The last skipper to cross the finish line of the ninth Vendee Globe, Ari Huusela was given a big, warm welcome as he returned into Les Sables d'Olonne to complete the dream he has held for 22 years since he first sailed a 6.5m Class Mini across the Atlantic. Here are the words of an emotional, touched Finnish skipper who completed an exemplary race as an amateur skipper who races across oceans solo for his hobby.
At the pontoon, first words
I was crying most of the last night, I have been thinking about this for so long. I am so thankful to my team without them I would not be here, and to Alex Thomson who was the first one who pushed me and helped me a lot to start the project. That was the 2016 Helsinki boat show and since then we have been well connected and the next summer I got the chance to sail on his boat from Poland to Finland and with his team all these professional guys got me into this. Alex helped a lot.
The hardest boat was when the boat was slamming when the sea state was so terrible and confused, the boat was slamming, slamming at the time. I though the boat would break into pieces. And it was so uncomfortable to be in the boat at that time that lasted two or three days and I called Niina and I said had reached a point where I hoped the boat would break in two pieces and I could be rescued by a cargo ship, saving me.
Cape Horn was big?
Since I started to dream about this then Cape Horn has been such a big thing, and you start to think about what your chances will be to see Cape Horn when you are rounding it, the chances are not so big, it might be that you have to round a long way off or in the night time, but in the end I had perfect evening sun, nice conditions and I was able to go close and to talk by VHF to the lighthouse keeper and then I was able to see the lighthouse blinking and that was amazing. But climbing the Atlantic was quite tough but the conditions these last days have been what I was hoping for, I was so happy and the last two days have been champagne sailing.
In the media mixed zone
To have done the Mini Transats, the Route du Rhums, the Transat Jacques Vabre and finally now the Vendée Globe is just amazing. And now to have been to all the starts of this race since 1996 and now to finally have finished today seeing all these people on the sea, in the Channel and now on the land is just amazing, to be able to enjoy it myself. I am so happy Les Sables d’Olonne and the Vendée region arrange this race, and so to see these nice people from Les Sables d’Olonne taking care of us is just lovely.
A victory for the support of his friends and family
This is a big victory for me. It was already a victory for me to be able to start. Now I am the biggest winner. It is very emotional now, it goes so deep into your emotions. I am so touched to be able. Every evening, every night for the last four years I have gone to sleep thinking ‘am I able to finish this race, am I able to start the race. And then once I had started the race, every day I was wondering when it would stop, what might be the major catastrophe that stopped me, a whale of whatever, but I had some good luck, I had a well prepared boat with some good people, Joff Brown and Mikey Ferguson with whom I did the Transat Jacques Vabre with, learned me to sail IMOCA 60s, and my amateur team around me who are my friends, my colleagues, my closests, my family they are all amateurs. They have done such good work for the last four years, working so hard all the time to make me able to start and to make me able to finish. And of course I feel the pressure sailing that I can’t be the weakest link in the chain, I have to finish, also to be able to do it for them.
I am proud of my friends and the team and all the people who have followed me with encouraging messages, that has powered me up when I have had low days or low moods. These people have kept me going.
Airline pilot and safety
As an airline pilot there are a lot of things the same but the main thing for me is the way of thinking about safety. I was an aircraft mechanic, a maintenance engineer for many years and there you start with safety as the first priority. It is my way of thinking about things you are doing, it doesn’t matter if I am going flying or if I am going sailing. I try to avoid all the risks whether I am going sailing or going flying, that is the reason I am here with a boat which is in good condition and safely back here. It maybe took a bit longer
Thank you to all the people that made this possible. The Vendee and the people of the Vendee
It is a big honour to close the course isn’t it?
It feels now like it is yes. To see the crowds on the channel when I came in felt really good. I did not imagine there could be so many people cheering me.
Getting to the start line is often the hardest, is that the case for you?
Yes, it was the case for me. It was really hard! 6 months before the start I did not have the main sponsor yet and we had the big keel change to do and no money for that. We were really close to shutting down the project but then in May we found our main sponsor and we were really busy getting organised.
90% of the time you said you were happy, tell us about your down moments?
The start of the race was really hard. The big front that we had to pass and after that front, I had a wipeout and mast on the water. It was a horrifying moment and fell from the upper side of the boat to the bottom side. I managed to save the boat, save the rig and continue sailing and a few days after that I woke up to a blackout on the boat, I had no electricity on board. Luckily we had the same situation one month earlier and I knew what to do and I had some spares and I could one by one recover those electrics and continue the race. It felt quite bad that in the first week you had a wipeout, almost lost the boat and then the electrics. You then wonder how you can survive around the world with these kind of things.
What stands out now when you look back at the race?
I just enjoyed staying there day by day with my basic routings. I felt good if the sea state wasn’t too bad and the weather conditions not too bad. I enjoyed it a lot. Maybe it was because I didn’t have any goal to win the race or be in a good position, I just wanted to finish and I had no pressure for that kind of things. I could enjoy the race that way
You are an amateur sailor, this is your hobby. What would your advice be to someone else coming in as an amateur?
First is to learn to speak and read French, it is a major thing! The second one is that you have to start with class Mini. That is a good path and a good way to start and you get known with the right people and get into this and it is much easier that way. And you have to be really good with the sponsors!
A few words about your sponsor, you won three sponsorship awards in Finland.
It is hard to make sponsors believe in us. We did all what we could to make our sponsors happy and that was a big success. That was mainly because me and Niina (his partner) made communications and media. She is professional so she made such good work with that!
Give us a few words about the support of other skippers during the race?
It started a long time ago, at least five years ago with Alex and since then it has been continued with all the other skippers more or less. Before this race I spoke and met Alex a few times. I was scared to go to the Southern Ocean as it was my first experience and I did not know what to expect and I had heard horror stories. It was helpful to get advice from other skippers like Sam during hard time such as approaching cape Horn. It helped me a lot to hear their advice and to know that the other skippers are struggling also so It wasn’t just me
You have a special deal with Sam Davies don’t you?
We have a special deal but we don’t tell it to you!
You are going to take Sam for a flight in your plane?
Yes when I was scared approaching Cape Horn and I had never experienced anything like that. I told Sam my fear and she told me she has more fear on an airplane so it can’t be so bad
Then I promised to take Sam into the cockpit to show how it looks when we pass storm clouds and that it is not so scary when you can see the weather radar and what is happening around.
Before your first Vendee, you said you don’t understand other skippers coming back again and again?
After this I am even more amazed of skippers that come back! I understand, it is such an experience and challenge and race. But when I am an amateur and this is my hobby. If we do it a different way, instead of working two jobs at the same time then it is the only way it can be possible to do it again.
You know for the next four years you have to take breakfast in bed to Niina?
I think even that is not enough!
What was the most challenging technical problem?
It was the technical electronic situation with the electronic systems blacking out. I knew how to fix the thing and continue but that was quite scary. When you start you accept that you might have to abandon the race on anyday, even on the first night. But when you fight through all this way and get to the Bay of Biscay then it is hard to accept that you are out of the race. So then the pressure rises as you go through the race as you don’t want to abandon having got so far but it is always possible
You must be the most popular Finn in France today, do you guys agree? (question to the audience!). How does it feel to be popular for once Ari?
It feels quite stressful now, I have to behave and learn how to speak French and do a lot of things
You earlier said that Stark is ready to go again, it is completely fixed and there is nothing wrong with it.
That is true! That was my goal. First goal was to start the race and the second was to finish with a boat that is in a good condition because I need to sell the boat. I made all what I can and could during the race to keep the boat in one piece and that is the case now. There is even enough food for two crew and diesel for that race and almost all the supplies and spare parts to go again.
What do you think about the welcome here in Les Sables?
It was really touching. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a huge amount of people come to see me. I want to thank you all and all who ade this. I will remember this for the rest of my life.
How did you manage to stay in good health?
I took it very easy so that might be the answer. I didn’t push the boat, I tried to enjoy the sailing and that is how my days passed by quite fast. I didn’t do as much work as the first skippers, that is the reality. If you change the sails several times a day then it is hard on your body in this kind of race. Chocolate helps too!
What is going to happen to the boat?
I hope that if someone wants to have a good boat that is immediately ready for training and the TJV and after that we can revisit it. It is a good boat for someone that wants to start approaching the next Vendee