Road to the Vendée Globe
Having just been to the start of the Vendée Globe last weekend it got me thinking about the road to the Vendée Globe and what it takes just to get to the start line. Being down there is nothing short of amazing, the buzz, atmosphere and the sheer volume of people out to see and try to understand what these guys are about to undertake. It’s amazing to see the difference in projects from the top of the line boats who are just there to win with big teams and budgets to the guys who are still working away on the boat the night before the start. It’s a great adventure they are all setting out on whether they are there to win or just sail around the world. I had a bit of a think about the last year and what has happened.
2015 was a big year, it started out well with the opportunity to join Dongfeng Race Team for Leg 3 of the Volvo Ocean Race. Following on from this I went straight into competing in my third Solitaire du Figaro and with the knowledge I gained with Dongfeng it turned out to be my most successful so far. At the time I had not really thought what to do after the Figaro when an opportunity to sail the Team Concise Class 40 for the Transat Jacques Vabre popped up. The TJV is a double handed race from Le Harve, France to Itajai, Brazil. I knew the boat was very quick and had a lot of potential but it had had some reliability issues in the past. I jumped into the project at full speed and worked on whatever I could to get this boat ready for the race. It took a bit of time to choose a co-skipper but after some time I agreed with French Figaro sailor Gildas Mahé, I knew him well from the Figaro racing and when I spoke to him about the project he was motivated and ready to go. It turned out to be a great choice and he became a very good friend.
A few months later we found ourselves on the dock in Le Harve, ready to set off. I had put a lot into the project and it felt like I never had the moment of relax before the race, it was just all go but we were here and going to give it all. We set off well and on the first night we were leading the race and setting some of the highest speeds in the fleet. The weather forecast was for a lot of wind for the next 3-4 days so we knew with this boat it was going to be about nursing the boat through the strong conditions then push again once we were south and into the trade winds. The wind started building but we still felt good, we were being very conservative with the boat and actually lost a few places due to not pushing which was frustrating but we knew it would pay in the long term. During one of our routine checks, Gildas came back to me and gave me a look which I instantly knew meant something serious. We immediately turned downwind to slow the boat down and on investigating further we found delimitation and cracking on the hull.
It was the middle of the night, windy, cold and we were now in a boat that could potentially sink. I don’t think we spoke for the next hour, we knew what we needed to do and no need to speak about how to do it. We set to work putting the safety gear on deck, getting in survival suits, calling the coast guard and race organisers to make them aware of the situation and then did the best we could to secure the damage by bolting through some areas and gluing some composite plate onto other parts. After we had done this we set a course for Ireland which was downwind of where we were so the safest way we could sail and made a few calls to family to tell them we were ok. I remember going on deck after all this and the realisation of what happened hit me, and just crying, it was the first time I had ever felt like I had hit my limit, after all the effort it felt like we had been robbed. I had nothing left to give.
After a nerve racking trip with the boat still creaking and cracking we arrived into Crosshaven, Ireland. A good friend of mine Dave Kenefick lives there and his dad met us on the dock, Neil was an absolute hero and really helped us a lot while we were there. We did a further inspection of the boat to see if we could effect a repair and continue but it wasn't to be, we were obviously a bit down but an Irish voice saying ‘come on lads, time for a Guinness’, somehow made everything a lot better. A week later and after a lot of logistical nightmares we had the boat dismantled and on a truck back to France where it was repaired. On the plane back to the UK I was pretty happy it was done, I could chill out for a bit but my first night back in the UK with my girlfriend I started getting stomach cramps. After a painful weekend I went to the doctors on the Monday morning and it turned out I had appendicitis. That afternoon I was at the hospital to have them out. The race and then the operation had really taken it out of me, I normally weigh about 86kgs and I was down to about 76-77kgs. The recovery was ok and it forced me to stop for a few months which was very much needed.
2016 started a lot better than 2015 ended, I started sailing with the Team Concise MOD 70 trimaran. I hadn’t ever sailed big trimarans before and I was instantly impressed with them! It is quite something being on boats like that which are capable of comfortably sitting on 30 knots + although the speed does come with an added stress level as you can imagine. We had a great season in the Caribbean then we sailed the boat back to the UK and competed in more races around the UK. The Round Ireland Race was for sure the highlight, three MOD 70’s competing and a good looking forecast. We sailed the 700 mile course in 39hrs. It was insane racing, I would compare it to Figaro racing in how close we were but charging at 35 knots in big waves offshore, a few boat lengths apart is something else. At the top of the course we were consistently sitting above 36 knots with top speeds over 40! It was during sailing these boats I was able to gain another opportunity.
I started speaking with Yann Guichard who is the French skipper of the 131ft long, maxi Trimaran Spindrift 2. They were looking for some new crew for another attempt at the Jules Verne record. This is a record for any sailing boat to sail around the world as fast as possible, normally leaving between October and December to have the summer in the southern hemisphere. The record does not have a start date as you leave when the weather suits for the fastest time. He asked me to come and try out during a delivery on the boat to Canada and then to for the Quebec - St Malo race back to France which took place in July. I was pretty excited for this but it was only a trial so I didn't get any hopes up yet. The boat is something else, everything is huge, and it was a big learning curve to understand how it all works plus it was a fully French speaking crew so I had to step up a gear with the language. Another mate of mine Sam Goodchild was also on to try out so we had a little English speaking going on and a few times we consulted each other to work out what was going on!
The delivery there and the race back was great, I always felt a fair bit of pressure as I really wanted to do a good job and be there for the round the world tour. During the race it was like a childhood dream to be sailing on one of these boats, the adventure of a new place, learning the boat, being with a French crew and getting to helm a boat of this size was all pretty surreal. We sailed into St-Malo wining line honours and setting a new record for the course. A day after finishing the race we still didn't know if we would be on so nerves were getting to us a bit. During a de-brief he said we were on and it was one of those stay calm everyone is watching moments but still awesome. We would be sailing around the world at the end of the year’ waahoo’.
The next months were spent preparing the boat, some sailing and then a refit with the boat coming out of the water to get a good check over all the system before putting it all back together and then we would be ready for standby. We were called into a meeting a few weeks ago, where we were given some fairly disappointing news. Spindrift had decided to not make an attempt on the Jules Verne record this winter therefore the boat would remain out of the water until next year. This was a big blow for all the crew but something would couldn’t do much about. It was hard to take, one of the biggest campaigns in my life has been cancelled for the year. I didn’t really know how to deal with it and not think about it so I did the only thing I could think of which was doing a lot of sport and entered a race in a surfski which took my mind off the record and focussed it on something else. I got fairly smashed in the race but I was able to focus completely on the racing and training which helped a lot.
I think the main thing I took away from being at the Vendée Globe start is that all these guys have been through the huge highs and lows of getting to where they are now. It doesn't happen overnight and there will be a lot of failures before it happens. It has been my dream now for a long time, most of the time it just seems an impossible feat in the back of my mind but sometimes it feels closer which it is very motivating. I thought about it a lot and is it worth it, all the blood, sweat, tears but after being at the start and seeing it all, absolutely yes it’s worth it.
All for now