Sam Davies, the one ‘mad woman’ from The Valley, discusses the Port-la-Forêt nine and thinks that the Vendée Globe will not be such a destruction derby this time.
Predictions are hard, especially about the future, and Vendée Globe prognostications often makes fools of the wise. But it is safer bet than normal that the winner of the 2012 Vendée Globe will come from 'The Valley of the Madmen'.
The Vendée Globe is the ultimate solo sailor race, but the training beforehand is not the same for all the teams and one group do things differently. There are nine sailors in the twenty-strong fleet who work together and share their knowledge at the near-mythical Port-la-Forêt training centre and it is no surprise that the three favourites for the race – Armel Cléac’h (Banque Populaire), Vincent Riou (PRB) and Jean-Pierre Dick (Virbac-Paprec 3) are part of the group.
The concentration of solo sailors at Port-la-Forêt, on the Brittany coast about 300km north of Les Sables d’Olonne, soon led to the madman tag. But the reality is that it is entirely rational. In England the money goes into Olympic funding and brings golds, in New Zealand the focus is more on production line of talent for their (and everybody else’s) America’s Cup campaigns.
But no other country has anything comparable to the pyramid structure of this sailing centre for solo sailors – with the Vendée campaigners at its apex – and it one reason for France’s continuing dominance of the race.
The last three winners of the Vendée Globe are products of its unique collaborative philosophy, including Michel Desjoyeaux, the winner in 2000-01 and 2008-09, who was one of the founders two decades ago. The other was Riou (Desjoyeaux’s chief boat ‘preparateur’ in 2000-01) in 2004.
The ‘madmen’ occasionally include a mad woman and Davies is one of the nine here. Thus when Sam Davies (Savéol), who lives in Corncarneau, but is based in Port-la-Forêt, says she is under-prepared, it is relative.
“I’m happy because we’re there in good shape with a good team, although we’re not quite ready - I would have like to have more sailing time - two more years - than what I have had,” she says. “Sometimes I’m really frustrated because I know that when I sail I know I haven’t had the sailing time and the training that I did last time and even though I’ve got the experience from the last Vendée Globe (when she sailed through the destruction derby to finish fourth) I don’t know my boat quite as well as last time.”
“There will be a steep learning curve over the first few weeks and the quicker I climb up it the better. I keep reminding myself; ‘you’re just really lucky to be here,’ but the frustrated side of me comes because I’ve been training with the best guys, who’ve been on the water for the last two years non-stop, except Jérémie (Beyou, Maître CoQ), but he’s an exception because he’s got the boat that won last time (Foncia) and he’s won the Figaro. So, even though he’s got a last minute project like I have he’s up there in terms of performance and capability.”
© Vincent Curutchet / DPPI“But I remind myself that I’m training with the best guys and we are the only group that get out on the water a lot together and probably go out training more than anyone else does anywhere. I was talking to one of the other skippers about it in training; we’d missed half a day and I think it was Vincent (Riou) who said; ‘yes, well the others don’t do anything like what we do.’ No one has the opportunity to train like we train.”
They are not a team, but there is significant pooling of resources and for example, Jean-Yves Bernot, the legendary French navigator and a weather routing guru at Port-la-Forêt from the beginning, has been working with the group and individuals to assess the weather forecasts and best route from the start. Other solo campaigns have to hire that kind of experience in.
“Francois Gabart (Macif), Vincent Riou (PRB), and me are the three boats who are based in Port-la-Forêt and then there’s Armel Cléac’h (Banque Populaire), Jean-Pierre Dick (Vibac-Paprec 3), Marc Guillemot (Safran), Bernard Stamm (Cheminées Poujoulat) and Jérémie (Beyou, Maître CoQ). Jean Le Cam (SynerCiel) does the weather training with us, but he didn’t have his boat ready in time so he hasn’t done the on-the-water stuff. It’s pretty much all the favourites - the non-British favourites (she adds with a touch of diplomacy sometimes requisite for one who bridges two worlds) together and me.”
Does she have a higher benchmark than most? “You can say I set my standards high, but then I can because I came fourth last time and I know what I’m talking about and I do want to do better than I did last time. (She smiles). And better might actually be worse than fourth in results, but I could still feel like I sailed better than last time. I want to do better by my standards.”
It will be a challenge. As in the last edition she is in a third-generation boat, Roland Jourdain’s boat, (Sill, which became Veolia) for the last two Vendée Globes. It’s a fast boat, from that generation, but it dropped out of both editions with keel problems; a broken keel head in 2004-05 and a lost keel bulb in 2008-09).
“What’s nice is my sponsors, Savéol, just want me to finish, knowing that even to do that is pretty hard in the Vendée Globe seeing what happened last time. So, I don’t have the pressure that pretty much every one of the boats I’ve stated (who are favourites) has. I don’t have the pressure of huge expectations, of winning or getting on the podium, which is quite nice.”
It is impossible to fully believe she has reconciled herself to this, such is her belief, skill and tenacity. She doesn’t sound like she totally believes it - it’s another one of those things that she has to keep telling herself.
Davies is in a better position than most to assess the claim – most loudly exclaimed by Alex Thomson - that the new generation boats are too fragile to finish.
© DPPI“The boats are more fragile than Savéol for sure, I’m not saying that as a criticism. The Macif guys got upset by something I said on the thedailysail.com because I’d said that Macif was too fragile. I didn’t mean it as a criticism, it’s almost a jealousy because fragile means light, it means performance and you can be fragile and if you have a really good skipper that knows when to take his foot off the floor, like Michel Desjoyeaux, you can probably get away with having a fragile boat. I think there are some fragile boats and if they’re not sailed with care then…”
She trails off to avoid another Port-la-Forêt diplomatic incident.
“I’ve got a feeling everyone is so affected by what happened last time (when only 11 of the 30 boats finished) that I think the ones who are going just to win the race are not going with the same approach as they did four years ago. Maybe there’s quite a lot of expectation that there’s going to be lots of things breaking all over the place but I’ve got a feeling it will be a lot less of a destruction race than last time.”
“Even though there will be a lead group of about ten boats that are just going to go foot to the floor, there’s a few that might not put their foot on the floor and it might make the others think twice about not doing it themselves.”
That theory will be tested straight away with the lead boats racing to beat a ridge of high pressure that could separate the fleet as Sunday draws on.
“Last time I came fourth, but I had one of the slowest boats in the fleet and so a lot of people are like; ‘yes, anything can happen.’ Yes, it’s a race of attrition, but I can’t rely on (a strategy of) ‘if 19 boats abandon then I’ll win’. That’s a big trap not to fall into, expecting the same race to happen again. We’re going into such an unknown and there are too many unknowns that you can’t control.”
Predictions are only for madmen.