Since the first edition in 1989, people have wondered about this huge solo challenge. You just have to look at the crowds on the pontoons to see how admired these sailors are, these heroes of modern times. It all started 27 years ago. I was there alongside 13 sailors, who were setting off into the unknown. The Southern Ocean with its grey skies, its huge waves and icebergs in the icy mists. The quest for performance came second. The main thing was returning.
During that first edition, the harbour entrance channel in Les Sables was filled with anxious spectators. A violent easterly wind was blowing. It was bitter cold, but the warmth of that crowd could be felt right down to the cockpits. They would find that same warmth when they returned, but they didn’t know that yet.
I was out at sea with them on a spectator boat. I was thinking about the medical kit they had on board. The products were all there in a rather heavy suitcase, but they agreed to take it, telling themselves they wouldn’t need it, but it could come in handy when stacking..
It was partly superstition or maybe just their spirit, but they didn’t want to think about accidents or illnesses. There were already enough things to worry about at sea. Personally, that’s all I could think about. Having sailed for years, I knew that anything could happen at sea. That was confirmed in the following Vendée Globes. It was up to me to plan for them. No one could help them at sea as it was all down to them.
I also knew how unreliable the radio could be. There weren’t any satellite phones yet and no e-mail of course. Communication took time and there was the worry of not understanding properly or not seeing what was really wrong with them. The skippers trusted me and I could not disappoint them.
I took on that responsibility quite naturally. When Philippe Jeantot organised the race, I went to see him in Les Sables to offer my services. He warned me that he was OK with the idea but there was no budget for that and that it was down to me to deal with it. I contacted pharmaceutical labs to get some free samples, which was possible back then. That’s how I put together the thirteen kits. I made myself available around the clock for 4 months.
But I hadn’t dreamt of the worry and cold sweat, when I faced conditions that needed an immediate response that was simple and efficient. We didn’t know it then, but that first Vendée Globe was going to contribute to understanding the human body in extreme conditions, how to deal with sleep, food, prepare physically and mentally for such events and it led to developments in long distance medical help. Without realising it, those sailors were to teach us a lot about things, which affect us in our daily lives ashore.
© BPCEThanks to compulsory medical training, they are better able today to cope with medical problems. Their monitoring has evolved too with regular health checks. We know today that they are setting off in good shape. If there are problems, satellite transmission of pictures and videos is now a great help. There is still the stress on the eve of these three months at sea. Even after 7 Vendée-Globe races, it is still just as tense. But that is necessary to fulfil my mission and help them see their adventure through.
Dr Jean-Yves CHAUVE