I've heard it said that baseball is a sport suited to radio and football is suited to TV. We live in the internet age, and one sport suited to the internet is ocean racing. The pace of the sport matches well- you can check the race daily which is enough to keep up with the action, and weather strategies play out to create drama over a period of days. In addition, reports including video from the competitors can bring personalities and struggles to life. This winter will offer a great example. To put it directly, the single greatest event in ocean racing is about to start on November 10th, and that is the Vendee Globe- singlehanded around the world non-stop. For the next three months or so, some of us will be watching intently as 20 skippers try to win the pinnacle event of singlehanded sailing.
What makes the Vendee a great race are three things- the course, the boats and the spirit of the race embodied in the competitors. The course is epic, "around the world". While as a practical matter that means sail south from France, circumnavigate Antarctica and return, the reality is that the course length is approximate to the circumference of the globe, and the weather patterns make the course a complete test of sailors and boats. Boats must manage light air and storms mostly upwind as they work their way from France to the Cape of Good Hope where they enter the southern ocean and race downwind in the dominant westerlies and big seas that region alone provides. The survivors who reach Cape Horn are then tested by tactical sailing predominately upwind through the doldrums and back to the finish in France.
To succeed on this course the boats most balance its conflicting demands, and they have evolved over the history of the race to become the fastest boats ever designed for short handed ocean passage making under sail. They can move in any wind and routinely race in conditions where boats a generation ago would merely survive. Comfort is all they are lacking. The first non-stop passage alone around the globe took 312 days. Dodge Morgan did it in 150 days. The first Vendee in 1989 took 109 days for the winner and the last race was won in 84 days. The boats balance upwind ability against downwind speed, strength against light weight, and must have reliable systems to support the skipper through 27,000 miles of sailing without refit or outside assistance. The boats have pioneered many features now common on mainstream cruising boats and this year one of the boats, "Acciona", will leave the dock with no fossil fuel onboard and rely on wind, water and solar generation for all her power needs. The IMOCA 60 rule these boats race under has remained open and has not resulted in narrow type-formong as most rules do. The boats vary greatly in weight, hull, appendage, sail and mast design, and these variations always lead to new knowledge of shape and construction.
From a spectator point of view, this is by far the most followed race in the world. In the first week that this year's race village has been open 230,000 people have visited. The number of spectators at the race start will be similar, and over 100,000 can be expected at the finish. There is no other event even close. The boats are all commercially sponsored and both the skippers and sponsors will be overwhelmingly French, with a few Brits and other Europeans represented. No Americans are entered this year. Two, Bruce Schwab and Richard Wilson, have completed the race since it began.
In spite of commercial sponsorship the race has maintained a spirit of adventure and perseverance that goes far beyond winning. Self reliance, respect for the event and the desire to complete the course under the rules without assistance are important to both competitors and audience. In 2000 Yves Parlier broke his mast somewhere below Australia. He managed to reach Stewart Island below New Zealand where he anchored and rebuilt his mast and raised it without assistance, re-cut his sails to fit and sailed home to France via Cape Horn within the rules, subsisting on seaweed and krill as his food ran low. He finished a month behind the winner, greeted by the largest crowd of the race and saluted by his fellow competitors. He was not even the last to finish the race under the rules.
In 2008 Michel Desjoyeaux suffered mechanical difficulty at the start and ended up leaving almost two days after the others. His march through the fleet to an eventual victory marked him as one of the greats to play this game. He also won in 2000, the race where he had to pull start his engine using his mainsheet and a well timed gybe for most of the race. He will not be racing this time, but there are a number of seasoned veterans for whom this might be their best chance, and a new young group ready to challenge them. One woman, Sam Davies will challenge the men. She finished fourth last time.
The race website in Englich is here.