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Vendee Globe: Conrad Colman on how the race was finally won

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It’s been a Vendee Globe like no other and after 11 weeks of racing and a full lap of the planet the final result stayed in doubt until several hours after the first boat made it home to Les Sables D’Olonne. There was plenty of tension and drama during the final 24 hours of racing for the five skippers, but finally we had a winner. Our resident ocean racing expert Conrad Colman was on hand to make sense of it all.


It’s all over. Drama, tears, breakages, terror, delight, dreams crushed and realised and the requisite sunsets and dolphins. All packed into 80 days, 6 hours and 15 minutes, even if the winning time was two and a half hours less. We’ll get to all that.

How was the race won? The last days of this incredible race around the world were defined the lead group splitting into two, with Charlie Dalin and Boris Herrmann taking the tricky southern route through unseasonably clement Bay of Biscay and the hard-chargers, Louis Burton and Yannick Bestaven making a final bruising northern sprint to the finish that ultimately won the race.

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On the 24th of January, four days before their arrival, the group is still tightly bunched but we can already see how each skipper will attack the final sprint to the finish. Yannick, with two working foils but limited use of his light wind sails due to damage sustained while rounding Cape Horn, is charging northwards looking for a rendezvous with the stronger winds coming ahead of the front associated with the strong N- Atlantic depression.

Louis, having sailed around the outside of the fleet since the equator appears unsure as to whether he should sail the shorter route through the Bay of Biscay or capitalise on his northerly position relative to his competitors to catch the stronger winds.

Charlie is handicapped on starboard gybe and wants to avoid the northern option for two reasons. Firstly, he wants to break away from Boris and Yannick who are carrying time compensation (see below) and he doesn’t feel he can generate enough time difference with them if he sails the same route as them. Secondly, the northern option only works if you’re at full speed when the strong south-westerlies come and he estimated that he was only able to sail at 70% of his capacity on the required starboard gybe so needs to choose a different option.

Early morning on the 26th of January, with a day and a half to go, you can see the strategies are becoming more mature. Charlie has been unable to shake Boris who has also adopted the approach close to Cape Finisterre whereas Yannick and Thomas have made their play out to the left and have gybed over and are accelerating in the building breeze. They had better hope to accelerate enough, as they were 300 miles behind Charlie in terms of distance to finish.

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In the final run to the finish, Charlie and Boris have benefitted from the acceleration and wind shift around Cape Finisterre. Crucially for Charlie, this has set him up for a long gybe on starboard where he can perform optimally and close the door on Louis. Here Apivia showed her flat water speed potential by sailing 2 knots faster, on similar angles, than the 2016 generation Bureau Vallee and Maitre Coq, despite them sailing with more wind ahead of the front. Ultimately Charlie put on a master class in the final days, sailing less distance, befitting from local wind effects around the Spanish coast and working within the limitations of his degraded boat.

Time Compensation

It feels reductionist to do a blow by blow analysis of the final days as if the key to the two-month race lay in its final moments. As with all great dramas, the result in the final days turned on plot developments prepared well in advance.

Most importantly, time compensation from Kevin Escoffier’s rescue on the 1st of December turned the race on its head. For Jean Le Cam, Boris Herrmann and Yannick Bestaven, all diverted by the race directors and instructed to search for their comrade, all thoughts of competition were suppressed beneath the need to collaborate to assure Kevin’s survival.

The night was cold and brutal as they crisscrossed their allocated patches of the wild Indian Ocean before Jean finally saw the flash of light from the life raft and was able to haul Kevin to safety after his boat sank in mere minutes.

During this time, the other competitors were no doubt waiting anxiously for news but they were still foot to the floor in race mode, too far away to contribute to the cause. Given their diversion and effort expended, the race jury subsequently awarded 6 hours to Boris, 10 hours 15 mins to Yannick and 16 hours to Jean. For the rest of the race, a little asterisk appeared next to their names in the rankings to remind fans of the race that they were owed time.

Given the multi-day time differences that typically separate competitors at the finish, few probably thought that these time compensations would count for much.

The class IMOCA has always enjoyed the purity of no rating rule. The first boat across the line wins the race, no matter what generation the boat is or how fast it can theoretically go. This inevitably created an arms race where the newest and most developed boat wins the race, except for the 2000 generation PRB that went on to win again in 2004. But still, the first boat across the line won the race.

In the aftermath of Charlie Dalin cutting the figurative finisher’s tape but Yannick Bestaven being awarded the trophy, there has been much discussion as to whether the time compensation was a just method of recognising these sailor’s diversion to save Kevin. In this unprecedentedly close edition of the race, it reshuffled the podium but to argue the counterpoint we need to remember the situation on the first of December.

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Charlie Dalin held a commanding lead of 250 miles at the approach of the Cape of Good Hope. Thomas Ruyant, Kevin Escoffier, Boris Herrmann, Yannick Bestaven, Jean Le Cam and Seb Simon were in a close chasing pack while Louis Burton was unveiling his first attack in the south. They were all riding the coattails of a big depression which is a critical juncture in any race. Any minute more than you can stay with the stronger winds in comparison with your competitors further west in lighter winds, (depressions roll over the fleet from the west to the east) the better.

As you now know, the bunch remained closely packed to the finish but they could very well have escaped and put a whole weather system between themselves and the chasing pack, a la 2016 when Armel Le Cléac’h and Alex broke away, never to be seen again. The most important thing is that both Yannick and Charlie accept the results and Yannick will be seen as the true winner, without an asterisk next to his name.

Drama all the way to the finish

With Charlie and Louis across the line, all eyes turned to Boris Herrmann who carried six hours compensation and was all but guaranteed a spot on the podium as the final miles counted down. However, with just 90 miles to go before a warm welcome, the wheels fell off.

Boris collided with a Basque fishing boat while asleep.

In our weekly Vendee Globe podcasts Yacht Racing Life editor Justin Chisholm and myself had often commented on how cool, calm and collected Boris had been through the preceding dramas of his race around the world.

Whatever the challenge, be it a major repair to his mainsail, replacing his keel pump or just balancing how hard to push, he had continually demonstrated mastery of himself and his boat and had sailed a flawless race. Given that, it seems a shame that his race was tarnished by this accident but it goes to show that even the most safety-conscious sailors can get caught up in a mess at the end of a long, taxing race.

In the above video, Boris admits that he was asleep at the time of the accident and awoke with the shock. He had set his AIS proximity alarm and radar alarm and suggests at the time that the fishing vessel might not have been transmitting its position, rendering it invisible to his systems.

In a news article following his arrival, the fishermen say that they did have their system active and saw his lights approaching through the dark and were surprised to be attacked by a sailing yacht at 20 knots. They didn’t see him come on deck following the accident and thought he might have been a drug runner.

Putting their two accounts together it appears that Boris was caught up the confusion of his alarming wake-up and probably was trying to figure out what was going on from his protected cockpit, where he would not have been visible to the other boat’s crew. When the two boats were released when his shroud failed, Boris went to look if his boat was taking on water and didn’t hear them hail him on the radio.

Put together with Alex Thomson’s grounding in Guadeloupe at the end of the 2018 Route du Rhum, this accident shows that managing oneself and the boat’s systems becomes a delicate business at the end of such a race when the fatigue has accumulated to such a degree. Even with AIS, radar, the visual AI OSCAR system and Boris’ whale pinger, there is still work to be done to integrate the onboard surveillance tools to make them fail-safe and tired-skipper proof.

Road to Gold

Fast boats, and foils

One of the great questions during this race has been why the newer, faster boats, with their enormous wingspans, didn’t break away and leave the older boats in their wakes. As we saw the older boats come back into the fray time and time again, journalists and fans alike started wondering whether all the pre-race fuss about flying boats and obliterated records was justified.

Indeed, Damien Seguin rounded Cape Horn in 4th place on his 2008 generation Finot- Conq design equipped with daggerboards and the race was being led at the time by 2016 boat with small foils!

While it is tempting to break down the fleet into monolithic blocks according to their age (as I did above) you must remember that within each generation there are significantly different design hypotheses in competition, not all of whom got the opportunity to demonstrate their potential. Within just the 2020 class, there are designs from Juan K, Sam Manuard, VPLP and Guillaume Verdier’s design house and foils with spoon shapes, constant curves, concave or convex shafts and spindly tips or fat blades.

The big problem for the new boats, according to the testimonies from Charlie Dalin and Thomas Ruyant, is that the boats are very flat and optimised for flat water speed. Their enormous wingspan lifted and accelerated the boats but the sea state was so short, particularly in the Indian Ocean, that they just threw themselves into the backs of the next wave even harder.

Their hulls didn’t allow them to ride over the waves and Charlie said that he went through a massive deceleration every 15 seconds, all day, for the week that it took to traverse the Indian Ocean.

In contrast with the Verdier designs whose foil tips were always deployed and the shape of the shaft changed their angle relative to the hull, Alex Thomson and Seb Simon’s boats had constant curvature boards in vertical shafts through the hull that allowed them to be fully retracted, thereby turning off the lifting effect.

Yannick said in his post-race press conference that the foils are like a turbocharger, and you need to learn when to use them and when to sail without them so its a shame that both boats with the retractable boards weren’t able to figure in the race during the tough conditions.

The old man of the sea, Jean Le Cam, in his post-race conference said that “you can’t race the Paris Dakar in a Formula 1 car”. Clearly, he was suggesting that the newer boats were too specialised and too fragile for the conditions that they encountered in this edition of the race. Louis Burton too, confirmed that in all the crewed and European warm-up races his boat was “destroyed” by the new boats but that “once you’re all by yourself in the middle of the Southern Ocean things become a lot more equal”.

One thing that everyone unanimously agreed on, however, was that foils are the future, and it’s just a matter of better understanding when, and how, to best use their turbo to create the most versatile package possible.

Finally, let’s please remember that while most people are breathlessly winding down their coverage after poring over every minute of this month-long adventure, there are still brave sailors out there battling their way to the finish.

Those that will cross the finish line in the coming days and weeks, come from smaller teams, sail older boats and have managed with smaller budgets. Often the skippers have been much more involved in the running of the teams, and the sanding of the hulls, than the specialised experts on the podium.

They deserve your respect, and by all accounts are putting on a great show, and this diversity in the fleet is one of the reasons that this event is so loved by the sailing public. Hang on until the end, it’s worth it.


Main image © Vincent Curutchet