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 November 4, 2016   Peter Marsh

This Sunday, a one of sailing’s greatest challenges begins in Les Sables d’Olonne, France: the Vendée Globe. The Vendée is a solo, non-stop, unsupported race around the world. Pacific Northwest writer and photographer, Peter Marsh, is a serious enthusiast and was was in Les Sables d’Olonne to welcome one of the boats home at the end of the 2012-2013 edition of the Vendée

“This has been one of the worst weeks I’ve had in that race, but also one of the most unforgettable because it ended with my finish here. I never doubted I could make it but it’s been very difficult, sometimes I just couldn’t see how I could progress any more… But in the end, tough times turn into good memories.” This was part of the message that French sailor, Tanguy de Lamotte, shared with the crowd of thousands who turned out on a freezing Sunday in February to cheer him home 99 days after he began the Vendée Globe (pronounced “VON-DAY”). After 25 years of watching and writing about the race from the Pacific Northwest, I finally found myself standing among the hoardes on the shore in Les Sables d’Olonne, consumed by the excitement and the power of the moment.

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Tanguy de Lamotte arrives on Valentine’s Day weekend after 99 days at sea.

Vendée Globe campaigns can run the gamut from the leading-edge design of the top boats (this year including lifting foils) to the lower-budget “adventure” sailors in older boats who start the race with the knowledge that they probably won’t win. To be sure, Tanguy de Lamotte fell into the latter category. I was really impressed by the number of fans and supporters on that morning in Les Sables d’Olonne. They didn’t seem to know or care that his boat was hopelessly out-of-date or that he was three weeks behind the winner. Tenth place doesn’t attract much attention in most boat races. But this is the Vendée, the Olympics of solo ocean racing! The same is true of the Tour de France, where thousands camp out in Alps to see the riders sweat their way up the slope. They don’t care about the brand of bike, though they might notice the sponsors’ names on the riders’ shirts. A 60’ yacht with a 95’ mast has a heck of a lot more space for the sponsor’s name, and Tanguy de Lamotte’s boat was plastered with hearts and the name Initiatives Cœur. Loosely translated as the “Heart Project”, Initiatives Cœur is a charity that brings young children from around the world to hospitals in France hospitals for cardiac surgery. A video depicting this project was being shown above the stage outside the race village, intermixed with pictures Tanguy took as he fought to overcome gear breakages and collisions with flotsam in the Atlantic. 

Tanguy’s boat began its life in 1998 as Catherine Chabaud’s Whirlpool, the first modern IMOCA Open 60 to be launched in France not from the board of Groupe Finot. The designer, Marc Lombard, opted for the new concept of the canting keel. It went through two more owners and two round–the-world races before it was chosen by American, Brad Van Liew, as the most competitive design of its era that qualified as an “Eco 60” for the Velux 5 Oceans race in 2010. Under the name Le Pingouin and without a lead sponsor, Brad won that race by a wide margin, but the boat that became Initiatives Cœur was soon sold back to France to pay his debts.

The enthusiastic early risers had already claimed all the “front row” spots by 9:00am on the morning Tanguy arrived, although the boat was not expected until 11:00am when the high tide barely allowed the 15′ draft of an Open 60 into its mooring. On the water, the party began offshore at the buoy that marks the finish, and turned into a floating carnival as the flotilla moved slowly along the channel that was lined with cheering crowds. Two charter boats led him in with everyone on board blowing kazoos. Horns sounded. A helicopter flew over. The crowds hustled around the back streets while I pedaled alongside on my folding bike. We circled the Port Olona basin and arrived at the race village, where the doors had closed for good the previous week. 

The screen went to a live camera for a short interview at the dockside, so the emotional moment when he stepped ashore for the first time in nearly 100 days was watched by the thousands on shore. The crowd may or may not have known that Tanguy had studied naval architecture in England and worked as a boat preparer for Ellen MacArthur’s triumphant 2000-01 Vendée. But, they knew his personal goal was to race around the world and his campaign goal was to generate interest and web traffic for his sponsor. It felt serendipitous that Tanguy and his heart-covered Initiatives Cœur arrived on Valentine’s Day weekend. 

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The crowd here to welcome the tenth-place finisher still numbered in the thousands.

When the Initiatives Cœur presentation ended, everyone raced to get down the ramp to see Tanguy’s boat, which was now moored at the foot of the long floating dock where all 20 starters had begun the voyage. This gave me an idea of what it would be before the start, with all the boats on display and thousands wanting to get up close to their heroes. I waited a while and then took my time, admiring not only the three Vendée finishers on display, but the people desperate to touch the boat or those trying to get that perfect selfie.

The entourage moved up the gangplank and onto the open-air stage where there was a presentation, questions and answers, and lots more antics by Tanguy. He had definitely found a second wind and looked ready to party all day as he cheerfully answered questions and was joined by a surgeon and some of the young cardiac patients helped by Initiatives Cœur. Though Tanguy was a rookie on his first circumnavigation, his cause had struck a chord with the audience. Most boats are sponsored by anonymous corporations, but he had a pledge of one Euro per web click for Initiatives Cœur, and his crazy web campaign had passed 175,000 Facebook clicks, enough for 14 life-saving operations. It’s hard to say whether it was Tanguy’s cause or his hilarious videos that he shot while up the mast, swimming in the ocean, and playing air guitar, but he won the prize for best communicator in the race.

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Tanguy de Lamotte’s lively personality and good cause have made him a fan favorite. Photo courtesy of Vendée Globe.

After struggling with a broken halyard in the south Atlantic, a dropped spinnaker, ripped jib, and two collisions with floating objects that left him with one broken rudder, a crushed dagger board, and serious leaks in the bilge with pumps failing, he skillfully made fiberglass repairs of the board case, stopped most of the leaks, and finally crossed the line in a remarkable time of 98 days 21 hours 56 minutes. He had traveled 28,160 miles on the water at an average speed of 11.9 knots. (Note: This time may look slow today, but it would have won the first three Vendée Globes!)

“Thinking about the children we’ve helped and the public clicking on our page to save them was a true source of motivation for me. I would think about that in difficult moments, and that would definitely help, it kept my morale high. I just loved participating in this race and contributing to help children.” 

Tanguy de Lamotte will be making his second Vendée Globe attempt beginning on Sunday. He is sailing a different boat for this edition, albeit one that has shown success (its sister-ship won the 2008-09 edition, sailed by Michel Desjoyeaux). He is again sailing to support Initiatives Cœur.

I watched the crowd thin out and realized that my Vendée Globe adventure was coming to an end. No doubt, the locals would all be back five days later, in darkness or light, to welcome in the eleventh and final finisher in that year’s race. As I bicycled south that afternoon towards La Rochelle, another yachting center (with a medieval castle as backdrop), I recognized Vendée Globe sponsor’s names on businesses like Banque Populaire (Popular Bank) and PRB (France’s answer to Home Depot). I mention this because without companies, large and small, wanting to be involved, the Vendée Globe and all the other professional races could never happen. For any of you wondering why this doesn’t catch on in the USA, the answer is that sailing doesn’t get enough clicks, eyeballs, etc. The so-called experts in marketing who pay $5 million for a 30-second Super Bowl must know what they are doing, right? For the record, $5 million is the cost of a two-to-four year IMOCA campaign on a used-but-modern Open 60, which go for about $500,000.

That’s why Ryan Breymaier, thought by many to be America’s brightest hope in the world of short-handed offshore sailboat racing, has been unsuccessfully seeking sponsorship since 2010, and isn’t on the start line of the 2016-17 Vendée. None of the four English speakers in the race, including the lone American Rich Wilson, are considered favorites, with the possible exception of British Sailor, Alex Thomson, who is the skipper of Hugo Boss. They have all had to cut corners and make compromises wherever they can, and are still likely to be in debt when, or if, they finish.

Ironically, this doesn’t mean the lower-budget guys will necessarily be bringing up the rear when the fleet returns in February. As in every development class, the older boats were built heavier and last longer. Some of them have been racing for ten years and are still going strong. So, while the chances are good that a foiler will win, it is also likely that several of the older boats will make the top ten. History has shown us that most of the bleeding-edge high-budget programs tend to either place at the top or not make it all the way round the world. That was definitely the case eight years ago, when the race turned into a real demolition derby! Of the 30 entrants, 19 retired and only 11 finished. The favorites filled the podium, but places 4-11 were filled by older boats, including two British women: Samantha Davies in 95 days in fourth, Dee Caffari in 99 days in sixth. American Rich Wilson, the oldest entrant at 58, made it back in 121 days for ninth, which earned him around 10,000 Euros in prize money. Rich is now 66 years old and back for another go-round. Of course, he is again the oldest competitor. However, three other sailors over 60 are in this race: Enda O’Coineen, 61, of Ireland; the Vendée veteran Nandor Fa, 63, of Hungary; and Pieter Heerema, 65, of the Netherlands. The oldest finisher to date is Basque Jose Ugarte, who was 64 in 1993

This year’s Vendée holds no shortage of intrigue with the six boats utilizing lifting foils and a wide variety of world-class sailors and captivating stories up and down the fleet. As impressive as the crowd was when I was there, many thousands more will be at the start and the Race Village this weekend, waiting hours for their opportunity to get close to the boats.  I’ll be following intently at https://www.vendeeglobe.org/en/.  Will you?

Peter Marsh is a writer, photographer, sailor, and cyclist based in the Pacific Northwest.  The photos are included courtesy of Peter, except where otherwise noted.