François Gabart, can you tell us more about the MACIF skipper trials?
It’s a global project launched by MACIF in 2008 as they wanted to get more involved in sailing and create a selection unit. The concept is pretty simple. Two MACIF Figaro yachts are sailing all year long and every year, they recruit a skipper for two years. The idea is to help promising young sailors who want to sail professionally and make it possible for them to seriously compete on the Figaro tour for two years before moving on to other projects.
How have you been scouted « scouted »?
It was in 2009, I was looking for a partner for the 2012 season and beyond. I knew about the MACIF project so I applied and I was selected as one of the five finalists. We all went through a one-week selection process, both at sea with a regatta and on dry land with physical tests. Eventually, there is an interview, like in any recruiting process, and they eventually chose a skipper. MACIF can definitely help you find partners, so the initial plan was to launch a Vendée Globe project with them to find partners. But in the end, I realised MACIF was actually the only partner really interested in a Vendée Globe participation. We signed in December 2010 so they kept the MACIF trial system going and added a 60-foot yacht to the program to compete in the Transat Jacques Vabre and all the great IMOCA races.
Financially speaking, how did you develop your Vendée Globe project?
The Vendée Globe project was a really ambitious one as I hadn’t sailed that much on 60-foot yachts and I knew I needed help. That’s why I asked Michel Desjoyeaux to assist me through his company Mer Agitée, and he immediately accepted.
Precisely, how was it to work with him and have him as the boat’s patron?
I admire him as a man and as a sailor. We met in Port-la-Forêt, which is a very small town. After two Figaro seasons, I really wanted to compete in an IMOCA double-handed race, the Barcelona World Race, starting in December 2010. I asked many different people to sail with me and Michel Desjoyeaux said yes. We worked together on the Barcelona as well as on the Vendée Globe project, which was important for me as I don’t have the same experience as him and his Mer Agitée team.
What is the relationship between you and the other skippers like?
I’m among the youngest skippers, but there aren’t that many of us. Louis Burton is less than 30 years old and Tanguy de Lamotte is in his early thirties too. Then there’s Jérémie Beyou and Armel Le Cléac’h. It’s more a transition generation than a major change. There’s a good atmosphere between all sailors, both in the Vendée Globe or other races. There are strong bonds between us and I have friends among the Vendée Globe skippers, they’re people I have a good time with. And that is great because we may be sailing solo and against each other, but we also work together a lot throughout the year.
« I loved living on a boat »
What do you find the most amazing about the Vendée Globe?
I’ve been sailing since I was a kid so I know how magical and famous the Vendée is and how much French sailing fans love it, as well as more and more international fans. I remember hearing about the race for its very first edition with Titouan Lamazou. It’s just epic, I used to have dreams about it. And as I grew older, the dream became more and more real and I eventually chose to be a professional yachtsman thanks to the support of MACIF.
Are you afraid of anything during the race?
I’m not really afraid, but I ask myself a lot of questions. Which is very healthy, actually (he laughs). We tried to have a reasonably possible yet ambitious project. Even though we won’t have much time between the launch of the project and the start of the race but I still think we had time to prepare and train properly. I won’t be the most experienced skipper in the fleet, far from it, but we do have enough experience to compete in good conditions in terms of safety and performance.
You’ve one of the youngest, but also one of the favourites for the final victory. Does that make you feel extra pressure?
I wouldn’t call myself a favourite. I know I can do well and I’m sure I can win but I just don’t think I’m the one in the best position to win. But it feels great to know I have one of the greatest boats for this Vendée Globe, it means we’ve worked hard so far. But I’m really focused on the race, I try not to get distracted by anything else. I guess the only pressure I’ll feel will be the one I’m generating myself, a healthy and motivating one.
Who would you say is the Vendée Globe favorite?
If you ask me, I would say Dick, Le Cleac’h and Riou. Jean-Pierre Dick, on Virbac-Paprec, has a very efficient and reliable yacht and he just won the Transat Jacques Vabre and the Barcelona World Race. He’s ready to win the Vendée Globe. Armel Le Cléac’h, on Banque Populaire, is one of the best solo sailors in the world and his yacht is really well-prepared. As for PRB and Vincent Riou, he won in 2004. I hope the ones I did not mention won’t be mad but I had to make a choice. Of course, many other skippers have what it takes to win.
You have a child, how will you tell him his dad will be gone at sea for three months?
He will be six months old at the start of the race so there won’t be much to explain. But it will be tough for me, there are many things I will be missing and I won’t see him grow up. I leave him with his mom who’s going to take great care of him. So even though his dad is not around, he’ll have everything he needs to feel good while I’m away and once I’m back, we’ll be so happy to see each other… I’m aware of how difficult it will be but this is a chance for me to live my dream so I get sometimes you have to make sacrifices.
Will you take your son at sea in the future?
Of course! I love my job but mostly, I love sailing and the sea. One of the reasons why I’m a professional skipper is that, as a kid, I lived on a boat with my parents and sisters. I just love it and I’d love to experience it again with my family.