The elite group of Vendée Globe winners is one of the most select clubs in the world. There are seven of them who have won, each experiencing the joy of crossing the finish line and climbing up the Les Sables d’Olonne channel to a triumphant welcome. As the ninth start looms large on the horizon, five past winners are involved to varying degrees in current projects.
So apart from Christophe Auguin who retired in Uruguay, and Titouan Lamazou, who is currently in Tahiti, all the winners since 1997 are using their experience to help a skipper in the build up to this race.
Alain Gautier is with Isabelle Joschke, Michel Desjoyeaux with Nicolas Troussel, Vincent Riou with Sébastien Simon and Kévin Escoffier, Francois Gabart’s company manages Charlie Dalin’s project and Armel Le Cléac'h is with Clarisse Cremer.
Without doubt their most valuable asset is experience. "It is not simply a question of their status that makes them worth having by your side, it is about being accompanied by a person who has the exceptional qualities that allowed him to win this race," explains Isabelle Joschke about the role of Alain Gautier. “He has a huge experience that determines how to manage a project, a team and races. It’s knowing that everything can and will be managed."
Michel Desjoyeaux adds: “Ocean racing is a sport of experience. No one goes through the same race twice, takes the same path, and feels the same. Learning from the experience of others is also a way to deal with problems early and to learn from others. It can only be beneficial for a project."
The involvement of these former winners in current projects takes very different forms. Some have contributed to fast track the learning of skipper, in the case of Armel Le Cléac’h with Clarisse Crémer to her training for a first round the world race. The defending Vendée Globe champion sailed summer and autumn 2019 with the young sailor who is still in the early days of her career in the IMOCA. "Accelerated training", Clarisse calls it.
“We had two Vendée Globe campaigns with Banque Populaire, it is an incredible chance to be able to benefit and pass on our knowledge and our know-how", explained Armel at the end of the Transat Jacques-Vabre that they raced together in 2019.
This ability to pass on accumulated experience, ensuring it does not go to waste, is what brought Vincent Riou alongside Sébastien Simon on the Arkéa Paprec project. "It has been a global project for two years," explains Riou the winner of the 5th edition. This takes into account the project management around the design of the boat, debriefing after sailing, discussions on technical options…
Through his racing team company Mer Concept François Gabart manages Charlie Dalin's project (Apivia ). "I'm trying to make Charlie feel confident and approach the event in the best possible way," said Gabart, who has been with the project since the design of the boat. "I’m very proud of all the work we have done and now to see how good the boat looks like before the start.”
Michel Desjoyeaux acts as the main adviser to Corum L’Epargne. "We talked a lot with Nicolas Troussel and his team," says Desjoyeaux. “I was focused on helping him design a boat that was right for him, not me. I didn't have a role in the actual decision-making but I offered the options that seemed most relevant to me." In what he calls the "confluence of the elements that lead to the decision," there is quite a lot of Deesjoyeaux’s experience and know how in Troussel’s Juan Kouyoumdjian design.
Troussel, skipper of Corum L'Epargne also calls on other past Vendée Globe skippers including Sébastien Josse who has three races under his belt. This back up is essential. “It makes it possible to enrich the project and most of all to get straight to the point, not to waste time.”
And this is valid as much for the early choices and decisions, the concept and design phases, all the way through to the practical aspects.
As Vincent Riou says: “For the 'spare' equipment that we take on board (all the equipment taken on board to deal with damage), I gave the list I had of my previous Vendée Globe to Kevin (Escoiffier). He used to work at Banque Populaire before so we cross referenced the lists which were ultimately largely identical. But obviously then we saved a lot of time and benefited from combined experience.”
It is obvious then that there is a lot of fixed, empirical advice passed down processes and learning streamlined and concepts finessed thanks to these consultancy or project management roles but there is also the simple process of osmosis, the nuggets of advice that are transmitted through conversations, maybe more about the psychological approach, advice on how to hold out mentally and physically, to look after yourself.
Charlie Dalin spoke recently for two hours with double winner Michel Desjoyeaux. "I hope I managed to give him other food for thought maybe more from when we worked with François (Gabart) and his team.”
“Since we won and over the intervening years our outlook has inevitably evolved. We can always give our opinion on our vision, our way of approaching the race,” continues Vincent Riou. “But there are still big girls and big boys who will make their own choices in the race."
But among them there will be only one who, in January 2021, will join that club of select winners of the Vendée Globe.