all in the family

The 2020 Vendée Globe starts in just under two months and promises to be one of the most competitive races ever. With 33 entries it’s the biggest fleet that they have had since the race started back in 1989, and with the new foiling IMOCA 60’s it’s either going to be a train wreck or the most incredible offshore ocean race ever.

Better yet there are six highly experienced women competing, one of whom, Sam Davies, stands a very good chance of winning if the foilers crash and burn. She came fourth in the 2008/09 race through sheer will and grit and even though she has an older, non-foiling boat it has been tested and is proven. As they say, you can’t win if you don’t make the finish line. Her boat, Initiatives-Coeur, was first built for Michel Desjoyeaux who used it to win the 2008/09 Vendée.

Four years later Armel Le Cléac’h took the same boat and finished second, a mere fours hours behind the winner. Now it’s Sam’s turn to prove that she can take the old girl across the finish line for at least a podium finish.

On the other hand Sam will have the work cut out for her if the foilers don’t break apart. The competition for this race is seriously stiff. Earlier this year there was a warm-up race from France around a turning mark off Greenland and another off the Azores and it was won by Jérémie Beyou aboard his new IMOCA, Charal. Beyou was the first to launch a new generation IMOCA 60 and has benefitted from two years on the water refining and refitting his boat, fine tuning it for the November start.

Then there is Thomas Ruyant who was in the hunt in the 2016/17 Vendée before he crashed into some UFO and damaged his boat. This time he has a brand new boat launched just a year ago. Ruyant came second in the warm up race to Greenland and back. Another brand new IMOCA is Apivia skippered by Charlie Dalin was also launched just a year ago and has been ripping it up flying high above the water balancing on foils only. YouTube it and you will see what I mean. Meanwhile here is an excellent short video.

And then there is the venerable Alex Thomson who I have pegged to win this race. Alex is by far the most experienced skipper in this Vendée and is back with an incredibly innovative boat. For this edition of the Vendée he has chosen to sail the boat almost entirely from down below. With the exception of a small cockpit aft the  entire deck is encapsulated by the cabin. All lines are led below to where Alex can trim the sails by monitoring them on a number of screens mounted around his cabin.

Other than having to reef and unreef the main he will remain largely below, able to furl his headsails on line drive furlers, again monitored by close circuit TV cameras. Being able to stay out of the elements will be a big advantage; getting slammed by fire hydrant force waves every minute or so is debilitating to say the least. I am presuming that  there is some kind of cooling system below because sailing through the tropics in a black boat can get a little gnarly down below, and I speak from experience.

Alex came second in the last Vendée. He was just 16 hours behind race winner Armel Le Cléac’h despite having lost one of his foils less than halfway into the race. He was third in the 2013 edition so he knows what it’s like to be in the hunt for a win. Unless he crashes and burns like he has in two previous Vendée Globes I predict that he will win this one by a bit of a margin. His boat was designed by VPLP, one of the best design firms in the world, and sports oversized curved foils, as well as many other innovations which haven’t all been revealed.

The Vendée Globe became such an iconic event because it managed to capture the imagination of the French public and in turn the dollars of French companies. More than a million Mom and Pop Frenchies make the pilgrimage from all over France to go to the start of the Vendée. It’s their Super Bowl, only entrance is free.

Ordinary French citizens, some carrying poodles, some with small kids in tow, most of them smoking will stand in line for hours just to get onto the docks to catch a glimpse of, or better yet, an autograph from one of the sailors. This year with Covid the race organizers have still not outlined plans for how they will deal with the crowds. It will be a shame if the docks are not packed but then again, the whole of 2020 has been a shame.

One last thing. For the first time in Vendée Globe history there will be a married couple competing. Sam Davies is married to the French sailor Romain Attanasio who will be racing aboard his IMOCA 60 Pure-Best Western. How’s about that for keeping all in the family? – Brian Hancock