Vendee Globe

The world’s toughest sailing race

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A solo, non-stop race around the planet, the Vendee Globe is surely the world’s toughest sailing competition. One of this year’s contenders, Samantha Davies, explains what’s at stake.

This must be the most testing event in ocean racing. The Vendee Globe requires competitors to sail solo, non-stop around the world. Setting off from Les Sables-d’Olonne, in western France, they head south through the Atlantic, between Africa and Antarctica, past the southern coast of Australia and the southern tip of South America, up through the Atlantic again, and back to Les Sables-d’Olonne.

Not only must competitors be technically brilliant, but they must also endure months of solitude, vicious storms and possible shipwreck.

Staged between November and February, the race takes place every four years. Competitors are allowed to stop at anchor but cannot draw alongside landing points or other vessels, and mustn’t receive any outside assistance. Inevitably, many drop out for mechanical or medical reasons.

Two sailors died during the second edition of the race, in 1992 – one on his way to the starting line, the other just four days after the start. During the 1996-1997 race, Canadian sailor Gerry Roufs was lost at sea, while British sailor Tony Bullimore was rescued after spending five days sheltering beneath his capsized yacht. Over the years there have been all sorts of mishaps, including capsizings, a broken mast, a broken leg, and a broken keel caused by a passing whale.

46-year-old British sailor Samantha Davies, who finished in fourth place in 2008-2009, hopes to avoid such misfortune this time round. She is sailing in her 18-metre boat Initiatives-Coeur. Her fiancé Romain Attanasio is also competing in the race. Here she reveals to Chart magazine the challenges she is ready to undergo when the race starts.

The solitude

“There are long periods of solitude because you’re out there on your own for three months. You spend Christmas and the New Year on your own. That’s when you imagine your friends and family having parties.

“In 2008 I left Les Sables-d’Olonne in early November, and the next land I saw was Cape Horn on January 11th. So I’d gone two-thirds of the way around the world before I saw land. Then, sailing up through the Atlantic, I almost sailed straight into an island I didn’t know existed. It was so tiny; just a speck on my chart, southwest of the Falkland Islands. It’s possible to sail all the way round the world without seeing land.

“My partner Romain Attanasio is also competing this year. But he has no foil on his boat so, in theory, I should finish in front of him. My boat is faster, more modern. But it can be a problem with us both racing – worrying about the other one and not being there to bale them out of a tricky situation. Especially as we will have our son at home, staying with my parents.

“Quite often, if I spot another vessel, I’ll talk on the radio. I’ll call them up and have a chat, even if it’s just to make sure they've seen me. Everyone on the ocean has this thing in common that unites them.

“During my first ever transatlantic race, I had no satellite phone – just a radio. I was on the Brazilian side of the doldrums and I heard someone talking on the radio in Portuguese. I was so desperate to talk. I think it was a fisherman but it could easily have been a pirate. We vaguely understood a bit of each other’s conversation.”

Above: Samantha Davies

The equipment

“We’re not allowed outside assistance during the race, but we are allowed satellite phones, so we can connect to the internet, albeit on a slower scale. You have to pay for the data, so if you’re connected all the time, it’s expensive. I use WhatsApp but I can’t watch Netflix. I can probably download a few new tunes on iTunes or a new book on my Kindle. There’s a VHF communications on board with a range to the horizon. Beyond that it’s satellite communications.

“News comes through the internet. My team keeps me up to date. Sometimes I say: ‘Right, I need Hello magazine news today, not political stuff’. Other days I say, ‘Can I have sport?’

“We’re also allowed to be in touch with our shore team. If there’s a big breakage, you can consult your team for technical advice as to how to fix it.

“On board, we have a beacon that the race organisers follow so they can see our position every ten minutes. They follow the fleet 24 hours a day, for safety reasons. If they see your boat suddenly stopping, or heading off on a 90-degree tangent, that’s a warning sign that something is wrong or someone is injured. Every few hours there is a position publicly available online and that’s how the public can follow the race.

“We have autopilot technology so we can sleep. Normally we don't steer our boats very often because it’s physically tiring and requires you to be out on deck, being nailed by the waves. We have a remote control so we can adjust the course from anywhere in the boat. But it only helms the boat; we have to do the sail trim, the foils, the keel ourselves – we’re not allowed a computer to do that.”

The lack of sleep

“When you start the race, you’re in the zone. There’s a lot of traffic, including fishing boats. We have radar and other systems to detect boats and avoid collisions. And I have NAVSAT (satellite navigation), boat-to-boat beacons, and warning alarms connected to everything.

“But there’s nothing better than human eyes. So, for the first few days of the race, you don't sleep for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time because of the collision risk. You have to zig-zag out of the Bay of Biscay, and that’s where you make your gains. Once in the open ocean you can sleep longer. I try to get four or five hours every 24 hours.

I’m very good at falling asleep quickly and grasping miniscule amounts of sleep.

“I’ve worked with a guy in our local hospital who is an anaesthetist through hypnosis. He’s seen that, for athletes, hypnosis therapy offers lots of advantages. I’m convinced that auto-hypnosis can help rest or reorganise your brain while at sea.”

The food and drink

“When I’m having a full-on day of manoeuvring, that's burning 4,000 or 5,000 calories, so I really need lots of food. It’s freeze-dried food because we carry everything we need for three months. That’s 100 to 150kgs of food. Bear in mind that, every time you tack, you have to shift all the weight on the boat from one side to the other, by carrying it across.

“My favourite freeze-dried meal is a really good vegetable curry. Your taste is not the same on land as at sea. Food tastes much better off shore when you haven’t slept for three days and you've done three sail changes, and you’re starving. I once made the error of taking the same brand of food. I can’t stand the sight of that brand any more.

“The only alcohol I have is to toast Neptune when I cross the equator. I also give him a small offering of chocolate to keep him calm.

“Fresh fish is rare. We’re sailing faster than the speed of fish, and a fishing line would slow us down. Some people eat the road kill. There are quite a few fish that end up on the deck. Generally this is flying fish and, at the best, calamari. Not really my cup of tea.

“I once took some mustard and cress seeds to germinate, so I could make salad. Fresh food is something you crave. You can wrap apples and oranges in aluminium foil and keep them going for three weeks, but after that there’s no fresh food.

“We also have a machine that desalinates the water for drinking. But there’s not enough to wash with. We have to wash in seawater and then rinse with a little bottle of fresh water. The luxuries you dream of when you get back to land…”

The toughest test of all

“Persuading people to support you financially. That’s where so many potential competitors give up. To sail solo around the world you need to be determined in the water, but before that there’s all the planning. That's what filters out the people who really want to do it. That’s the worst part. We’re athletes and sailors, but often we have to put a suit on and sell ourselves.”

[The Vendee Globe race started on November 8th, 2020]

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