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Vendee Globe: Everything on course for a spectacular ninth edition

The official press conference for the ninth edition of the Vendée Globe was held on Thursday, September 17 at the Palais Brongniart in Paris. The event mustered as many sailors, partners, organisers and journalists as was safely possible. 

It is an important milestone 52 days before the start of the non-stop, unassisted solo round-the-world race which is shaping up to be an exceptional event in every area.

This ninth edition promises to be one of global sport’s outstanding events spanning the winter of 2020-2021. Since its inception in 1989 the race has never before attracted such as a big and varied field. On November 8 in Les Sables d’Olonne, on France’s Vendée coast 33 solo sailors are due to take the start. Not since the 2008-2009 edition, when there were 30 starters, has the field been so large.

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This time it includes no fewer than ten non-French skippers and there will be a record number of six female skippers. The standard of the competitors is particularly outstanding. Two sailors who made it to the podium in 2017 are visible proof of that. British sailor, Alex Thomson will be competing for the fifth time, while France’s Jérémie Beyou is back for his fourth attempt. These two experienced talents will face a lot of competition from some ambitious contenders, many of whom will be taking part for the first time.

Great champions and rookies

There are 18 ‘bizuths’ or rookies, sailors out to take on the Vendée Globe for the first time. Again this is a record number. And all have already amassed a wide range of appropriate experience and success in other events and other types of sailing. Among these rookies is France’s multiple Paralympic sailing champion (Damien Seguin – APICIL), a round the world speed record holder who is a winner of the Volvo Ocean Race (Kévin Escoffier – PRB) as well as several winners of the famous French solo multi stage race, the annual Solitaire du Figaro (Nicolas Troussel – CORUM L’EPARGNE, Sébastien Simon – ARKEA-PAPREC), as well as recent winners of the Transat Jacques Vabre (Charlie Dalin – APIVIA) and the Route du Rhum (Armel Tripon).

Women out in force

Women skippers were absent from the 2016-2017 edition. But this time they are back in force and together setting another race record. Six female solo skippers will line up on November 8. Until now the average has been two female racers competing, with for example Anne Liardet and Karen Leibovici in 2004 and Sam Davies and Dee Caffari in 2008. It was not until 1996 and the third Vendée Globe that the pioneering French women competed for the first time, Catherine Chabaud who was the first to complete the race, and Isabelle Autissier.

Of the seven women to have started the Vendée Globe, two have certainly left their mark, Great Britain’s Dame Ellen MacArthur, 2nd in 2001 and Samantha Davies, 4th in 2009. Sam Davies is back this year for the third time in her career, hugely ambitious, very experienced and with great potential. The English sailor is just one of a high quality group of female solo racers who have already proven their tenacity and skills, Isabelle Joschke (GER/FRA), Clarisse Cremer (FRA), Alexia Barrier (FRA), Pip Hare (GBR) and Miranda Merron (GBR).

An exceptional mix of sport and adventure

Winning the Vendée Globe involves a lot of different factors: a well-organised project, a fast and reliable boat, talent and luck. Some competitors bring together all these elements and are determined to perform well. But for others, the final result is not the only concern. Some are taking part for the first time to gain experience or to fulfil a life-long dream. The Vendée Globe is the only race of its kind where racing and adventure come together.

Looking beyond the race itself, all of the sailors will share a common destiny as they face the elements: they will be facing up their own limits, pushing back the boundaries and going through some extreme emotions. They all share the desire to complete the 21,638-mile long solo voyage, which will take them between 70 and 100 days.

Ten non-French, two dual nationalities and nine nations

The international appeal of the Vendée Globe has continued to grow over recent years. This year, there are 10 sailors from outside of France (that is almost 30% of the fleet) representing Great Britain, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Italy, Finland, Australia and Japan. Indeed it is one of the international skippers who is among the pre-race favourites.

Tied with Jean Le Cam in terms of number of his five previous participations, the British skipper Alex Thomson (HUGO BOSS) is the most experienced and the most successful sailor at the start with two back to back podiums achieved over the last two editions – third in 2012-2013 and second in 2016-2017, Thomson, the man with the black boat has only one ambition: to win.

Skippers from 27 to 61 years old

The youngest competitor is the Swiss Alan Roura (LA FABRIQUE), who at 27 years old will be competing in his second Vendée Globe. The oldest is the popular veteran Jean Le Cam (YES WE CAM!) who at 61 years old is lining up for the fifth time. The broad age range really reflects the broad appeal of the discipline of solo ocean racing which continues to grow in popularity.

In such a gruelling ocean race as this, it is often durability and experience which makes the difference; indeed many of the skippers are in their forties and fifties, proof that sailing is a lifetime sport and the Vendée Globe a unique and enduring challenge.

Great leaps forward in advanced foil technologies

The IMOCA class has fostered advances in offshore foiling, these “underwater wings” that lift the boats above water to deliver seemingly impossible speeds for these 60 foot carbon monohulls. The 2016 edition saw the start of this technological shift. The 2020 edition sees this technology having made significant advances in foil shape, form and structure but also in corresponding hull design and structure with boats now designed and built specifically to foil, to fly above the sea’s surface for protracted periods. Nineteen of the 33 monohulls are fitted with these impressive flying appendages, including seven very latest 2020 generation boats.

The 60-foot IMOCA have become more complex machines, they are much faster but exact a considerable toll in terms of skipper comfort. That may be the price to pay as the benchmark time set by the last winner Armel Le Cléac’h (in 74 days 3 hours and 35 minutes) seems very likely to be beaten. At these high speeds, other problems occur, making life on board increasingly difficult, and more than ever testing the ability of men and women to withstand the noise, the slamming, the jolting and the awkward motion for days on end.

Committed to a responsible approach

From this edition forwards, the Vendée Globe is engaged in a responsible long-term approach. First of all, SAEM Vendée, in consultation with all the stakeholders, has committed to a more responsible event organization with an internal assessment of its impact and the implementation of concrete actions to limit those on this edition and in the future. Numerous initiatives will be carried out in the village aimed at raising awareness of ocean health, particularly among the younger audience with educational tools available through the Vendée Globe junior program. This theme will be the centre of attention in the village and displayed on all of the event’s communication media.

In line with the process initiated by the skippers of the IMOCA class, the Vendée Globe and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO are signing an agreement with the aim of collecting data relating to the ocean and the atmosphere. More than a third of the skippers in the fleet are involved in these measures and will be equipped with the instruments required to carry out measurements and collect data. Further details about this operation will follow shortly.

A popular festival falls in line with requirements for a unique period

Single-handed ocean racing is certainly one of the sports most suited to an extreme of social distancing, but welcoming the public to Les Sables d’Olonne is a big challenge in these difficult times.

The Vendée Globe is a popular event, a public event which in essence belongs to the Vendée region and the Vendée people. The presence of the public is an essential and historical part of the mix. The organisers, the SAEM Vendée have been working together for months with all the stakeholders of the event and the associated authorities in order to make the presence of the public possible in this context.

The Village will therefore open its doors on October 17, but its access will be subject to a system adapted to the health measures in force:

The reception capacity of the Village will be limited to 5,000 people at the same time, with real-time flow management and a direction of circulation imposed in indoor areas.
Access to the village is free, but the public must make a mandatory reservation beforehand. Registration details will be communicated shortly.
Wearing a mask will be compulsory, as will respect for all social distancing upon entering the village.

A specific health protocol for skippers and their close entourage, with in particular strict confinement for seven days before departure.

A health protocol for the organisation and accredited persons, including the media, with the obligation to present a negative PCR test dated within the previous 72 hours to access the village. All those provisions will be communicated shortly.

An agile organisation, in permanent contact with the competent authorities, in order to constantly adapt to the changing situation.

Main image © Jean-Marie Liot

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