At that stage it was the culmination of years of hard, hard work. But Ellen’s success was the platform on which they subsequently built successive record programmes, and a business which went on to prosper and diversify.
What was it like for you during the final weeks in Les Sables d’Olonne a dozen years ago, and what did you learn there?
For us we did three Vendée Globe campaigns and each one was different, with Nick Moloney and then with Seb Josse but that was our first time and there were so many unknowns, so many unknowns at that stage. It was probably just a complete blur at the time. You are so totally sucked into it and nothing else exists, and really that is not just the last month, but the last two years. You are just thinking about the one day, the one day that you are going to start this race. And that is the same for everyone else around. A month before the start we were in pretty good shape and well prepared so we were really just counting down the days until you get to that point. What happens in Les Sables d’Olonne is more likely to knock you off course than help you have a good race. Whether that is pressure on the skipper, the chances of damaging the boat at the last minute, all those things – that is where the stress comes from. You are in good shape a month before and you are thinking ‘what can go wrong?’, whether you are the sailor or the manager.
You get to Les Sables d’Olonne and there are so many different pressures: Race Direction want this, there is usually some big debate about some point, whether it is ice gates, or something. People seem to need to have one problem to migrate to and so you need to remain detached and not be clouded by them. You just need to focus on start date.
The stress in Les Sables d’Olonne can be intense and counterproductive for the skipper, how was it then?
For Ellen, she was very focused nothing changed. She was pretty young and trying to manage the level of media interest. There was very little interest from outside of France before the start. There was interest, we had some people there and TV people and there were sailing journalists. It was relatively small, but the French side was quite big because Ellen had already got a lot of coverage for the Route du Rhum in 1998. One way or another there was more demand than supply. There is ten times more demand than you can supply. I am sure we learned but it was nothing to after the Vendée Globe or after the record. But I remember a fair amount of pressure. Ellen had some difficult days then. Like any skipper doing the Vendée Globe it is an enormous undertaking. She had some pretty dark days just trying to manage that. That was just about managing those days. She was so focused on what she was going to do and had a very very strong inner confidence. I know she never doubted why she was there or if she could do it. But we had been going 110% and those extra pressures, and the knowledge that it would be time to go soon, she just wanted to get on with it. She was always more comfortable at sea than on land, than taking on the missions and all that came with that.
Was there a target, a goal stated or otherwise which you were aiming for or had talked about?
We were always underestimating what we could do, being pragmatic. We were never over confident, you can never be over confident in the Vendée Globe. At the same time she had won the Transat just before. So we were not going into it without a record. She felt pretty confident but she did not really know the Southern Ocean, that was always the big question as to how hard she could push in the South. One of the biggest things singlehanded sailing is how hard you can push downwind on pilot. You can have a lot of sail up but if you keep it up too long when the conditions change it can be potentially race ending. That is the biggest question, how low and how fast you can sail, that was the big performance question for all of us. Pretty much everything else was covered, managing herself, sleep, fixing the boat, all those things she was pretty confident it. She probably had the least amount of experience in meteo but her learning curve had been vertical. All of us around Ellen at that time just wanted to be focused only on her having a good race, but she was probably pretty sure she could be at the front. She may never have said that but I am sure that in her mind she always believed she could be on the podium. In her inner mind I am sure she was ‘I want to beat everyone. She knew she could match a lot of these top guys.
And what about during the race, you live the race from dry land and are never able to relax?
It was stressful. It was one of the most stressful things I have ever done in my life. There were some big moments. Looking back there was more stress in the record attempt a few years later, just because of the nature of the risk with the trimaran. The consequences seemed even bigger of things going wrong. The one time I was sick with stress was when she went up the rig. It was in the Southern Ocean, had to go up to sort out a halyard issue. She had already put it off for quite a while. It was still quite rough. She rang to say ‘right I am going up now, I should be back down in an hour or an hour and half. But it was three or more hours before I got the call. You really start thinking ‘has something happened?’ As the half hours go by you are just thinking ‘shit’. And then eventually the little, totally exhausted voice on the end of the phone saying ‘I’ve done it, it was a real major thing, but I’ve done it and off you go again. However experienced the skippers are they all have the one person they are ringing with that kind of thing. And so what happens is you end up living with that kind of level of stress as the person the boat, except you are not able to act on it. So on board you can focus on solving all these little things. The person on land gets the stress and the problems but is not part of the solution. It is such a weird feeling. And everyone on the Vendée Globe will have two or three of these big moments during the race.