Three minutes into our interview Alessandro Di Benedetto insists, twice: “we are not mad.” This, as every good cod psychologist on a fishing mission knows, can mean many things. We are sitting on a wicker chaise longue in a heaving l’office de tourisme in the race village of Les Sables d’Olonne 20 days before the start of the Vendée Globe and Di Benedetto is pouring out his plans and hopes with the gusto of dreamer.
People stream past, small eddies form and every five minutes we need to stop to allow children to be photographed with him. The Vendée Globe has become an increasingly professional race in its seventh edition since beginning in 1989. That age of amateurs of solo sailing still has its descendants though and Di Benedetto (Team Plastique) is its champion. He has packed enough food for at least 130 days.
Even some of his competitors think he is mad, which he recounts with some pride, but crucially they do not think he is dangerous. And he knows how to get round the world when things are tough. Italian by his father, French by his mother, the 41-year-old skipper speaks English with a strong Italian accent and sails like a Frenchman. He demonstrated that pioneering spirit on which the Vendée Globe was founded by completing an epic 268-day non-stop solo voyage in the smallest boat – just 21ft (6.5m) - ever to circumnavigate the globe. At one point he severely damaged his rig in a storm and looked like he would have to head to Chile, instead he stunned everyone by jury-rigging his mast and rounding Cape Horn.
Will the Vendée Globe seem easy after that? “For a lot of sailors what I did was very was difficult,” he says. “People say to me it’s crazy, it’s just too much. I’m talking about some of the most important sailors in the world, like Sir Robin Knox-Johnston (whose 32.5ft Suhaili, in which he made the first non-stop solo circumnavigation, seems suddenly bigger by comparison), Jean-Luc Van Den Heede, Yves Parlier and a lot who are here. But I know that it is more difficult to organise a Vendée Globe because I am not professional like these crews. It’s a very different challenge. I try to make the start and then come back in good condition.”
“We have the slowest boat, but this is an adventure. My approach was related to the budget and the boat that we have. Since the start we know this, we are not mad, Didier has several enterprises and he manages people and projects. I’ve done other things. We are not mad. The Vendée Globe is a dream.”
Didier is Didier Elin, the man who has funded the dream. It is not an accident that Di Benedetto is here. Les Sables is where he chose to start and finish his record voyage. It is also where he path crossed with Elin, who stands five metres away, the more silent partner, as Di Benedetto riffs.
“We met 200m from here in a restaurant on July 22 2010 after I arrived here,” Di Benedetto says. “I was eating and he came and met a friend of ours in common. He was buying a new small business here making shower cabins for mobile homes (sailing is often compared to standing in a cold shower tearing up money). Our friend introduced us, Didier bought Champagne for all the table and went away.”
“The day after I called him about meeting. We met in La Rochelle in September, we bought the boat in May 2011 but only started to work on it at the end of 2011. We have been preparing it for less than one year, I started first sailing it in the spring. My first night on board was during qualification. On July 15 to August 3, I went to Labrador in 14 days and I came back in less than six days. A Vendée Globe has to stay like this, different budgets, different people, different histories, different sponsors.”
The presence of Di Benedetto and Tanguy De Lamotte (Initiatives-Cœur) in the 20-strong fleet preserves that the difference. But he has different pressures than trying to win. Is Di Benedetto confident everything is ready?
“My pressure now is to finish the boat. The boat is still in preparation and we have no structural problems but we have somethings to do. All the others have boat managers, but I am the manager until the start and Didier becomes the manager. I have to check everything, do we have spares, do we have flares?" (For a moment he feels like he might tack away on Dr. Seuss Riff - ‘Do we have ways to get down the stairs?)
"I know that probably we will arrive last," he pauses and laughs, "but we will see because in the Vendée Globe nothing is written."
“I have very good relations with Arnaud Boissieres, Kito de Pavant, Marc Guillemot, Alex Thomson, Mike Golding because they are the ones that I meet a lot. Marc Guillemot and Bernard Stamm came onboard and said; ‘your boat is OK, it’s clean.’
“They said to me it will be violent. It is the most important to anticipate the weather and to manage the risk and not to damage your heart or your body. With the boom your head just explodes. I have talked to them about the Vendée Globe and their experiences. Some of them have said to me you are just crazy.”