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A New Global Champion

An elated champion, Desjoyeaux smiles for the cameras.
Anyone who has ever made an ocean passage, particularly anyone who’s done this on their own, knows firsthand why we must take our hats off to Michel Desjoyeaux, 35, the recent winner of one of sailing’s most ardous events—the Vendée Globe. Desjoyeaux finished this single-handed marathon of attrition around the planet in 93 days, three hours, 57 minutes, and 32 seconds on Saturday night, making him the first person to ever sail around the world alone in less than 100 days. Just surviving this course, which demands more than well-honed racing skill, is a feat. But excelling at it is a true triumph.

The course and the conditions of the Vendée Globe demand resilience, tenacity, fortitude, meteorological mastery, engineering expertise, and more. Beyond its rigorous conditions, this fourth edition of the race fielded the strongest collection of solo sailors ever, with 24 participants crossing the starting line. It was thus the most competitive edition of this odyssey ever. Desjoyeaux rose to the challenge in his first solo circumnavigation, setting a new record that surpasses Christophe Auguin’s previous mark of 105 days, 20 hours, and 31 minutes by almost two weeks—simply remarkable.

After he escaped the doldrums in late January, "the Professor" found time for a break from the helm.

Sailing the innovative 60-footer PRB, Desjoyeaux seized the lead some 40 days into the race and didn’t relinquish it for the remainder of the contest. In making his initial move atop the leaderboard, Desjoyeaux—nicknamed the Professor by his fans and colleagues—perceived a ridge of low pressure forming in the Southern Ocean and rode that past erstwhile leader Yves Parlier to take charge of the event. He later waged a see-saw battle with Roland Jourdain aboard SILL Matines La Potagère, but needed only a few days to establish his dominance.

Let's put his accomplishment in perspective. In the 1996 edition of the Vendée Globe, only six competitors officially finished out of 14. In all three previous editions of this event, there have only been 20 total official finishers out of 42 entrants. That’s less than a 50-percent success rate, which is about all you need to say regarding the rigorous nature of this contest. Desjoyeaux's performance is not only impressive, it serves to restore faith in the future of extreme sailing events such as this, which heretofore have been plagued by the loss of lives and boats. With that in mind, it would be an extreme oversight not to recognize some of the other competitors who have also prevailed over the elements in this demanding endeavor.

Second-place Ellen MacArthur staged one of the most impressive performances for any sailor—woman or man—from start to finish.

Even though she was 243 miles behind Desjoyeaux when he crossed the finish line and, as of this writing, she still hadn’t finished, the self-taught tenacious English woman Ellen MacArthur impressed onlookers as well as fellow competitors by enduring countless gear failures (as well as a recent collision) aboard Kingfisher, and remaining steadfastly competitive. Her impending second-place finish will make her only the second person to sail solo around the planet in fewer than 100 days.

Roland Jourdain aboard SILL Matine La Potagère showed flashes of brilliance. He led briefly at the halfway point of the race, but the track at the top of his mast parted, prohibiting him from shaking out the reefs in his mainsail until he got beyond Cape Horn. He too appears poised to finish in under 100 days to take third place.

Twice a veteran of this race, Marc Thiercelin on board Active Wear fought the good fight, but couldn’t manage to stay on pace with the leaders after the first third of the race.

Dominic Wavre aboard Union Banque Privée set a new 24-hour record for solo-sailing performance.

Despite hitting a whale just a month into the race Tomas Coville sailing aboard the novel Sobedo managed to remain competitive, frequently jockeying for third place throughout much of the race.

The business end of Desjoyeaux's PRB—a view  none of his rivals had for the final 9,000 miles.

Catherine Chabaud appears poised to finish well ahead of the 140-day mark that she set as the only woman to previously finish the Vendée Globe (1996).

Briton Mike Golding has made an impressive comeback after he was sidelined right out of the gate with a dismasting aboard Group 4. He restarted eight days late and somehow managed to muscle his way back into eighth place.

Yves Parlier, who won't finish aboard his Aquitaine Innovations until sometime in March, has gamely stayed in the race after being dismasted in early December. He's been called crazy and worse, but we look upon him as determined.

And sailing aboard a 50-foot entry, Patrice Carpentier deserves mention for the remarkable skill he has displayed in keeping pace with the second tier of Open 60s for much of the race.

The Ascent-Minded Professor

New Year's Day, almost two months into the Vendée Globe, Michel Desjoyeaux was faced with some sobering news. Deep into the Southern Ocean, enjoying a marginal lead over his nearest competitor, he discovered that the electric starting motor for his 37-hp Yanmar engine and onboard generator had burned out. He had no way of starting the engine, and thus no way to keep his batteries charged. Without constant battery power, Desjoyeaux was at a severe disadvantage. The race organizers described the predicament in this fashion: "Draconian measures of economy have to be taken; no more satellite communication by Standard B or M, nor satellite images or Internet connection to look at weather sites and forecasts, and the few amps available will be exclusively reserved for the autopilot and navigation instruments, and even the latter will be stripped to its minimal functions." 

After his shoreside supporters checked with Yanmar’s technicians regarding alternate means for starting the engine, the sailor, who has been dubbed "the Professor," by fans and racing colleagues, devised an ingenious scheme of using the power of the mainsail to "jump-start" the engine. After 15 failed attempts, he succeeded.

In his own words, he explained the system: "Yesterday, as I kept trying to get it started, the strap that I had placed around the pulley of the altenator proved to be too elastic. Then today, I put a Spectra rope on the pulley with a screw to hold everything in place. Then using the pulleys [a separate purchase system], I pulled one to the end of the boom. With large releases [of the mainsheet] and the wind blowing at 20 knots, I released everything and the engine started."

Desjoyeaux’s resilient and innovative approach to this problem is emblematic of the best seamanship. We at SailNet join the rest of the international sailing community in saluting his perseverance and congratulating him for his unparalleled accomplishment in winning the Vendée Globe. Bravo Michel! 

Suggested Reading:

The Vendee Globe--Entering a New Era by Dan Dickison

Vendee Globe Countdown by Mark Matthews

Buying Guide:  Boom Vangs

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