isn’t just the Vendee organisers who run the boats. Anyway, the ten vessels left the dock after the 31 racers, and the dangerously drunk crowds on the shore cheered us as if we were in fact going around the world…
We passed some of the competitors as we went to a holding area, around a hectare of sea where ten, 100ft ferry boats jostled for a view of the start line. If you imagine a dancefloor full of pissed hippos, then add in the 1200 lives aboard, you can imagine just how nerve wracking watching the other boats was… Whenever a boat tried to get sea room, the French Gendarmarie boat jostled us back into the pissed hippo mosh pit.
The gun went off and suddenly everything changed for the spectators – the ferries’ bows turned out to sea, and throttles on full ahead as we just about kept pace with the IMOCA 60’s. In sunshine and on a broad reach in F5 winds, this was the best ever weather for a Vendee Globe race start. People explained to me it is usually into F7-9 head winds and big seas that break half the fleet in a few days.
Not today – we blasted out to sea in perfect conditions. With 1.5 metre swells those on the bow got wet, while those with hangovers or prone to seasickness soon lost their lunches. An hour later we slowed, and headed back to port at a cruising pace. I’d been told we would be out until 4 and we were home by 3 but I had a massive grin – it was brilliant fun and something I plan to do again.
Beer and food until the wee hours, and up early for my drive home. 16 hours after my return I’m still a bit of a wreck from the weekend.
I write this with a note of sadness though. I’m from an island nation that once ruled the waves. With regard sailing we might as well be a central European nation with no sea whatsoever. We ignore our sailors by and large, who are still some of the best in the world.
From a business perspective, the likes of Weymouth, Plymouth or Christchurch could run an event such as this and make their local businesses very happy indeed. Make it free, and get a buzz going: watch the cash flow in by the kilo. I hope one of my old home towns Falmouth does the Golden Globe like Les Sables d’Olonne does the Vendee Globe, as it could inject tens of millions into their coffers through business rates.
The UK has the resources to make sailing big again. It just needs the bollocks to go for it.
Richard loves sailing writing and is proud to call it part of his job. Drop him a line to discuss your needs and perhaps whether we can work together