Every four years, in a cold, dreary location on the west coast of France, the very best single-handed sailors gather for an epic battle of courage, wits and supreme technical showmanship. It’s the start of the Vendee Globe and the scene here in Les Sable d’ Olonne is a madhouse. Twenty of the most high-tech, futuristic monohulls are assembled, and while the boats are simply stunning and worlds apart from any other class of sailboat, it’s the crowds and atmosphere that takes ones breath away. As a sailor who has loved the sport and tried for more than three decades to convince non-sailors that this really is more exciting that watching grass grow, all I can say to them now is “come to France and witness this event.”
For the last three weeks over a half million visitors have traipsed through the race village and for some of the lucky ones, made it down onto the docks to gawk wide-eyed at the boats. Old men carrying poodles, young children scampering about with note pads seeking skipper autographs and of course legions of perfectly turned out men and women all looking the part, all enjoying being a part of one of the biggest sporting events to take place in Europe this year.
“This is more exciting than football,” a man munching a baguette told me. “In football you can’t get to meet the players, but here you can talk to them face-to-face and they give you their time even though they are busy.” It’s true. I can’t think of any other big sporting event where the players are so accessible and so grateful to have the attention. Even those skippers, who are household names in France and for whom this is their daily routine, seem surprised by all the attention and humble in their response to their fame.
Tomorrow will be mayhem. This is my fourth visit to a Vendee Globe start and I can attest that if you are not up before dawn and making your way into town, you will not make it. Traffic jams 15 miles long force people to pull over and start walking in order to get to some vantage point to watch the boats leave. There is a channel that separates the inner harbor from the open ocean and on race day it will be 20-deep with screaming, cheering fans. Four years ago there were massive “Yes We Can” banners hanging; I suspect that they will be back again this year. The French, afterall, are pretty liberal minded.
So once again I am inspired to “be all I can be.” We have had a thrilling few weeks with SpeedDream but we have worked largely out of the spotlight sail testing and refining the boat. But again I can see what’s possible. Sailing is mainstream, high tech, sexy as heck and there is a thirst for speed. The Vendee Globe has had a head start but we hope to one day create the same kind of excitement and global media interest around SpeedDream. – Brian Hancock.