The 2008-9 Vendée Globe will be remembered as an epic edition with dozens of different dramas and human adventures written all the way through the duration of the race. But from the point of view of pure sport, the remarkable comeback through the fleet of Michel Desjoyeaux, after he restarted and overturned a 40 hour deficit and won overall in a new record time, stands out as one of the most incredible feats in the history of the race.
As the returning 2000-1 race winner Desjoyeaux was probably the outstanding pre-race favourite. But not long after the start on November 10th 2008 he was forced to U-turn and head back to Les Sables d’Olonne with a ballast leak which flooded the inside of his boat, damaging his engine block and most of his electrics.
There followed a race against time to get Desjoyeaux back on the race course again. But, even given his experience and previous successes, few expected him to go on and win from what was a very, very competitive fleet at the start.
As Marc Guillemot was already past Cape Finisterre, the skipper of Foncia was faced with contrary, southwesterly winds which slowed him still further as he sought to cross Biscay upwind. His rivals were already into the trade winds and on November 15th as Desjoyeaux’s deficit bottomed out at 670 nautical miles.
“It is like I am a police car chasing thieves. If I have one advantage it is seeing them up ahead and knowing where they are. The disadvantage is that they are so far in front I doubt I can catch them up. " quips the Foncia solo skipper.
His passage through the Doldrums is achieved under beneficial conditions which allow Desjoyeaux to get back to be just over 300 miles from the leaders, the same delta that he has when he re-started from Les Sables d'Olonne. But the descent down the Atlantic really opens everyone’s eyes. Working to the west he cuts miles each day and by December 3, he is in to the top 10 which really does heighten his competitive spirits. As he climbs in among the good, well fancied sailors Michel Desjoyeaux has several key assets in his armoury. He has a boat that he knows perfectly, his choice and design of sails is optimised for the Southern Ocean and includes a new, innovative fractional staysail that is very fast but easily managed in the strong winds, but especially it is his development work on his autopilot that allows him to outpace the average speeds of his Vendée Globe rivals.
The Planets Line Up
The planets do seem to line up for the winner of the Vendée Globe 2000-2001. Luck goes his way too. In addition to his remarkable speeds some of the top seeds are successively forced to abandon when they are in the lead. First there is Loïck Peyron, then Jean-Pierre Dick and Mike Golding all give up. The sudden dismasting of the Briton leaves Desjoyeaux at the head of the fleet on December 16th.
The new pacemaker is not shy in ribbing his rivals, sometimes provoking their ire. Saying he is surprised at the ease with which he passed his rivals, suggesting some were at cruising pace rather than racing, he knows he is playing mind games. But when you are head and shoulders above the pack, sometimes you can afford a playful tease.
At Cape Horn, Desjoyeaux is nearly 150 miles ahead of Roland Jourdain. The leader confesses that his passage across the Southern Oceans was not as easy as it maybe looked. "There was never a break in between two gusts of wind. This year there has been no let up and so it is nice to be getting out of this regime.” Desjoyeaux says as he starts his climb back up the Atlantic. He confesses he has had his problems, one with his rudder which nearly ended his race.
But at that point it was all smiled. His lead over Roland Jourdain increases while Armel Le Cléac'h, third, is relegated to more be more than 500 miles. Roland Jourdain quips sardonically, "I do not know what Mich has done to deserve it but he opens all the weather doors and closes them politely behind him"
Michel Desjoyeaux can now even afford the luxury of lifting his foot off the gas to manage his race to the finish. But to outsiders it maybe looked like nothing would stand between him and the overall win.
On January 26, Roland Jourdain struck a whale and retires into the Azores. Armel Le Cléac'h becomes the second placed pursuer of the sailor who had long since become known as the "Professor". Armel is more than a week behind.
And so on 1 February, the big winner takes the finish line and becomes the first (and the only so far) double winner of the Vendée Globe.
"Being in the Pantheon does not interest me.” He says as he finished, “Legends are people who are no longer with us. Me, I'm still here and I'm not ready to retire ... "
And at the age of 53 in 2019, the solo racer who is also a triple winner of the Solitaire du Figaro, is back in a white hot fleet on the new Figaro 3 one design, and competing against Vendée Globe alumni such as Armel Le Cléac'h, Alain Gautier, Loïc Peyron, Yann Eliès, Jérémie Beyou, Conrad Colman and Thomas Ruyant.