Racing Towards Insanity: The Vendee Globe

If you've been following for long, you know my interests and passion are for cruising and exploration rather than racing and speed. I've spent a season crewing on a race team, but I did so to learn about sail trim and to see the other side of sailing rather than to scratch some competitive itch or see how far to the right I could get the knotmeter needle to point. However, if you're a fan of sailboat racing, there are a ton of huge events that have occurred over the last several months (Volvo Ocean Race) or will take place in the very near future (America's Cup). But the only sailing race I really pay attention to is the Vendee Globe.

The Vendee Globe is more than a race, it's a non-stop solo adventure around the world the hard way. In fact, it's the ONLY non-stop single-handed 'round the world race (the VELUX 5 is raced in stages with stops in between). I personally think this race is for the insane and ranks in my book as the most difficult and lonely sporting event on the planet. This is the Everest of sailing. Actually, it's probably more akin to summiting K2 since the Vendee Globe receives less attention than the Volvo Ocean Race but is infinitely more challenging and dangerous.

Most aspiring cruiser-circumnavigators would choose the tropical route in the favorable tradewinds that includes the "coconut milk run" across the Pacific, but not Vendee Globe sailors. Instead, they race solo on their boats for nearly 4 months at sea, rounding all three majors horns (Cape Horn included) in the treacherous Southern Ocean on their way around the Earth. That's right, they go right through the "roaring forties" (forty degrees of latitude) and spend most of their time sailing in the "furious fifties" where the weather is downright rude. We're talking about some of the biggest waves in the world, shrieking winds (gales are common) and icebergs aplenty. To top it off, the boats literally sail through the most isolated and distant (from civilization and land) location on Earth. There's no calling TowBoat U.S. or signalling the coasties for a rescue when you're in the Southern Ocean. No, I'm not a racer, but the Vendee Globe racers have my attention and respect.

Vendee Globe race route
The Vendee Globe takes place only every four years, with the current race having started on November 10, 2012. This year's race has already provided plenty of excitement. The favorite racer of my daughters and I, Samantha Davies, has already dropped out of the race after losing her mast.  Here's a bit of the incident in her own words:
"...And that is the way I had been sailing for the whole race, quite conservatively and taking a reef, especially at night when you can't see the squalls coming. I was getting ready to put on my foul weather gear when the squall was just finishing and the wind was dropping. The boat jumped off the top of a wave and that's when I heard the impact and the boat came upright, and suddenly there was no more wind in my rigging."
" I could hear the mast rubbing against the hull under the boat, so I knew that it could damage the hull if I was unlucky. The main thing was to close all  the watertight bulkheads in case it (the hull) did get pierced, so I put my survival suit on..."
Davies sailing home with her broken rig
(Photo Credit: Samantha Davies/DPPI/Vendee Globe)
And then there was Jean Pierre Dick's record setting day on December 1st when he sailed 502 miles in a 24-hour period, averaging a powerboat-like 20.1 knots! Folks, that's some serious speed when you're sailing alone in the dark of night in remote waters. Another Jean also joined the excitement when Jean Le Cam noticed his Bruce Farr designed Open 60 was slowing down. After a very thorough examination of all systems, he came to the conclusion that the problem must have been below the waterline. This left him only one real option, so he donned scuba gear and went under the boat in the middle of the ocean to eventually cut loose the huge fishing net that had become entangled on the boat's keel.

I'm fascinated by the strength of the human spirit displayed during the Vendee Globe. As a cruiser with limited solo sailing experience and a longest personal non-stop passage of only 72 nautical miles, I can still, in some small way, feel a nibble of the excitement, fear, loneliness, and triumph that the Vendee Globe racers must experience non-stop throughout their adventure. I've felt small on my boat in the middle of Lake Michigan, but I can only imagine how microscopic one's existence must seem thousands of miles from land in the cold Southern Ocean.  I've been afraid in 25 knots of wind, but I don't know the fright of 50 knot winds when there's no port to run to and no other crew members to seek comfort from.

The Vendee Globe is more than just a race. I think it embodies the cruiser's yearning for exploration with some insane amount of bravery and a touch of competitiveness. Every sailor that finishes this race will feel like they've won something much more compelling than the trophy that the actual winner receives. These sailors seem to be racing to win control of something deep inside.

Does this look like fun sailing?
(Photo credit: Jean-Marie Liot/DPPI/Vendee Globe)
If you find the Vendee Globe fascinating, I recommend reading Derek Lundy's Godforsaken Sea: The True Story of a Race Through the World's Most Dangerous Waters. If you just want to keep up with this year's race events,  go to the race website or get the Vendee Globe mobile app. Or better yet, just stay tuned to and I'll keep you posted on noteworthy stories throughout the race.


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