The final weeks in Les Sables d’Olonne getting his boat ready was an incredible period. ‘Last minute’ does not describe the rush to be finished in time for the start.
Steve, looking back four years on, what was that pre-start period like?
“It was awful. It was a total road of ups and downs. I can still remember Kim with the car headlights on in Portland, emptying the last things into the dinghy to come down to the start. I set off on my own at the last minute from Portland. I was pretty tired by then and had been putting 18-20hours into the thing at least since the finish of the Transat, and probably for a very good long time before that. We had a sponsor who had agreed in principle to fund the campaign. So I discovered in the middle of the Bay of Biscay on the Friday, having left home on the Wednesday morning, that it was not happening. This company had one deal going through and it was contingent on that. I was assured it was a formality. They were supposed to ring through on the Iridium phone on the Thursday night and tell me it was done and dusted. I called them on the Friday morning and they said ‘very sorry, the deal’s fallen through we can’t do it’ And that was that. I was pretty unhappy. I was immediately thinking ‘ I am going to lose the boat and the house, because they were all tied together financially. Then the iridium broke. But in the end I got a call from Kim on the way into Les Sables d’Olonne to say she had found the money, I went from the depths of despair to the happiest I’ve ever been.”
But actually in Les Sables d’Olonne and trying to be ready, what was that like?
“ The three weeks lead up were just a blur. It was hectic. The boat was out the water, the rig was out, the generator going in, the new sails, media commitments, briefings and all that stuff you were being pulled in every way. Lots of people were saying ‘aren’t you worried about setting out on these kind of races’ and the answer is that all the races I had done there was never ever time to think about it at all. It has always been absolute chaos, and to be honest I never had the time to worry about it, not that I am a big worrier anyway. Lots of people I met there I don’t ever remember seeing them. I was running on empty, knackered. All I remember ultimately was everyone getting off the boat and me getting to the start line, just taking some really, really deep breaths – completely emptying my lungs and just thinking ‘that’s it we are off’ and literally for every five minutes I sail I feel a year younger. That energy got me through first 48 hours and then from there, to be honest, compared to what I’d been through it was all pretty easy! I remember the feelings, the ups and downs of those weeks, none of the detail, the work I had to do.”
Was there are point in the build up when you thought ‘I’m not going to make it’?
"With a week and a half to go I was a bit stressed. There was no branding. The rigging wasn’t here, the sails weren’t here. And all the electronics were ripped our. But everything together is a bit of a big ask. But then suddenly it all arrived. And everyone is going hammer and tongs at the boat. There were four or five riggers. There were two guys from North, two guys from the riggers, and friends kicking around to help where necessary. And then suddenly we were nearly ready to go.
You get to a point where you do think ‘I might have some stuff here I don’t want, and there might be some stuff missing but I could go….” And that is a good feeling.
In fact we never reached that point until the day before. And I was still fitting the wind generator at 2330hrs the night before the start. And at 1000hrs as I left dock we were literally throwing things off the boat. It looked lovely and tidy on deck as we went down the canal, but downstairs it was a complete bomb site!
And this time you got very close to being on the start line, but not quite?
We had gone through just about everything, the budget was sorted, the calendar was sorted, we were all very positive, and we were answering questions at all times of the day and night and all of sudden they said no. So that was frustrating when they suddenly the said ‘it doesn’t fit’ when the ‘fit’ had never changed over the ten months we were talking.
So where does that leave you?
“ We were that close. I have already got two interests for 2016, so I had a week at the beginning of September when I was a bit sorry for myself and drank too much beer. Then you sort of pick yourself up and get over it – well partially, because I really do believe you measure yourself in the number of Vendée Globes you do in your life, not passing years and adding to your life. I think I could have been reasonably competitive. I had a bid in on Aviva and in the end I had to pull the plug. It took a week to pick myself up and get on for the future.”
What’s your short term goals then?
"I’d like to do the full IMOCA Calendar in the future. I feel like I’ve ended up with the Vendée Globe as my only focus, that would be fine if I could. But I would love to do the full IMOCA calendar and then turn up in four years time with a full calendar of races behind me, three and a half years of proper preparation. But there is also the westabout round the world record which I’ve brought off the back burner. So there is a possibility we could do that."
And what have you learned about the chase for sponsorship?
I have learned over the years that you need to be meeting the key decision maker at the right level and if they have the power to make it happen then it is pretty easy. It is when there are a lot of other people involved, marketing teams and people doing evaluations, that is when it all goes awry. You need to have one guy making the decision.
I imagine it’s going to be quite an emotional time for you when you come to the start this time?
The thing for me is going to be seeing all these boats going down the canal and me not being one of them is going to be tough, even thinking about it now, it is pretty upsetting. Them’s the breaks. All it does is make you even more determined that you are there the next time. We will be there and make the most of it, but at the moment it feels a bit like saying to the Archbishop of Canterbury, ‘sorry you can go to church’ this weekend.’ Even though we are not doing I am sure there will be plenty of other former skippers and people around.