Vendée Globe: Ode to the World, Ode to Joy

Samantha Davies, Initiatives-Coeur © Vendée Globe

The crash of the Furious 50s finally eased and the contenders of the Vendée Globe 2020/2021 are now in safe port. The first peleton of skippers arrived almost bunched together on 27 January last, after 80 days at sea, just under the 74-day record set by Armel Le Cléac’h 4 years earlier. This was after a solo, non-stop and unassisted round-the-world race, with unprecedented vying for the finish in the final nautical miles, and the last of the contenders in this sea odyssey reaching the Sables d’Olonne in March.

While the winner Yannick Bestaven is once again a French national, the growing international renown of the race was confirmed by a strong cohort of skippers from Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Finland and even Japan, all heroes in the maritime adventure, all winners in their own right, with their talent, courage and their own personality.

A Human Adventure with Infinite Boundaries

Seen from the outside, this time it was not so much about the technology of the IMOCA class boats (18.28 m long with a 4.5 m draft), as it was four years ago. The technological revolution of the monohulls had in fact already taken place with the appearance of foils, which provide lightness and additional speed, albeit, in relation to specific sea conditions. From this point of view, there was nothing really new apart from the development of this technology with equipment of significantly different design and size. In the end, the new generation craft predictably prevailed, but not by as much as expected. There were not in fact two competitions in one, that of foils and that of classic monohulls, and the “older” craft resisted well by putting up a fight all throughout the race at speeds that sometimes reached or even surpassed 30 knots. 

  And it must be admitted that over the past few years technology has increasingly entered our lives in an exponential manner. So mithridatised are we by our hi-tech devices, that nothing much surprises us anymore. Technology is now so necessary and dependable for both the organisation of the race and for the contenders that it has somehow blended into the background to the extent that relatively little attention is now paid to it. And yet, the daily briefings from the race administration, and the video and audio satellite liaisons with the competitors were perfection itself. This allowed us lesser mortals to be transported daily over these oceans, in southern seas, as far as the icy realms of Antarctica where most of us will probably never set foot. This albeit unintentional oversight of technology prevented us from being more admiring of the vessels’ equipment, computers, real-time on-screen weather maps, thermal sensors to detect unidentified floating objects (UFOs), satellite telephones, video and photo devices and sometimes even their drones allowing us to see them alone on the high seas, as if we were there ourselves.

All the competitors are winners, including Samantha Davies, who completed the round-the-world trip “hors course”, being excluded from the race for having to carry out repairs with assistance in Cape Town. So too are those who suffered damage that forced them to abandon. Not only was the competition itself spread over more than two and a half months, it was a long journey that in fact began at the end of the previous race, in terms of putting together a team and an organisation, finding a boat or having it built, testing it, training, and getting psyched up and physically fit. Due to a lack of sponsors or a sound project, many excellent skippers could not take part. This is to be regretted, but as we know excellence is not without selection and sometimes even injustice.

Of the 33 skippers who set off (just 13 for the first edition in 1989), 6 were women, all deserving of mention and honour. Is it even necessary to distinguish them from their male counterparts, for that matter, as they were all in the same trial? The Franco-German Isabelle Joschke, for example, was in the top ten when she encountered technical difficulties in the last stretch heading up the Atlantic. The same can be said for Samantha Davies. Both men and women proved the same ability to climb the “Himalaya of the sea”, to face the deepest depressions and winds exceeding 50 knots, to wonder at the magical spectacle of the world, and they displayed the same talent in letting us share in their adventure. 

Incidentally, additional prizes should be awarded, and the race administration should seriously think about this: one for sportsmanship, for Alex Thomson, one for communication for almost all participants, especially for the “king” Jean Le Cam, with “Yes We Cam”, for Giancarlo Pedote and Clarisse Cremer, one for solidarity and bravery for the rescue of Kevin Escoffier off the Kerguelen Islands, with the help of a French navy vessel, one for the greatest self-control even in the most tense of situations for Boris Herrmann, one for the most beautiful photograph or the best sushi on the high seas for Kojiro Shiraishi who, by participating on two occasions has allowed all of Japan to discover the Vendée Globe while becoming the first Asian to finish this immense trial.

© Giancarlo Pedote, Prysmian Group


A Lesson of Things and an Adventure for the Eyes

The former track and field champion, Stéphane Diagana, quite rightly deemed that sailing brings the public to a “world of evasion beyond sport”. Just like the Tour de France, in relative terms, which reveals France and its every nook and cranny, the non-stop Vendée Globe teaches us distances, that it takes around three weeks to reach the Cape of Good Hope from the Sables d’Olonne, five weeks to pass CapeLeeuwin in southwest Australia, 50 days to reach Cape Horn and a little over two and a half months to complete this Round-the-World trip, with a 7,000-mile climb back from the southern tip of the South Atlantic.

Instead of the 14 summits exceeding 8,000 m, Point Nemo, the most isolated place on the planet, and the terrifying Cape Horn, which truly lives up to its reputation (due to the layout of its ocean floor extending from Chile, causing powerful movements of the sea), are challenges similar to the first winter period of K2 this year.

  On the morning of 25 December, cavalcades of flying fish in the trade winds (causing injury when launched at top speed), skipjack and dolphinfish, giant squid reaching up to 13 m but rarely seen, as confined to the ocean floor, hordes of dolphins and whales more powerful than the sea itself, all formed a guard of honour for Damien Seguin on his adventure. The inimitable albatross welcomed the contenders when they entered the Great South, where the Roaring Forties begin. This bird would sometimes accompany them for hours in majestic flight, so unlike the description Baudelaire painted of this winged wonder.

© Clarisse Cremer, Banque Populaire

The journey was also a living lesson in meteorology, or even climatology, a key component not only of the race but of knowledge of the systems on which humanity directly depends, as we are increasingly aware. The famous Azores High, which strongly impacts our temperate regions, must be crossed, then the St. Helena High, in north-easterly trade winds that become south-easterly after the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). This zone, also known as the Doldrums, the Pot au Noir or the black pot, is an unpredictable umpire for contenders, due to the warm and humid air masses carried by the trade winds from both hemispheres. Further south are the uninterrupted processions of west-east depressions, up to the final stretch of the Atlantic, rendered tricky due to its complex weather systems. This Climate Journey will therefore have seen autumn in the Sables d’Olonne, the austral summer of the Southern seas making up 3/5 of the round-the-world trip, with a winter return to Vendée.

It is difficult to step into the shoes of the navigators to say whether their adventure was also that of their own perception of things. If this was the case, one might think that their own vision of the world will have been magnified. It is in fact the attention that we pay to humankind and to phenomena that bestows additional value on them.

Ode to Joy

If a musician were to be chosen to illustrate the Vendée Globe, it would first and foremost be Beethoven, whose 250th ‘birthday’ was in fact celebrated last December. His 6th Symphony “This astonishing landscape which could have been designed by Poussin and drawn by Michelangelo” according to Hector Berlioz, reproduces the outburst of the elements and introduces blissfully serene mornings; we abandon ourselves to nature to vanquish our destiny. And the 9th Symphony, in its finale, is an ode to the world that becomes an ode to joy.

By letting ourselves be carried away in the musical universe, Dvorak can also be heard, with distinctive tones of good old Europe. This was undoubtedly also the case for the navigators turned conductors of the elements, of gusts in the shrouds, of waves crashing off their vessel, and of the surf carrying them towards the finish at astonishing speeds. It was their Symphony of the New World thus recomposed for the imminent world that awaits us, that of the final frontiers.

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