Imagine if you will, a country where pro sailors are national celebrities. A place where multinational corporations dump tens of millions of Euros into yacht racing – and, get this: It actually pays off. Now imagine hundreds of average non-sailors swarmed around brand-new racing yachts, posing for family photos like they are on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Finally, try to wrap your head around the thought of tens of thousands of rabid sailing fans visiting a massive and incredibly well-prepared yacht racing village every day – for more than three weeks. This place exists, and not just in my dreams; no, it’s called Les Sables D’Olonne and Mr. Clean and I are on the ground, ready to start our coverage of the Vendee Globe. Bonjour: I’m glad you could make it.
If you’ve followed my writings over the past couple of years, you’ll know I have a bit of a thing for solo ocean racing, and especially its pinnacle – the Open 60. Now that I’ve begun to experience the Vendee, it’s rapidly becoming and obsession. The enthusiasm and public support for the sport is infectious and inspiring, and walking the docks, you can’t help but get swept up by the emotion, passion and sheer energy that is the Vendee. This place is completely buzzing right now, even on a Monday evening, and the anticipation in the air can only get more electric. With what is widely regarded as the deepest, most competitive fleet ever assembled, 20 IMOCA 60’s and 20 skippers have descended upon Vendee and all of France is watching.
When traveling to Les Sables, you don’t just step onto the dock and start drooling over boats. The excitement has to build and build, until you reach this, the beating heart of solo ocean sailing. Our initiation began when friendly and helpful Anarchist Loic and his lovely wife Carole rolled up on us as Clean and I stepped off the airport bus in front of the three-and-a-half century old L’Opera. We loaded our heavy bags into his Green Renault, and for 5 hours, had the pleasure of hearing Loic’s tales of French sailing lore. The one-time sailmaker pointed out Jeanneau’s huge HQ, talked of Tabarly and Moitessier, and we both laughed as Clean passed out despite being crammed, bolt upright, in the back seat. 20 km outside of town, signs of the public’s love for the game start to appear; we drive by the PRB corporate headquarters and see Vincent Riou’s Vendee Globe winning yacht, “PRB” proudly displayed on a cradle on top of the building, clearly viewable form the highway. Moments later, Jeremie Beyou, skipper of Maitre Coq is smiling at us from a billboard. We are getting close.
Loick slowly motors into Les Sables d’Olonne, near the Port Olona docks. Sodebo banners are hung off every streetlight, and black Vendee Globe flags are flapping from even more. A slow-moving human mass is headed towards the harbor, passing by big Vendee Globe stickers in every window. We are on hallowed ground, greeted as we stroll down the waterfront by Suhaili, the first boat to ever race solo, non-stop around the World. Sir Robin’s leaky old ride looks far better today than photos show her at the start of his legendary voyage.
Moments later, Alessandro di Benedetto’s 6.5 meter Mini Findomestic Banca pops up in her cradle at the water’s edge; the smallest boat to join the solo, non-stop round the world club. Proudly displayed in all of her dismasted, jury-rigged glory, the 21-footer looks like she has sailed to hell and back. The fabled Vendee Globe race village and its surrounding land displays not only the cutting-edge of what’s hot in solo ocean racing, but also the roots, history and soul of the sport in a well-preserved and respectful manner.
Venturing further into the village, Clean and I are stopped dead in our tracks by the sheer scope and magnitude of the approximately 150,000 square foot General Council area. Stepping into the massive tent structure, you realize you’ve entered a theme park, aquarium, museum, and kids play center, all at the same time. With larger than life depictions of each skipper situated around a large globe, the tent quickly captures your attention and then takes you on a ride through Vendee Globe history. With literally hundreds of monitors, plaquards, interactive gaming stations and scale models of every winning Vendee boat, monsieur Clean and myself left the tent in awe. “I’ve been traveling around the world covering these things for 7 years now and I’ve never seen a display like that,” Clean says. “This isn’t a sailboat race; it’s France’s Super Bowl.”
Finally making it to the dock, I was blown away yet again. 3 dozen perfectly matching safety RIBS are side-tied to the dock, with matching Vendee flags blowing in the cool Atlantic breeze. Maneuvering my way through a dense crowd, I take in the sight of 20 IMOCA 60’s gathered on one dock, heavily weighted with the Monday crowd of onlookers. The deck-spreader rotating mast boats are side tied on my left, while the more conventionally rigged yachts are stern-tied one next to the other. I struggle to get close to an outrigger on one of the deck spreader boats; I wanted to see how it was rigged. A group of middle-aged women posing for a group photo in front of Virbac-Paprec 3 stand in my way. I wait for her to move on, but then several families, babies in strollers and toddlers in tow intercept my path. And then a group of…. You get the idea. It’s not just for the sailors, here; it’s for the people. Like the Super Bowl. Or NASCAR. Or the World Series. But without the ticket prices.
This place is impossibly cool and that’s why we’re here. Skipper interviews and boat walkthroughs are currently being arranged and a flurry of press activity is taking place here at our waterfront Chateaux de Anarchy. Every time we turn around, another story or opportunity is presenting itself. The Anarchy (or Anar-shee as the French pronounce it) has arrived in Les Sables and my goal is to show you what this race is really about – inside and out – as the English language world has never seen before. So grab a nice cold beverage, kick your shoes off and enjoy the show. It’s going to be a hell of a ride.
-Ronnie Simpson, with photos by me.