Sailing: the Vendée Globe, a race among races

Tuesday, 27 october 2020

The Vendée Globe is celebrating its 30th anniversary, offering us an excellent opportunity to look back over the history of this legendary ocean race.

The winner of the first race: an artist
It’s the ultimate test, one that overshadows all the rest. “When I decide to take part,” explains Armel Le Cléac’h in the supplement of the daily sports newspaper L’Equipe published to mark the 30th anniversary of this round-the-world race, “the Vendée Globe that comes to mind is a canvas of incredible adventures, dramatic rescues, and the slightly mystical nature of the southern seas. Just think of the pictures of Thierry Dubois and Tony Bullimore, rescued in extremis at the other end of the world, dwarfed by massive waves…”

Although the Vendée Globe is the pinnacle of ocean racing for sailors, it’s more than just that. If the race inspires so widespread support, it’s because it offers people far beyond the circle of sailing enthusiasts a reason to dream! As Armel Le Cléac’h so rightly says, the history of the race abounds in epic events capable of firing people’s imagination and giving this event a permanent place in the annals of sporting adventure. Because this is what the Vendée Globe is all about.

The first edition of this single-handed, non-stop round-the-world race set sail from Les Sables d’Olonne on November 28, 1989 to almost universal indifference or, at least, in an atmosphere of popular enthusiasm that had absolutely nothing in common with the passion it has inspired in recent years… This inaugural race was won by an artist who had previously come 2nd in the Boc Challenge, a single-handed round-the-world race with stopovers. But the victory of the celebrated painter that Titouan Lamazou would subsequently become also contributes to the unique character of this event that singles out exceptional men and women. This first race around the world already included a spectacular rescue that would herald many others. Loïck Peyron rescued Philippe Poupon who had capsized 2,000 miles from the Cape of Good Hope in the roaring forties… an exploit that already included all the elements that make up the Vendée Globe legend. Because the route followed by the race ran so close to the Arctic, no commercial vessels could be found in that part of the ocean and only the sailors competing in the race were in a position to rescue him!

The following Vendée Globe was won by Alain Gautier, a sailor whose tremendous skills are only matched by his reserve and who worried about returning to dry land after spending three months away from other people. This edition of the race would firmly establish the legend of the Vendée Globe in people’s minds. First of all, the American Mike Plant never reached the starting line… He disappeared as he was sailing his yacht from the United States. Later on, during the race, the British sailor Nigel Burgess lost his life in the Bay of Biscay. But what people would remember about this event was the surgery carried out by Bertrand De Broc in the middle of the ocean when he stitched up his own tongue with help from a doctor… by Telex!  

Legendary rescues
The race that set off in 1996 and was won by Christophe Auguin was marked by the disappearance of Gerry Roufs and by the incredible, and miraculous, rescue of Thierry Dubois and Tony Bullimore mentioned by Armel Le Cléac’h. Thierry Dubois was plucked from the ocean after spending hours in the water clinging to his rudder in a raging sea and Tony Bullimore was found suffering from hypothermia inside his overturned boat. 

In 2000, Michel Desjoyeaux was the first winner to break the 100-day barrier and complete this round-the-world race in record time. He saw the young English entrant Ellen MacArthur narrow the distance behind him and put up a challenge for first place (an exploit that would make her a huge star in the UK). And then there was the fabulous achievement of Yves Parlier who broke his mast in the Indian Ocean but refused to abandon the competition. He limped his way to New Zealand, where he built a new mast from fragments of the old one before getting back into the race. He managed to reach the finish in 126 days on a diet of algae and flying fish: a new act of bravery in the legend of the Vendée Globe. In 2004-2005, we witnessed a particularly close race between Jean Le Cam and Vincent Riou, who eventually emerged triumphant. 

Examples of friendship
Michel Desjoyeaux won the Vendée Globe for the second time in 2008-2009, in a race marked by the ordeal of Yann Eliès, who fractured his femur and pelvis in the middle of the Indian Ocean and had to wait two days before being rescued. We also remember Jean Le Cam being rescued by Vincent Riou, the same two skippers who had struggled mano a mano until the very end in the previous edition of the race: a fine tale of friendship as so frequently illustrated in the Vendée Globe! The 2012-2013 race saw the victory of the young prodigy François Gabart who triumphed in the Vendée Globe at the age of 29. A hard-fought victory over Armel Le Cléac’h, who came in just three hours behind, which makes his success even more impressive. Armel Le Cléac’h was rewarded four years later with a magnificent victory that testifies to his sailing prowess and perseverance. Moreover, 24 hours after his arrival, he told us: “This year, I dug deeply into my mental resources. I forced myself to continue because I told myself that this was a race that I couldn’t lose. I kept on struggling until the very end…”

Only immensely talented sailors have won this ‘race among races.’ But the Vendée Globe is not only about the winner. All the competitors who manage to return to port, to sail up the channel leading to Les Sables d’Olonne after all those days at sea, after their titanic struggle against the elements… are also winners, along with those forced to abandon the race at some point, paying the price for countless misfortunes. In any event, the public will be present, as always (although certainly less numerous than for previous editions on account of the Covid pandemic), to watch the new contestants set sail on November 8th at 1:02 pm. The crowd will acclaim each of the 27 men and 6 women contestants – including Clarisse Crémer whose progress will be monitored in particular by her mentor Armel – who, together, will be demonstrating their immense courage enabling them to cast off and set sail on this crazy yet sublime adventure

Photo : Victoire d’Armel le Cleach (copyright-dppi-bpce_1597)