British, French, wife, mother, solo sailor extraordinaire. Fourth in the last Vendée Globe, Sam Davies (Savéol) discusses the difference of being the only mother in the fleet.
They say you have to be a father to win the Vendée Globe…
“Yes, well you have to be a parent and it has to be a boy,” Davies says before the question has started. It is an oft-repeated Vendée axiom, although the sex of the child is a new one on me. Davies, as the mother of a 13-month-old boy, Ruben, is as determined as she is thorough.
“If you notice all the babies here this year are little boys, there’s Ruben, Oscar (Alex Thomson), a little Spanish boy (Javier Sansó), Lino (Louis Burton).”
Sansó has just admitted to this interviewer, with a half guilty smile, that his wife does everything, looking after his baby son as he has been preparing for the race. All the fathers who are skippers will tell you the hardest part about the start is saying goodbye to their families, how different is it for this mother?
“It’s naturally different. I’m not saying he (Ruben) needs me as a mother, it’s more of a maternal thing and I’ve already been away quite a few times for a couple of weeks this year. His nanny says that he’s a lot more cuddly with her and my mum said the same thing. Really, I feel more guilty for leaving Romain (Attanasio, her French husband) for three months alone with him.”
But she admits that one of the hardest things is that so tight has been been the budget for this campaign that she will not be allowed to make video calls with Ruben. The communication funds are one thing that have not been met in the late dash for a final sponsor. Time has been against her, for obvious reasons.
“It is a bit different because there are some natural things that being a mother make you do or make your kid do or even make your partner do,” she says. “I breastfed him for first the three and a half months. He was attached for 24 hours a day practically because he ate pretty much continually.”
“I remember Alex (Thomson, Hugo Boss) writing me an email and saying congratulations for having a baby but I don’t how you do it when I see how much my wife does looking after him (Oscar). All of the skippers here don’t do anything like what Romain does and he’s a sailor as well and goes away too. He’s been away for the last ten days and so I’ve been looking after Ruben and the boat at the same time.”
All the skippers have very different conversations with their spouses about the Vendée Globe because the glamour quickly wears off when one half is doing something so all-consuming and dangerous. It must help that Romain, who she met in 2004 when they were competing against each other on the French solo sailing Figaro circuit), sails, but how did the 38-year-old Davies handle ‘that conversation’ about children and the Vendée Globe?
“It was always agreed because he was the one that really wanted kids and I was like; ‘well, I don’t know.’ So, I said: ‘if you want kids then you have to promise to look after them when I go sailing’, that was more of us joking together, but that is how it is. Romain knows that I am who I am and there is no way he would want to have me at home all the time because I’m just too horrible when I can’t go sailing (she laughs). He knows and he lets me go, it’s my passion. He’s seen that, we’ve done Transats (they came fourth in the 2010 AG2R) together and he sees how it’s part of my life and it can’t not be.”
Davies is the most popular skipper on the pontoon, that is perhaps not surprising given that she is a bridge between the east and west of solo sailing; France and Britain. She grew up on the Solent and yet is now part of the magic circle of French sailors at Port-la-forêt. That does not happen just because you are nice person. Davies has a degree in engineering from Cambridge University and according to legendary French navigator, Jean-Yves Bernot is “very good at the routing” which is as more about physics than geography these days.
This is the first Vendée Globe that where there is only one woman in the fleet. The first two editions had two and the last four have had two, most famously, Ellen MacArthur, who finished second in 2000-01. It means there is much attention on Davies and makes it even more surprising, given how credible as a sailor she is, that she does not have the best funded campaign here. Somebody in marketing suit has missed a trick somewhere. As a competitor who has always been determined to be judged on her sailing not her sex how does she balance that female focus on her.
“It would be horrible if I was doing it for the first time,” she says. “But because I’ve already come fourth I’ve already proved to everyone public and other skippers and race organisers that I’m capable of doing just as well as the others and that once you’re on the water there really isn’t a difference. But it’s nice as well because you have so many people behind you.”
With little more than a fortnight to go before the start we talk on the dock, a hundred metres away from her boat, the other love of her life, but one she needs more time to bond with. In fact, the whole conversations is permeated with the different forces she is trying to balance.
“It’s like a mini victory just to be in Les Sables d’Olonne with a great boat and fantastic sponsors. Sometimes you almost forget the challenges ahead of you because I it has been so hard to get to the start. I would have like to have more sailing time - two more years - than what I have had. Sometimes I’m really happy but sometimes I’m really frustrated because even though I’ve got the experience from the last Vendée Globe I don’t know by boat quite as well as last time.”
But being mother has also given her new perspective she says.
“If he’s not there it’s fine, like he’s gone home now so I’m 100 per cent on my boat, but if he’s around, even if Romain’s looking after him, I think there’s some kind of maternal thing that no one can control that makes you have to give some of your time to your child. That’s not a bad thing because sometimes your whole life revolves around the Vendée Globe and I think it can get to the extent that it’s not healthy anymore. Also, when you become a mum you become a hundred per cent more efficient.” And with that she is gone, Supermum is back on the boat.