The idea came out of the minds of some of the contenders during a stopover in the BOC Challenge, the solo round the world race with stopovers and that got everyone thinking. Maybe they were aiming a bit too high? Was it reasonable to imagine a non-stop solo round the world race without any programmed time for carrying out repairs? Would there be enough people interested to form a podium at the finish?
The Vendée positions itself
The idea started in the minds of several competitors from the 1986-1987 BOC Challenge. They found themselves together in a bar in Cape Town and all disliked the stopovers which seemed much too long and interrupted the rhythm of the race. Among those in that little group, Titouan Lamazou, Philippe Jeantot who would win the race for the second time, Guy Bernardin , Jean-Yves Terlain and the American, Mike Plant. Their idea would spread around to those who had learnt their job with Tabarly, including Philippe Poupon and Jean-François Coste.
The question soon arose of where the race should begin. People thought of famous ports like La Rochelle or Brest, but Philippe Jeantot surprised everyone by signing an agreement with the town of Les Sables d’Olonne and the Vendée Council, which offered financial support. The Vendée Globe was born: the sail out of the harbour in Les Sables d’Olonne was not yet legendary, but this was the start of it all.
Old sea dogs and young guns
Among the thirteen lining up at the start, there were several big names, like Philippe Poupon, who had already won the Route du Rhum and the Plymouth – Newport transatlantic race, the two big solo events of that era, Philippe Jeantot, twice winner of the BOC Challenge, the round the world race with stopovers and Guy Bernardin, who had already sailed around teh world. Jean-Yves Terlain decided to line up at the helm of a radical design, while Titouan Lamazou, after getting second place in the BOC Challenge had a monohull specially built for the race. Several foreign sailors turned into an international event, such as the American, Mike Plant who had already won in Class 2 in the BOC Challenge and the experienced South African, Bertie Reed.
Alongside them, there were some ambitious youngsters like Loïck Peyron, Alain Gautier and Pierre Follenfant, who dreamed of succeeding, while some contenders took the helm of some unusual boats. Jean-Luc Van Den Heede had a long aluminium ‘cigar’ built based on a design by Harlé. The boat did without the slightest element to offer any comfort and people wondered how the former technology teacher would cope in the Southern Ocean. Finally, Jean-François Coste set sail aboard the venerable Pen Duick III, a 17-m schooner, who knew her way around the world, but could not keep up with the new boats built for the race.
How many at the finish?
Along the harbour walls, the crowds were not as densely packed as today with mostly a few people curious to see what was happening when the gladiators entered the arena. The big question on everyone’s lips was how many boats would make it to the finish as the rules left no room for any mistakes. The craziest rumours spread around the dock. Would there be enough competitors to complete the podium? Maybe Jean-François Coste, at the helm of his Pen-Duick III was going to be left behind, but he had a strong boat, so had he in fact made the right choice? That was the story for most of the journalists.
While they were well aware that they were competing in an exceptional adventure, the racers themselves had fewer questions on their minds.
For this first Vendée Globe, seven boats would reach Les Sables d’Olonne. The race saw victory go to Titouan Lamazou, who dominated the race. Jean-Yves Terlain was forced to retire after dismasting in the Indian Ocean, as did Guy Bernardin, suffering from toothache which meant he had to put into port for treatment. Philippe Poupon, whose boat was swamped and went over as he entered the Forties, was saved by Loïck Peyron, who intelligently filmed the whole scene. Two sailors would complete the voyage but unranked: Patrice Carpentier, who suffered damage to his autopilot and had to carry out a pit stop in the Falklands and Mike Plant, who told the Race Directors that he should be disqualified after receiving assistance, when his boat after dropping anchor began to drift towards the coast.
When a finish is a victory in itself
When Titouan Lamazou crosses the finish line not for one second does he imagine that a crowd will have assembled on the walls of the Les Sables d’Olonne channel. But after the rescue of Philippe Poupon the wider public are inspired and passionate about these bold unconventional adventurous sailors. The love Jean-Luc Van Den Heede, a former technology teacher who sailed on an aluminum boat with just one oilskin jacket, wearing basketball shoes on his feet as he flirted with icebergs. Every finisher is accorded a massive welcome and is celebrated passionately by the public who have discovered a whole new breed of sporting heroes. Two months after the three leaders Jean-François Coste closes the race. On his arrival the eloquent solo skippers says: "No one wanted to talk about the unknown. But the sea did not hold on to anyone, she simply gave. Everything is in order ... "
Over those three months a legend was born.