Around the world via the three capes
The course for the Vendée Globe illustrates the straightforward nature and simplicity of the idea behind this major event. You sail around the world from west to east via the three major capes of Good Hope, Leeuwin and the Horn. There is a long slide down the Atlantic, the perilous voyage across the Southern Ocean with firstly the Indian Ocean and its crossed seas, then the Pacific Ocean, the world’s biggest ocean. Finally, there is the climb back up the Atlantic to head back to Les Sables d’Olonne, which marks the start and finish of the Everest of the seas. We take a look at each section of the round the world race course...
The traps of the Bay of Biscay
Watch out for south-westerly storms between Les Sables d’Olonne and Cape Finisterre! Any ocean racer will tell you that the Bay of Biscay has the reputation of being a tough one. Between the shallows of the continental shelf and the strengthening winds off the Cantabrian Mountains, the way out into the Atlantic can be particularly cruel for sailors and their boats. On the other hand, if there is a northerly flow, it means a quick slide down towards the western tip of Spain, then off to Madeira and the Canaries. Then, you need to pick up the trades as quickly as possible, make your way through the Cape Verde Islands to get in place to make your way through the Doldrums. While speed is favoured, the sailing sometimes allows tactical options to come into play, which can mean the loss or gain of a hundred miles or so in a few hours.
From the Doldrums to Saint Helena, strategy comes into play
At the southern limits of the northern hemisphere, the inter-tropical convergence zone, better known as the Doldrums, is the nightmare facing yachtsmen: erratic winds, violent thunderstorms, sometimes torrential rain, going through the Doldrums is a bit like getting a lottery ticket. In other words, the Vendée Globe sailors will have spent a lot of time preparing for this before getting there: studying the weather charts, analysing in detail each sector. Once they have passed the Equator, the puzzle has still not been solved, as they have to find their way around the St. Helena high, before turning east and picking up the winds allowing them to sail downwind towards the Indian Ocean. The island of St. Helena is found in the middle of the Gulf of Guinea, but the high, which bears its name can generate light winds right across to just off the Brazilian and Argentinean coast.
The Indian Ocean, the shadowy zone
That was how Titouan Lamazou, the winner of the first Vendée Globe, nicknamed this huge wilderness between the Cape of Good Hope and Tasmania to the south east of Australia. Crossing the Indian Ocean means the yachtsmen will be diving down into another world. Low light, dangerous seas, violent winds, a cold, wet environment, in just a few days the Vendée Globe sailors find themselves completely alone… Ahead of their bow, several thousand miles during which they will have to make a compromise between the shortest route, which is the furthest south, while at the same time avoiding the ice limit. The change is a shock and can weigh heavily on their feelings. Once again, it is a question of getting the right mixture: knowing how to sail quickly without pushing the boat too hard. And above all knowing how to survive…
The Pacific Ocean, heading for the way out
To reach the Horn takes around twenty days on average. The atmosphere gradually changes. The sailors say: the swell is more regular, longer, and the sea state cleaner. Once they have passed the International Date Line, the return journey begins. However, the voyage down to Cape Horn also has its share of dangers in store. The first one is the presence of icebergs reaching fairly northerly latitudes. This means a stressful watch for the yachtsmen, who although able to detect the larger icebergs on the radar, cannot spot growlers, small blocks of drifting ice, which are sometimes less than a metre above the surface of the water, but which can weigh thirty or forty tonnes. There is a permanent risk of collision and the hours spent on deck trying to detect the danger add to the tiredness, which has built up. Rounding the Horn marks the way out...
South Atlantic, a daunting climb
Let us not forget that a large number of boats have been forced to retire from the Vendée Globe in the South Atlantic. The boats have been through a lot, the vigilance that has been kept up for several weeks begins to fade. Moreover, the South Atlantic can offer its share of nasty shocks to those, who think they have got away with it. The pamperos, the gales, which blow off the Argentinean coast, can be exceptionally violent. The stretch is often a difficult one to sail and upwind sailing common, which contributes to the fragility of the boats and the men. Then, there are the Doldrums to get through, even if further west they are statistically narrower!
North Atlantic, the fast track
Gradually, the single-handed yachtsmen in the Vendée Globe make their way back into the cold. Time to put the fleeces back on and they start to count the miles to the finish. They have to decide how to deal with how to finish back in Les Sables d’Olonne. Very often they need to pick up the westerlies to sail directly towards the port on France’s West Coast. Little by little, the first signs of civilisation start to appear: they come across a cargo ship, a few trawlers on the edge of the continental shelf. Then, they catch a glimpse of a few lights on the coast, which guide them in to the finish, before entering the harbour entrance in Les Sables d’Olonne...
THE CONCEPT OF THE VENDÉE GLOBE IS SIMPLE AND EASY TO UNDERSTAND: YOU HAVE TO SAIL AROUND THE WORLD ALONE WITHOUT STOPPING AND WITHOUT ASSISTANCE. THESE THREE PARAMETERS MAKE THE RACE WHAT IT IS BY ESTABLISHING ITS DNA. THEY ARE CLEARLY LAID OUT IN THE RACE INSTRUCTIONS.
Solo : One man or one woman, the world and a boat. It is very clear. This is a solo race and no one apart from the skipper is allowed aboard the boat during the round the world voyage (unlike in the French film, En Solitaire starring François Cluzet). The notable exception is, of course, when a fellow competitor is rescued and that has happened. For example, in the third edition, when Pete Goss arrived to save Raphaël Dinelli and dropped him off in New Zealand and again in 2009, when Vincent Riou rescued Jean Le Cam when the latter capsized near Cape Horn.
Non-stop : The only pit stop that a competitor in the Vendée Globe is allowed involves returning to Les Sables d’Olonne, within ten days of the start. That is exactly what Michel Desjoyeaux did in 2008: he set off again 40 hours after the start, but went on to win the race in the end. The skippers are allowed to stop – by anchoring in a creek for example, but are not allowed to step ashore beyond the high tide mark. Yves Parlier took advantage of that possibility in a repair that became very famous in the 2000 race. Many others dropped anchor without going ashore, for example to climb the mast, as Marc Guillemot did in 2008/2009.
Without assistance : In the Vendée Globe, the sailor is well and truly alone. Once again, the only assistance allowed is when the sailor returns to Les Sables d’Olonne, just after the start, meaning he would lose a lot of time. Apart from this exception, everyone has to rely on what they can do during the round the world voyage. Routing is strictly prohibited. The sailors have to find their own way around, carry out any repairs following on from damage, which is likely to happen… and they have to take care of themselves when injured or ill. In this particular case, they do have the right to seek advice from the Race Doctor, Jean-Yves Chauve. As for technical assistance, it’s very simple: they are strictly forbidden to go alongside another boat or to allow a third party aboard. The sailors may consult the designers or their technical team to get information about how best to carry out a repair, but it is up to them alone to carry out this work with the means they have on board, while continuing to sail as best they can. Yes, the Vendée Globe is an extreme race.
The Vendée Globe boats all measure 18.28 m (60 foot) with a draught of 4.50 m (14.75 feet). Carrying a lot of sail, they are the most powerful monohulls in the world skippered by a solo sailor. They can exceed thirty knots downwind. The class rules are determined by the IMOCA class (International Monohull Open Class Association), founded in 1991 and recognised by the International Sailing Federation (ISAF). The rules were indeed recently updated. They now impose a standardised keel, the choice between two masts, a traditional one or a wing mast, with the number of appendages and ballast tanks limited. The rest is down to the designers. The big news this year is that the latest generation of boat is equipped with foils. These appendages lift the hull of the boat up. This reduces the drag and enhances performance. The 2016-2017 Vendée Globe will be the first round the world race for these new machines. But the boats from the previous generation have been fine-tuned and developed and are more reliable for the moment, meaning they are in with a good chance too. It is in fact the older boats that have won all the major races since the last edition.
24 inches high (60cm) and with a circumference of 12 inches (30cm) and weighing in at 10 kg, the impressive Vendée Globe Trophy is a work of art in silver plated bronze designed by Philippe Macheret. Everything about it is a reference to the circumnavigation. It includes an elegant sailing ship surrounded by the Earth and it rests on a base shaped like a winch. Worked on by the Ateliers du Prisme and manufactured by the Macheret Foundry in the Sarthe, it is the trophy that solo sailors want to get above all others. For a few months more, the Trophy is in the hands of the title-holder, François Gabart. Who will be the next sailor to lift it above their head?