Having had a whale of a time in the run up to and start of the Vendee Globe, and seeing that Alex Thomson’s Hugo Boss had an outside chance of being the first non-Frenchman to win the race, on impulse I dropped everything and headed to Les Sables d’Olonne on the Tuesday before the race finish…
At the stage of the race, Hugo Boss and Banque Populaire were within just hours of one another, fighting an epic battle that had people enthralled since they passed South Africa. Banque Populaire had at one stage a lead of 800 or so miles and in interviews later Thomson had said that he had basically given up on victory but wanted to finish second.
Heading up where the South East Trades should have been, Armel Cleac’h hit a dead spot of wind. Thomson managed to find wind where his rival hadn’t and after a charge up the North Atlantic got within 30 miles of his rival.
As the gap closed, I couldn’t bear to be at home to miss history so told my clients I was going away and packed for France. I managed to get a hotel room for around £60 a night within a short ride of the village (one of the last – I met people who’d booked just hours later and had to travel much farther!) and the ferry wasn’t a bad price.
I live around 456 miles from Les Sables d’Olonne including a 420km drive down the autoroutes of France and a six hour ferry ride. Leaving at 0400 local I got there for 1900 local. A brute of a journey but well worth it!
For the French, the Vendee Globe is a major national sporting event where, importantly the French still routinely win. The Tour de France by comparison has had a long drought since the French won that. Les Sables d’Olonne is otherwise known for its fantastic beach and small world atmosphere full of history (apart from anything it was part of Britain for many years). They construct a village for the event that includes a beer tent where for €13 a round you can swill as much beer as your wallet allows while listening to talks about the race from experts at different times of the day…
The bizarre weather that sent the race off in its first ever nice sailing day put a high pressure over much of the area, so while sailors usually head in direct from the ocean, this time they were forced almost to Lizard Point in the UK before turning south. Alex had three problems – an increasingly malfunctioning autopilot (that slowed him down even while he got the race 24 hour record of 536 miles!) and his AIS transponder had gone down, meaning he had to warn ships he was coming at them by radio. Carbon fibre yachts have virtually no radar signal… In addition, for the final run in he would have to sail on the side where he had lost his hydrofoil off South America, just days into the race.
At 1700 on the Weds Armel Cleac’h found enough pressure to turn right for the finish, and Alex had to follow suit – overnight with his damaged AIS, wobbly autopilot and without the foil that would have made him competitive for the final run. Turning earlier geographically than Cleac’h, he had less wind too. That night, losing ground to his rival hand over first, he conceded defeat.
Crowds gathered up the coastline to see the returning hero aboard Banque Populaire cross the line at around 1600 having smashed the race record for completing the Vendee Globe by just over three days. At L’Armandeche lighthouse, we saw a shadow on the horizon. The tide would have to rise for around six hours before he arrived so there would be
plenty of time to get tired and emotional. Thousands did…
In quite a state of disrepair we arrived in the village just in time for the crowds to welcome the French hero. The village bar did very good business that night, and was full even when Cleac’h’s boat was escorted to the pontoon. My American friend and I were one row behind the barrier and a could hardly see a thing except on the big screen in front, despite being about 20 metres from the boat. A good 50,000 tired and emotional French were waiting too – quite a crowd…
At this stage, a very tired and emotional woman holding a load of balloons tried very hard to get to the barrier. The tired and emotional crowd matched her loud talking and she ended up on her backside with just the balloons marking her spot in the crowd. Perhaps aware that the security guards may take an interest, I said in my best British accent, “No rioting please, we’re English!” Despite the language barrier quite a few people understood the jollity in my voice, laughed and sent the barrier crasher back to the back of the crowd.
Not understanding much of what was going on, so we followed soon after and hit the bar.
I was a little addled when I went to bed and got into my head that the next high tide would be around 0500 so was up at 0430 and full of caffeine, rode to the village. No one was at the gate so I went through it anyway and after five minutes wondering why there was no security personnel found a security guard who seemed to think I shouldn’t be there. Through the language barrier we established that Alex was due in around 10 that morning and he escorted me out… As it turned out, Alex was two hours sailing from the finish at that point!
One more hour in bed, some breakfast and I was on the dock with a very good view of dawn at around 0900 on Friday. It was -8 degrees C at sunrise, rather cold even for an addled and sleep deprived Brit. Maybe a thousand people were there to welcome him, a large part from the UK, Netherlands and Germany. You can see the video of him below. After such an enthralling race, it was privilege to see him indeed.
Was the trip worth it? I got to hang out with friends connected to the race. I enjoyed the buzz even if I didn’t understand most of the French being spoken. (Next time I had better start speaking expert sailing French to really appreciate it!). Finally, I saw the Brit entry who had given his all to win the race and but for equipment issues didn’t quite ruin the French day.
Will I be back in 2020? Definitely! There will be at least two foreign contenders and potentially another Brit in the mix to win it. It would be great to have a foreign 1-2 in the foremost French round the world yacht race, and I will be definitely there to witness history!