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Vendée Globe—Entering a New Era

For those whose fascinations run to single-handed offshore racing, Thursday, November 9 will be a special day. That's the day that the world’s top echelon of solo sailors embark on one of the most grueling events ever devised—the Vendée Globe. Running from the western coast of France down through the vast Atlantic, around Antarctica and back, not only is this event sailed alone, it’s done nonstop without the possibility of assistance. Heading into its fourth edition, this is an event that’s always been demanding on multiple levels. In essence, it requires superb sailing skills, nearly inhuman determination, and the kind of planning and preparation that ordinarily goes into a full-scale military operation.

Extreme boats and extreme conditions are the hallmarks of this race.  Here Thomas Coville puts the pedal to the metal aboard Sodebo.

In existence for just over a decade, it’s clear that the Vendée Globe—the brainchild of two-time BOC Challenge winner Philippe Jeantot—has reached a significant juncture in its evolution. Entries have nearly doubled from previous editions, with 24 sailors expected to be on the starting line just off Les Sables d’Olonne in the Bay of Biscay. For the first time, half of these sailors hail from countries other than France, a strong indication of the event’s growth and maturation. An estimated 300,000 spectators will flock to this coastal city to view the boats when the race kicks off.  And perhaps even more telling is the fact that the once-dominant design firm of Groupe Finot (whose boats have won all but the first edition of this odyssey) has just eight entries in the race, and now faces some viable competition in the Open 60 arena.

Entrants must survive not only the elements but the critics as well in the Vendée Globe.

As the flagship event of this rarified discipline, the Vendée Globe has certainly had its detractors. Pundits and critics alike have been quick to fault the event’s extreme nature, asserting that it’s reckless, more survival than sport. The claims aren’t untrue; sailors have been lost in past editions of the Vendée Globe. Its most recent chapter, in 1996-97, claimed the life of French Canadian racer Gerry Roufs, and three other competitors were dramatically rescued in that event. And, it is both an affirmation as well as an indictment of the race’s exigent nature that among the 43 cumulative entries the Vendée Globe has seen, only 20 have officially made it to the finish line.

As the race founder and a former participant, Jeantot is well aware of the risks, which accounts for another aspect of evolution in the event—the advancement of safety measures. Working with race veterans, designers, and rescue professionals from Australia, Jeantot and his associates have mandated minimum safety standards including a requirement for flotation equaling 130 percent of displacement and a self-righting prescription requiring a 125-degree capsize stability. This group also instituted requirements for a survival compartment in the aft end of each boat, and improved visibility by way of all rudders and keels painted with fluorescent orange. Additionally several waypoints have been added to the course at strategic locations to prohibit competitors from descending below 57 degrees south. And each competitor has undergone a survival and medical training seminar, while exhaustive descriptions of each sailor and their vessel have been forwarded to search and rescue authorities along the prospective routes.

The unique mainsail traveler aboard Michel Desjoyeaux's PRB is emblematic of the innovation aboard Open 60s.

It’s not just the organizers who have made headway in refining the event. Working in tandem with designers, the competitors have striven to refine their boats, seeking greater sailing efficiency and better reliability. This work has brought about some interesting new applications in gear. Consider the twin rudders aboard Michel Desjoyeaux’s PRB, launched just last spring. Both rudders are hung on the transom and fitted to kick up, not unlike those on beach cats, should they hit an object. Additionally, it has a central daggerboard fitted forward of the mast with the same dimensions of its rudders should that need to be pressed into service further aft. There’s also a distinct cockpit-encircling mainsail traveler.

High-average speeds, the rigors of having just one operator on board, and the reliability requirements of a round-the-world course place unusual demands on the structure of these vessels. For Ellen MacArthur’s Kingfisher, the project engineers and designers made sure that little, if any, additional weight was added by way of secondary bonding. Every structural member, aside from two small longitudinal stringers, performs some additional function like forming the sides to the water-ballast tanks. And redundancy, like having daggerboards that are reversible so that they can be employed upsidedown should one fail, demonstrates the sort of sound thinking that has gone into the best of these boats.

At 9.5 tons, Sill Enterprizes reportedly has more ballast than its rivals for greater stability.
Of course preparation is paramount for a vessel that will spend over three months in the elements, and among the eight boats built expressly for this race, Roland Jourdain’s Sill Enterprises appears to be one of the best prepared. Since launching, the boat has done four transatlantic trips and Jourdain’s team has subsequently spent two months refining and refitting gear with the boat out of the water. Such large-budgeted projects as this one inevitably raise expectations and questions. Will boats like Sill (and Union Banque Privee, Sodebo, PRB, and Active Wear) with rotating wing masts prove faster than those with fixed spars? Will articulating keels, like the ones aboard PRB, Whirlpool, Sogal Extenso, Groupe 4, and Solidaire, among others than continue to prove more valuable over the long haul to the less maintenance-intensive fixed keel?

Certainly the cumulative talents—both on board and behind the CAD systems that created these marvels—ensure that this edition of the Vendee Globe will be the most competitive to date. As the boats wend their way south through the Bay of Biscay and out into the trade winds this month, those of us in the sailing world will bear witness to what and who prevails and doesn’t. SailNet contributor Brian Hancock will be on location in Les Sables d’Olonne for the start. Stand by for updates as the race progresses.

The Players

Michel Desjoyeaux, 35 – PRB (France)
With Whitbread, multihull, and solo-sailing experience, Desjoyeaux is one of the most versatile racers in the fleet, and he has a well-prepared, innovative, recently launched steed—definitely a player.

Yves Parlier, 40 – Aquitaine Innovations (France)
One of 10 Vendée Globe veterans in the fleet, Parlier is considered one of the top interpreters of meteorology and a competent mariner. His ‘96-vintage boat may be slightly off the pace.

Catherine Chabaud, 38 – Whirlpool (France)
A former Whitbread journalist and the first woman to finish a nonstop race around the world (1996-97 Vendee), she has the experience and the boat to remain among the top contenders.

Dominic Waivre, 45 – Union Bancaire Privee (Switzerland)
A four-time Whitbread veteran, this sailor has a new boat that he’s spent the past 10 months learning. He’ll be tough if it becomes a close race in the final days.

Ellen MacArthur, 24 – Kingfisher (Great Britain)
This cherubic dynamo continues to impress competitors and pundits alike aboard a well-engineered vessel that’s admittedly less extreme than its brethren—a definite contender.

Josh Hall, 41 – EPB esprit PME/Gartmore (Great Britain)
With volumes of experience from three solo ‘round-the-world races (though he’s only finished one), Hall has more time aboard his boat than any other competitor.

Mike Golding, 40 – Groupe 4 (Great Britain)
Tenacious and well-prepared, Golding has sailed around the world alone 1.5 times. A powerful, ‘98-vintage steed and substantial experience should keep him among the frontrunners.

Thomas Coville, 32 – Sodebo savourons la vie (France)
A former America’s Cupper with multihull experience (including a 71-day dash around the globe), Coville has a ‘98-vintage Finot-Conq design with a radical, rotating wing mast, look for good performance here.

Roland Jourdain, 36 – Sill Entreprises (France)
A two-time Whitbread veteran who has honed his offshore skills aboard grand-prix multihulls, Jourdain has strong skills and one of the most powerful boats in the fleet.

Marc Thiercelen, 40 – Active Wear (France)
Second-place in the last edition of this race and second in the attrition-ridden Around Alone (‘98-99), Thiercelen is hungry for redemption. He’ll be strong due to consistency.

Simon Bianchetti, 32 – (Italy)
Bianchetti faces a liability with limited time aboard Open 60s, but his 1988 boat, with four previous circumnavigations, is certainly proven.

Rafael Dinelli, 31 – Sogal extenso (France)
The survivor of a dramatic rescue in the last Vendée, Dinelli is back with a boat that will be fast downwind, but may suffer on performance in the Atlantic stretches.

Thierry Dubois, 33 – Solidaires (France)
Another capsize survivor of the ‘96-97 Vendée, Dubois has distinguished himself in the mini-Transat arena; his blue-and-white-striped vessel has the jets to make him a dark horse.

Eric Dumont, 39 – Euroka (France)
Fourth place in the last Vendée Globe, Dumont now has the boat that won the ‘92-93 race, a powerful reaching machine. His 30 transatlantic crossings stand him in good stead.

Bernard Gallay, 40 – (France-Switzerland)
A veteran of two previous Vendée Globes, Gallay has extensive racing experience and the boat that won this race four years ago, which should still be competitive.

Feydor Kouniokhov, 47 – Modern University for Humanities (Russia)
This will be the fourth circumnavigation for this professional adventurer who has the oldest boat in the fleet and the liability of a shoe-string budget.

Didier Muduteguy, 47 – DDP 60eme Sud (France)
Dismasted early in the last Vendée, Mudutenguy has unfinished business here, but his vessel is heavy, narrow, and out of date. Look for a mid-fleet finish here.

Joe Seteen, 43 – Nord Pas de Calais/Chocolat du Monde (France)
More distinguished as a short-course racer, Seteen has a proven boat—the narrow yawl sailed by Jean Luc Van Den Heede, which has been around the planet 3.5 times.

Bernard Stamm, 37 – Superbigou/Amor Lux (Switzerland)
Stamm has won his share of races, but principally on smaller craft. His new, novel vessel that sports more sail area than all the rest might compensate for his lack of southern ocean experience.

Richard Tolkein, 36 – This Time (Great Britain)
A would-be entrant since 1992, Tolkein says he’s ready this time with the former Fujicolor III, which he has repowered with a larger main mast.

Javier Sanso, 31 – Old Spice (Spain)
Sanso has a strong around-the-buoys background and time in the southern ocean, but his older craft will make him more an adventurer than a racer in this event.

Three competitors will participate in 50-foot boats:

Pasquale de Gregorio, 58 – Wind (Italy)
Relatively new to solo sailing, de Gregorio is a professional delivery skipper who now has a brand new Open 50 and a desire as large as his boat.

Patrick de Radigues, 44 – Lightning (Belgium)
This unofficial entrant in the last Vendée used that experience to prepare for the current race aboard his recently launched Open 50, which should be very competitive.

Patrice Carpentier, 49 – VM Materiaux (France)
A journalist and an offshore racer, Carpentier competed in the inaugural Vendée Globe in 1989. Now he is intent on spending his 50th birthday at 50 degrees south latitude.

For more information log on to the event’s website at

Suggested Reading List

Vendée Globe Countdown by Mark Matthews

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