It was in January 1988 at Paris Boat Show that the Vendée Globe race was launched by originator Philippe Jeantot. He was a great admirer of both Knox-Johnston and Moitessier. He loved Moitessier's stories as did two of the prime candidates to compete in the inaugural edition, Philippe Poupon and Titouan Lamazou. They had met Moitessier in Polynesia whilst sailing on Pen Duick VI and were driven by his passion and inspiration, marked by his history, his personality and demeanour.
The Golden Globe was initiated by the Sunday Times newspaper 1968 on the advice of Sir Francis Chichester. The idea was to launch a sailing race around the world without assistance and without stopping. Each sailor could decide when to leave, any time between 1 June and 31 October from the port of their own choice, as long as it was positioned located north of 40°N (that is just south of Porto). At the starts, there were nine sailors who embark on the « crazy » adventure. But in the end only one, Knox-Johnston, managed to complete the entire circumnavigation in 313 days.
Bernard Moitessier was his most determined rival but at the time of starting his climb back up the Atlantic carried on eastwards towards the Cape of Good Hope and onwards to the Pacific. By Cape Horn, he had communicated with a freighter by projecting a message on board with a slingshot which read: « I am going onwards non-stop to the Pacific Islands because I am happiest at sea. If I don’t, maybe I will lose my soul. »
Another competitor could have beaten the British navigator was the South African Nigel Tetley. On his plywood trimaran, he pressed hardest and was leading back towards Europe. But no one knew that Donald Crowhurst had never left the Atlantic and had wandered back and forth for months, transmitting false position reports. Tetley pressed harder and harder and sank his boat in a storm off the Azores, 1200 miles from the finish. Rescued by a cargo ship, he could not find the money to build a new boat and latterly commited suicide.
A few months later, Donald Crowhurst's boat was found empty and adrift with two logbooks on the chart table. The first described his fictitious passage around the world while the other told the crazy drifting of his skipper before his disappearance. Tetley had lost everything on the strength of Crowhurt's lies. He took his own life three years later.
The myth carries on
Nine competitors at the start, only one at the finish, the Golden Globe seemed to be all too extreme. Ten years later, a new racing project around the world is set up, the BOC Challenge. It is a solo race too but there are three stopovers: Cape Town, Sydney and Rio de Janeiro. This time, a number of rules frame the event: the boats have to be monohulls of either 50 or 60 feet and must meet a minimum set of safety rules.
At the start of the BOC Challenge, there are a number of solo racers who will go on to sail on the Vendée Globe. Philippe Jeantot, winner of the first two editions, and Titouan Lamazou. And it is during the South African stopover in Cape Town that they revive the idea of a solo non stop around the world race without assistance and without stopover.
But times have changed in the intervening ten years, naval architecture and construction has made big steps and so too, the means of communications have evolved massively.
The BOC Challenge set the die. Philippe Jeantot has good, high level contacts in the Vendee, especially with the mayor of Les Sables d'Olonne, Louis Guédon, and the president of the Vendee General Council, Philippe de Villiers. They propose a first version of the Vendee Globe Challenge. The start is set in November 1989 for a fleet of thirteen boats between 50 and 60 feet. Seven of them manage to complete the race. Titouan Lamazou, winner in 109 days, took one third of the elapsed time of Robin Knox-Johnston some ten years earlier.
Since then, the Vendee Globe has continued to drive evolution. The safety of sailors has steadily improved thanks to needs and feedback raised by each edition, such as watertight compartment, rollover tests and evacuation hatches, all reducing the seriousness of accidents at sea. At the same time, the progress made in naval architecture and composite technologies, weather routing software and the preparation of the skippers has seen the race record falling successively. At each finish an average of four days is saved on the previous record. But all the time, the race remains true to its roots and its abiding ethos.