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Celebrating singlehanded sailing and the 2020-2021 Vendee Globe

by David Schmidt 28 Jul 16:00 BST July 28, 2020
Charal leads the Vendée-Arctique-Les Sables d'Olonne Race © Gauthier Lebec / Charal

Summer may be in full swing in the northern hemisphere, but here in the COVID-19 capital of the world it's largely missing a critical element: organized sailboat racing. Yes, some events are still unfurling, and we certainly applaud any efforts to get sailors safely out on the water and on the racecourse, but on the whole 2020 won't exactly go down in the record books for superb racing.

This less-than-ebullient thought spurred me to consider the best kind of organized racing during a global pandemic, and it didn't take me long to think of the recently concluded Vendee-Arctique-Les Sables D'Olonne race, as well as the far bigger Vendee Globe that will begin unfurling on November 8, 2020.

The world of singlehanded offshore racing has always drawn a certain kind of adventure-orientated sailor, starting with legends like Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and Bernard Moitessier - the two sailors who dominated the 1968-1969 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. The simple fact that Moitessier and Joshua kept sailing East after rounding Cape Horn to "save his soul", rather than hanging a left and soundly collecting the trappings of this first solo, non-stop, and unassisted round-the-world contest, speaks volumes about the kind of sailors who were drawn to this game.

Knox-Johnston, of course, won the race aboard Suhaili, his 32-foot wooden ketch, with an elapsed time of 312 days. Moreover, he was the only skipper to finish this grueling contest out of a starting field of nine skippers.

While plenty of people ashore deemed these sailors crazy (and in fact, at least one was), plenty of other nautical adventurers found life-changing inspiration in this contest. Not surprisingly, other singlehanded, around-the-world races began, starting with the 1982-1983 BOC Challenge.

While the BOC Challenge was a successful endeavor, with a total of four editions run under that moniker before being rechristened as Around Alone (1998; two editions were raced) and then again as the Velux 5 Oceans (2006; two editions were raced), this event was run as a series of stage races.

Instead, it was the Vendee Globe, which began in 1989, that re-established singlehanded and unassisted non-stop-around-the-world racing, this time using Open 50 monohulls. Frenchman Titouan Lamazou, sailing aboard Ecureuil d'Aquitaine II, completed the inaugural run in 109 days, eight hours, 48 minutes and 50 seconds to claim top prize, however six of the race's 13 starting skippers (including American Mike Plant, sailing aboard Duracell) either failed to finish or rendered themselves ineligible for an official finish by accepting outside help.

To date, eight editions of this grueling race have been sailed, and all have been won with finishing times that represent massive improvements on the state of the art, especially when compared with Sir Robin's time of 312 days at sea. Impressively, Armel Le Cleac'h (FRA), racing aboard Banque Populaire VIII, won the 2016-2017 Vendee Globe with a finishing time of "just" 74 days, three hours, 35 minutes and 46 seconds thanks to some brilliant sailing and an appendage plan that included hydrofoils for the first time in the race's proud history.

Flash forward to 2020 and singlehanded sailing is looking darn good to a lot of people. For some sailors, this involves an afternoon of Laser or RS Aero sailing on their local lake or patch of brine. For others, with decidedly more brass, it's a chance to race around the planet, alone and unassisted, aboard wildly powerful IMOCA 60s (the Open 50's successor).

While there's no escaping the fact that a Vendee campaign is a solitary act, there's also no dodging the reality that today's world is one of connectivity, and modern satellite communications allow the outside world the chance to closely follow the race without risk of de-masting in the windswept depths of the Southern Ocean.

As someone who is stuck riding out the pandemic and is utterly missing sailing this year, the race's November 8 start can't come soon enough, especially given the tightly fought offshore battle that the sailing world was treated to during the recently concluded Vendee-Arctique-Les Sables D'Olonne. While this latter race was billed as a warm-up to this fall's main event, it provided a great mental escape for pandemic-bound sailors and involved numerous leaderboard changes and a finishing-line delta of just over an hour between the top three boats. (Congrats to Jeremie Beyou [FRA] and the Charal team for a great win!)

If this fall's Vendee Globe is anything like the Vendee-Arctique-Les Sables D'Olonne, the sailing world is in for a serious treat, and at a time when it's fair to say that we could all use a bit of saline-infused adrenaline... even if it involves living vicariously.

So, while we're still more than 100 days ahead of the 2020 Vendee Globe's November 8 start (and just under 100 days until November 3, but who's counting), it's impossible not to consider who the fastest guns on the starting line will be.

Given his fantastic results in the Vendee-Arctique-Les Sables D'Olonne race, Beyou is clearly on this list, as are Charlie Dalin (FRA) and Thomas Ruyant (FRA), who finished the Vendee-Arctique-Les Sables D'Olonne race in second and third place (respectively). That said, no serious armchair sailor would discount Alex Thomson (GBR), who finished second in the 2016-2017 Vendee... even if Thomson has a long and established history of pushing his boat well beyond the red line.

But, given the race's 21,638-mile course and the challenges that it undoubtedly contains, this race - like all great singlehanded sailing competitions - will be determined by yacht design, preparation, seamanship, and human spirit.

I, for one, can't wait for the action to begin, and for something seriously positive to look forward to each day as my web browser "mysteriously" (and constantly) finds itself refreshing the Vendee Globe leaderboard page. Yes, the boats are amazing and employ huge amounts of technology, but it's the sheer will of the skippers to press themselves and their steeds to the breaking point that's downright inspiring.

And this latter aspect of the game - the most important part, in your scribe's humble opinion - hasn't changed one bit since Sir Robin sailed into the history books on April 22, 1969.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt
Sail-World.com North American Editor

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