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Vendée-Arctique-Les Sables d'Olonne draws to a close

by Julia Huvé 16 Jul 2020 20:04 BST 13 July 2020
Miranda Merron in the Vendée-Arctique-Les Sables d'Olonne © François Van Malleghem / IMOCA

The Vendée-Arctique-Les Sables d'Olonne drew to a close this afternoon with the arrival of the final competitor, Miranda Merron (Campagne de France). This unique race, born out of the rather special context created by the health crisis, certainly fulfilled its brief as a major proving ground with less than four months to go until the start of the Vendée Globe.

The sailors had not competed in a singlehanded race for more than a year. In this Vendée Globe year, where it's crucial to flesh out your preparation if you are to take on the round the world race with confidence, the health crisis unfortunately created obstacles for all the different programmes. This is especially true of the sports schedule, which comprised two singlehanded transatlantic races, both of them having to be cancelled ultimately. It is within this context that the Vendée-Arctique-Les Sables d'Olonne was created after several weeks of joint deliberation between the Class IMOCA, the sailors and the Vendée Globe protagonists. Organised by the Class and the company Sea to See, this unique work fully satisfied its brief as a preparatory race, and a lot more besides...

Sport first!

This very special course - a triangle around the North Atlantic culminating within the confines of the polar circle, at 62 degrees North - and designed to put both the sailors and the boats to the test in demanding and varied sailing conditions, proved to be a stage for an intense race from beginning to end. The first lesson: this ten-day clash saw the latest generation foilers win the day. Jérémie Beyou, champion in Les Sables d'Olonne, Charlie Dalin second and Thomas Ruyant on the third step of the podium, were embroiled in a close-contact battle, keeping up the suspense every day and through until the final minutes of the race off the Vendée-based port on France's Atlantic coast. "It was very intense. I hope that the Vendée Globe won't be sailed at the same pace because, guys, I'm not doing 70 days like this!" stressed Thomas Ruyant on his arrival dockside in Les Sables d'Olonne.

Second lesson: not far behind the top trio (six competitors finished the race within 6hrs19), the older foiling boats also showed themselves to be very high-performance, such as Initiatives-Cœur, PRB and MACSF (before the boat's boom broke in two), Seaexplorer - Yacht Club de Monaco and Maître CoQ IV.

Throughout the race, and from top to bottom of the ranking, everyone found their spot and enjoyed the challenge of racing within their own groups.

Ultimately though, the hierarchy in the Vendée-Arctique-Les Sables d'Olonne has a certain pattern to it. Indeed, it reflects the degree of technicality and the age of the boats, the sailing background of the racers and their experience sailing singlehanded, the coherence of the man/machine pairing and the overall level of preparation of the different projects.

A technical and physical test

The list of technical issues is not insignificant, but equally that was the purpose of this race: to assess the reliability and the state of preparation of the monohulls, to flesh out the jobs list for the summer refits, to break what would likely have broken before they take the plunge. "A blessing in disguise" said Kévin Escoffier (PRB) at the finish, who had to repair - among other things - a bulkhead which had detached itself from the bottom of the hull. "There is a long list of improvements to be made to my boat," revealed Kojiro Shiraïshi. DIY coloured the daily lives of a fair few of the fleet. Some damage affected the performance and the end result for certain racers: the mainsail headboard track for Boris Herrmann and a broken boom for Isabelle Joschke. For others, it proved fatal. Out of the 20 sailors at the start, three had to retire from the race: Sébastien Simon, due to a broken starboard foil, Damien Seguin, due to the breakage of the alternator mounting and Armel Tripon due to structural issues (cracks on the hull's forward section).

Life aboard: a challenge on the foilers

The skippers also became aware (once more) of the physical commitment required by the boats. The physiognomy of the course meant that the fleet was compelled to traverse right through the weather systems, be they a succession of fronts or zones of high pressure. This strategic exercise also gave rise to a number of sail change manœuvres. However, beyond the hot sweat at the grinder or up on deck, the sometimes harsh conditions involved in this sea passage around the North Atlantic revealed how difficult it is to live aboard the latest generation foilers: moving around, preparing food, sleeping aboard a noisy boat and the brusque and unpredictable motion are a seemingly impossible challenge. A challenge the skippers will have to be able to endure for at least 70 days around the world.

Finally, these 10 days at sea proved to be a goldmine in terms of the collection of data regarding performance: tests of the sail configuration, work on the speed polars...

Christened, reassured, qualified!

This precious experience was just what the sailors were after. The Vendée- Arctique-Les Sables d'Olonne has provided a source of reassurance with regards their abilities and their level of commitment, as well as giving them back a sense of serenity, which had somehow got lost in the troubled times surrounding the health crisis. "I learned about myself and my confidence in my monohull. You come out the other side feeling in harmony with the boat," admitted the winner Jérémie Beyou. Miranda Merron shared this sentiment at the other end of the ranking: "The goal was to get in some training and that's job done. I couldn't see myself setting sail on the Vendée Globe without doing a race like this beforehand".

Three of them - and major players at that - had never before competed in a singlehanded IMOCA race: Charlie Dalin, Clarisse Crémer and Kevin Escoffier. This trio absolutely excelled in their baptism of fire. "I was surprised by my ability to go fast. I didn't know how I measured up before the race" admitted the helm of Banque Populaire X.

Finally, this course enabled three solo sailors to validate their qualification for the Vendée Globe: Kojiro Shiraishi, Isabelle Joschke and Clément Giraud*.

A foretaste of the Vendée Globe

The race denouement was decided in line with the Nouch Sud buoy, the starting and finishing point of the Vendée Globe. With less than four months to go until the singlehanded, non-stop, unassisted round the world race sets sail - and three months away from the opening of the race village! - this is symbolic to say the least. The solo sailors have had a bit of a foretaste of what awaits them this autumn and they were unanimous in thanking the organisers for offering them this test run, which is an essential part of their preparation. The Vendée-Arctique-Les Sables d'Olonne has proved very appealing. So much so, that the Class IMOCA is already considering another edition!

In the meantime, the sailors have set a date of 9 to 13 September in Lorient, for the 10th edition of the Trophée Azimut. Runs, a solo 500-mile passage and a lap of the Ile de Groix are on the menu. It will be the last sports clash before the big day of the Vendée Globe start on 8 November 2020.

*Forced to retired from the race, Sébastien Simon and Armel Tripon will have to complete a substitute course of 2,000 miles in solo configuration before 15 September to qualify for the Vendée Globe.

Interview quotes

Gwen Chapalain, joint organiser of the race (Sea to See) "The course for the Vendée - Arctique - Les Sables d'Olonne is magical. Together with the Class Imoca, I am delighted to have piloted this project, because it was far from a done deal. We were supposed to set sail from New York bound for the Vendée and then Covid struck and we had to reinvent ourselves. We immediately got ourselves up and running again and put together a commando group. The Vendée Globe heads south, so why not go north? It was important to be associated with the Vendée department, who were immediately attracted by the idea. In fact, I'm impressed by the maritime sway of this department and the willingness and strong character of the town of Les Sables d'Olonne. The sailors signed up and the whole process was simple and positive. Furthermore, the zany and original project created with Erik Orsenna, the Editions Gallimard and the Institut Pasteur, added another dimension to the race geared towards science and culture. I believe that a new page in maritime history has been written. Yes, the race should unquestionably become perennial."

Antoine Mermod, President of the Class IMOCA: "This has been a hugely pleasurable experience! We put forward the initial hypotheses in mid-April during lockdown, the dossier was put together in mid-May, we requested authorisation from the different administrations and we got the go-ahead 15 days before setting sail. Everyone awaited the outcome with great patience and though it was a difficult birth, it's been intensely pleasurable! It's great for all the teams to get back together and be able to organise the event with a positive spirit. The skippers have really had a ball on a new and very different course with long days, cold wind and waypoints. They've rediscovered the delights of racing and sailing fans have rediscovered the cartography. We saw nearly 40 changes of leader! For the skippers, this race enabled them to take stock of where they're at, to validate the technical details and to sail. Now, they can really turn their attention to the main event that is the Vendée Globe.

Via the Vendée-Arctique-Les Sables d'Olonne, there was a genuine story to be told. Why not insert it into the Imoca schedule in 2022 before the Route du Rhum? We'll quickly begin discussions along that vein. There is also appeal in returning to the Vendée department between Vendée Globes. The race also served as a kind of 'teaser' for the Vendée Globe: there is a new generation of skippers who are talented, believe in gender equality, are young, of varying profiles and international. It's going to be extremely interesting. I believe that the standard of the competition has never been so high. The stories will be exceptional."

Jacques Caraës, Race Director for the Vendée - Arctique - Les Sables d'Olonne and the Vendée Globe: "The feedback from the skippers has been very positive. The course was new and special for everyone and for Race Management too. We're not used to going to such northerly latitudes. The competitive stakes were super interesting with precious little separating the boats as we brought everyone back to Les Sables-d'Olonne in less than 30 hours. It's a positive result to my mind. For the skippers, it gave them the chance to validate a lot of elements both technically and psychologically too. The Vendée-Arctique-Les Sables had its rightful place in the programme and we are much more confident for the start of the next Vendée Globe. We've taken things up a notch in relation to the Vendée Globe 2016: in competitive terms it's very clear-cut because a lot of competitors are targeting the podium. The boats are well prepared, even though they are more complicated to manage. However, I believe there is already a real maturity among the skippers. There's also a fine female contingent, which we didn't see at all in the previous edition. Furthermore, the latter demonstrated that in sporting terms, they were completely in the match."

Yves AUVINET, President of the Vendée department: "For its 1st edition, the Vendée Arctique certainly fulfilled the brief. It's a very fine prelude to the Vendée Globe. Congratulations to all the skippers who have thrilled us throughout and see you on 8 November for the day of the start in Les Sables d'Olonne."

Yannick Moreau, Mayor of Les Sables d'Olonne and President of the Agglomeration: "Our heartfelt congratulations to the sailors who participated in this first edition of the Vendée-Arctique-Les Sables d'Olonne. The town is very happy to have been able to host one of France's first sports events within the current disruptions. A big thank you to the organisers, who managed to adapt and bring together a top-flight fleet, who have thrilled us over the past ten days. It was important to do this race, which was a warm-up for the Vendée Globe for the skippers, as well as serving as a dress rehearsal for all the local protagonists who will be involved in the organisation of the round the world race. I would like to thank the volunteers from the LSOVCL club, who pulled out all the stops to enable this race to take place and run smoothly."

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