First and foremost the Vendée Globe is a race. All competitors start the solo, non stop around the world contest with the objective of finishing as fast as is safely possible. For some that may mean sailing at a prudent pace, within their comfort zone, others push the risk reward ratio much further and press hard, close to the red line as much as possible. But often races are compromised by misfortune. Competition, that is the pursuit of a finishing position or elapsed time, has to be put aside in favour of the human endeavour of simply finishing the race. The Vendée Globe becomes an adventure more than a sailing race.
On March 16, 2001 the quaysides and coasts of Les Sables d'Olonne are swarming with thousands of people out to welcome a hero home. But Michel Desjoyeaux, the winner, arrived more than one month ago. The solo racer that the crowds have come out to see come home is Yves Parlier whose story remains one of the most remarkable in the Vendée Globe's long history.
Parlier was in the match to win when he was dismasted in the east of the Indian Ocean. Instead of giving up he headed to Stewart Island to the south of New Zealand with the objective of rebuilding his mast and re-stepping it without any outside assistance. The remarkable repair takes him two weeks. During that time he constructs a rudimentary oven to cure his carbon composite repair. In the meantime he is low on food and so catches fish and cooks up seaweed to eat. He steps and re-rigs his mast and sails to the finish where Parlier takes 13th but completes a truly inspirational adventure worthy of the huge welcome he was given.
Dismastings Parlier's adventure remains unique. But others have triumphed over the adversity of dismasting. In 1992 Philippe Poupon was about to finish second behind Alain Gautier and had just recrossed the equator on his way home when his rig crashed down. Poupon set a jury rig and only narrowly missed second to the redoubtable Jean-Luc Van Den Heede, but still made third.
In 2000 Catherine Chabaud was about to complete her second Vendée Globe when she disamsted off the Portuguese coast. She tries to build herself a maskshift rig to get to the line but her team tell her "Catherine, it's ten days of winds on the nose for you, it's a wasted effort" Disappointed she routes to Portugal and finishes hors concours officially unplaced.
The most spectacular recent endeavor was that of young Kiwi skipper Conrad Colman who dismasted in what would have be his last big storm en route to a probable placing inside the Top 10 towards the end of the 2016-17 race. Colman was at the latitude of Porto and the Azores when his rig came down. Initially he had to ride out the remnants of the storm before he could finally set a jury rig with his boom, a piece of mainsail and storm jib. Against the wind for the first few days he made little progress until the wind shifted to free him and reach to the finish line and a huge welcome.
No keel, no problem?
Three intrepid solo racers have finished into Les Sables d'Olonne without a keel, each having sailed further than their predecessor. In 2005 it was MIke Golding who took third place after sailing the last 50 or so miles with no keel. He realised something was wrong immediately, dropped his sails and filled the ballast tanks of his IMOCA. He sailed under reduced canvas and broke the finish line during the night, some 24 hours after Jean Le Cam who took second. At that time no one imagined such a feat was possible but fully ballasted the IMOCA 60 is relatively stable.
Then in 2009 it was Marc Guillemot who was challenging for the podium in that epic 2008-9 race during which he had stood by the injured Yann Eliès in the southern ocean. Guillemot's keel had been giving cause for concern before the stub dropped off at some 900 miles from the finish. A renowned multihull racer Guillemot wraps the mainsheet around his wrist as he sleeps as an alarm in case he is suddenly overpowered. Guillemot crosses fourth but receives a time compensation as redress for standing by Eliès and so is promoted to third.
Finally Jean-Pierre Dick, during the Vendée Globe 2012-2013, sailed 2750 miles with no keel. He has to attack those miles in two stages. He has to stop in to northern Spain to let a big storm pass him, and during these four days stopped, loses third to the British skipper Alex Thomson. Stuck on board, true to the race rules, JP Dick can see the local Spanish fishermen - similarly stormbound - drinking beers and eating tapas at the quayside bars while he, himself, is trying to ration his final packets of freeze dried foods to last him to the finish. It is his final torture before crossing the finish at the famous Nouch Sud buoy and taking the Les Sables d'Olonne channel.