“The Vendée Globe is a mirror of society,” Denis Horeau, the race director of the 2012-13 edition, says as he answers the question of how it has changed. He can speak with some authority.
There are principles and people that are part of the DNA of the Vendée Globe and the lean, bespectacled 61-year-old Horeau is one of them. He was the race director of the first edition in 1989 and returned to the role in 2004-05, remaining ever since.
“First of all, many things have not changed, cannot change and will not change I hope; the route, which is the most difficult and the principle, the DNA of the race, which is single-handed, around the world, without assistance and non-stop. This makes it as clear as it is difficult.”
“What has changed is exactly what has changed in society. What I like about the Vendée Globe is that it is the mirror of society. What has changed is man and technology, man because we are not the same as we were 23 years ago; man now are sportsmen, before they were sailors, they are technicians now too, their knowledge of technology is so much more developed than it was. They are expert now in 25 domains as they were experts in five before. Some of them have become real sportsmen like Armel Cléach’h, Jean-Pierre Dick or Vincent Riou, they run, they bike, they ski, their physical preparation is really important thing to them. They where they were only sailors before, although excellent sailors.
Horeau sees 1989-2000 as the age of adventure and from 2000 as the age of the professionalism, but feels we are entering a new era now and is uncertain what it will bring.
“I don’t know what the future of the race will be, it all depends on decisions that will be made at the end of this race,” he says. “There was the time of discovery, then the time of pure regatta and athlete and sport. I deeply believe that we are at the end of a cycle and what the next one is I don’t know.”
But he would like to preserve the different aspects of the race and skippers it attracts. “The Vendée Globe is a unique event because nowhere else can you sail around the world single-handed, non-stop and without assistance. Each sailor will enter the Vendée Globe with his own goals and I think that no one is aiming to reach the same goals as the other skippers because Alessandro’s goals are not Vincent Riou’s goals.”
Alessandro Di Benedetto (Team Plastique) is a great adventurer who in 2010 completed one incredible unassisted solo non-stop circumnaviation in the smallest ever boat - 6.5m - in 268 days. Vincent Riou (PRB) was the 2004-05 winner and one of the favourites this time. The race has always found space for the different ends of the sailing spectrum.
The fact there are only 20 boats in this edition compared to 30 four years ago is also a reflection of the financial changes in Europe. But for Horeau the number is better.
“Twenty boats is exactly the average that we have had since the beginning, it is the perfect number. 2008-09 (when there were 30) was exceptional. It is like a company where you have a balance where the company is well and the Vendée Globe is very well with 20.
Was 30 too many?
“Yes. For example we have only 27 moorings around the dock. Twenty is perfect for visibility for understanding the race.”
Some of the changing pressures that Horeau and the race organisers has faced over the years are becoming ever more pressing and spilled over into one skippers briefings on Monday. The fleet was divided over whether information about iceberg fields should be send to team managers or just the skippers on the boats. Some felt passionately it should just be shared with the skippers on the boats, others, like Armel Cléac’h (Banque Populaire) that this was irrelevant. “It is a question of honour, we have all signed a declaration,” Cléac’h said.
The discussion was about much more than icebergs and that question of honour cuts to the heart of the ethics of Vendée Globe. It is solo and without assistance and Horeau is one who is keen to defend that purity in the face of technological and commercial pressure.
“Yes they sign a declaration; ‘I undertake that I will not cheat…’ This is a major part of the Vendée Globe because it is so easy to cheat and to obtain advice from land. It’s a telephone call. This is a major point because the Vendée Globe is based on this ethical principle and because we have no direct control. The more the technology develops the less we are able to control it.”
“If ever you move one inch to the left or to the right of this ethical principle it’s going to be quite difficult to control the Vendée Globe in the future, so this must stay as a fundamental stone. It is the code and if you do not understand this code exactly you cannot enter this race, it’s a gentleman’s agreement.”
But other sports have changed as they have become more commercial, allowing more interference from television or trusting their entrants less.
“Yes, that’s why I was saying we don’t know the future, but to me it is a fundamental stone that has to stay,” he says. “Otherwise we change so much the philosophy of the race that the public and everybody will change their mind about the race. To me the Vendée Globe is very pure and I don’t exaggerate it is really what I think, it is the purest act for a sailor.”