The Dance of the Dock
As the only Briton to have circumnavigated the globe four times, Brian Thompson, knows about good preparation in all shapes and sizes. He nursed a cranky 60ft Team Pindar boat around the world on his own in the last Vendée and in January was a helmsman on the 14-strong crew of 120ft maxi-trimaran Banque Populaire V, which set a new Jules Verne Trophy record of 45 days, 13 hours, 42 minutes and 53 seconds, smashing the previous record by nearly three days.
He was not able to finalise sponsorship for this edition but will be in Les Sables to see the final stages of preparation and is hoping to be allowed on a few more boats this time. As a competitor he remembers the dance of the dock in 2008 well:
“Spying is the wrong word, when you arrive you’re…spying (laughs), sorry examining all the differences on the boats,” Thompson says.
“The skippers and crews are definitely walking the dock looking at how people have mounted their hydro-generators or adjusted their backstays. You might think ‘that’s a really good idea, I’m going to do that thing on my boat.’ But it’s dangerous to change things at the last minute, they’re generally the things that break. Even if you think it’s slightly better, there are unforeseen consequences to drilling a hole in the deck to put a wire through. You’ve got what you’ve got at that stage.”
“I was allowed on a couple of other boats at the last Vendée. Mich Des (Michel Desjoyeaux, Foncia, the eventual winner), came on Pindar and I went on Foncia.”
But Vendée campaigns are won and lost in the months and years before arriving in Les Sables and Thompson says rivals keep a close eye on each other at all times. “The skippers are watching each other pretty closely,” he says. “They’re looking at people’s blogs, looking at what they’re taking on board, their training and what race results they’ve had.”
Thompson was under more pressure than some last time because the Team Pindar programme had been behind schedule re-fitting and optimising the boat for single-handed sailing.
“You should be absolutely ready when you get to Les Sables,” Thompson says. “You’re going through the last checklist. Making sure you’ve got all your spares on board and going over the weather routing.”
“You can tell a lot about how successful a campaign will be by how well the boats look on the dock. Some of the boats had no one working on them - the boat was just there. You felt that those campaigns were further along the line.”
“I think everyone is learning how to do these campaigns, rather like how Formula One cars are not breaking now because they have better systems in place for testing everything. They’ve started to get better at that in sailing. You can see which boats are better prepared.”
Although most of the Vendée fleet are hardened professionals rather than being half full the ambitious amateurs of old, Thompson says you can still smell and see fear in the eyes of some as the reality of the race hits home on the dock.
“You can tell with some teams that they’re raring to go but that others have a bit of trepidation,” Thompson says, diplomatically keeping them anonymous. “I only noticed that in a couple of teams. You have to be so focused and to have put so much work into getting to the Vendée it would be surprising if you suddenly found out you wanted out. But perhaps some people doing it for the first time feel that. It’s all very glamorous and then suddenly you’re there.”
One of the hardest things in Les Sables d’Olonne is time management. As preparation narrows to finish so everyone around the skippers make more claims on them. “You’re getting more media requests at this stage so you need to manage the push-pull of all the obligations and also to keep properly focused on the race,” Thompson says. “Those pressures and requests grow as you get closer to the start of the race with the most on the day before you go.”
“You’re juggling the time you need to spend with the boat team, to make sure everything there is going the way you want it and the time you want to spend on the boat just by yourself, doing little jobs and becoming more comfortable on your own, just on the dock, downloading weather, getting a routine. You’re balancing it all with your time with the family too. I found that very hard.”
“Quite a few of the French skippers say goodbye a few days before and then they’re alone on the boat for the last few days. In a way, for the racing role, that’s better because you focus on the boat, the team, the sponsor, the media. But the family are a big part of it of how and why you get to do the race and it’s a fun thing for them to be at.”
“And then it’s amazing because you go from everyone wanting to talk to you and hundreds of thousands of people on the dock to being alone on the boat. I can’t think of any other sport that’s quite like that. The helicopter pulls away and then the last spectator boat pulls away and you’re alone.”