The French cult of sailing adventure is not tarnished by the pandemic


Strange things are happening at sea. For Pip Hare, one of the round-the-world regattas in the grueling single-handed Vendée Globe race that started in early November on the west coast of France, it happened just before it does not hit the doldrums.

“I received a rain of insects,” she told me by satellite phone from the South Atlantic off the coast of Brazil. “A cloud appeared and you could smell the flowers and the trees in the wind. It hovered over me and all these bugs fell from the sky – massive dragonflies and these very little beetles. I just found a dragonfly still alive in my spinnaker.

Almost as strange and wonderful as this entomological deluge is that the race is taking place at all, given that the 33 boats left Les Sables-d’Olonne more than a week after the second national coronavirus lockdown in France.

Other sporting events have been canceled by the pandemic or deprived of spectators, but the adventurers of the Vendée Globe with their 60-foot carbon fiber racing gear are now in the latitudes of the “roaring twenties” of the swept Southern Ocean. by the winds followed by enthusiastic online supporters.

The success of the Vendée Globe testifies not only to the determination of the organizers but also to France’s obsession with sailing and around the world. The hare, like Alex Thomson – one of the early favorites of the Vendée race – is British, but most of the competitors and their sponsors are French.

The Vendée is so popular that 900,000 people have signed up to participate in a virtual version of the online race, a welcome distraction in a country where the pandemic still confines people to their homes for most of the day.

“On the day of departure, we were privileged,” says Maxime Sorel, a 34-year-old French competitor who started his life as a civil engineer before moving to sailing full time. “France was totally confined and we were going across the world. It is a welcome moment of freedom.

Hare, who is 46 and comes from Poole in Dorset, agrees. “As a major sporting event we have been really lucky,” she said. “It’s a huge privilege for me. The spectators are online and we [as solo sailors] are obviously socially distanced.

For those who are confined to dry land, it is tempting to envy sailors who are free to cross the seas, but it is also important to know that the boats used in the Vendée are not normal yachts. Rather, they’re high-speed surfboards aided (in newer models) by hydrofoils designed to lift the hull from the bulky trail of water below. They are uncomfortable and tend to break.

Jean Le Cam, a veteran Breton sailor – he is 61 years old – saved his fellow competitor Kevin Escoffier from his life raft after his boat doubled over and sank in rough seas. Thomson’s boat sank. is broken twice and had to withdraw and head to Cape Town.

Another even faster round the world trip is also underway, this time against the clock. Two French multihulls with crew set off – still from the west of France amid the coronavirus lockdown – in search of a record in the Jules Verne trophy. Only instead of going around the world in 80 days, they wanted to do it in 40 (the previous record had been set by Francis Joyon in 2017 in just under 41 days).

Edmond de Rothschild Gitana’s super-maxi foiling trimaran, co-skipper by Franck Cammas, had to return to Lorient after hitting an unidentified floating object which broke a rudder and a hydrofoil, leaving only Thomas Coville with Sodebo in the race.

The problem with fast shipping is that you just hit things so fast – whales, icebergs, semi-submerged containers. I recently tried to fly over the waves of Lorient with Cammas. He explained that at the breakneck speed of nearly 50 knots, the feeling of being in an airplane is not an illusion. “Multihulls and flying multihulls are not the same,” he said.

Cammas, who started sailing on Optimist dinghies in Marseille at the age of 10, still has a healthy respect for the sea, just like the Vendée competitors.

Sorel and Hare both have older, slower, and probably more rugged boats, and both are experienced, but neither have sailed the depths of the Southern Ocean before and they don’t take it lightly. “It’s something I approach with some trepidation,” Hare said. “We must not spoil this. ”

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