If it’s fall in an Olympic Quadrennial year, it must be time for the Vendée Globe: this edition started Sunday, November 8. First held in 1989, the Vendée Globe was the brainchild of, who else, a French guy named Phillipe Jeantot. Jeantot had won the BOC Challenge, twice, in the 60-foot class. Naturally, there had to be something harder than spending six months sailing around the world by yourself with only four stops. Thus, begat the Vendée Globe.
There are two distinctive features of this race. One is the race itself. The outline is well known by now. A race around the world, non-stop, singlehanded, in IMOCA 60-footers, starting and finishing in Les Sables-d’Olonne on the Biscay coast. Outside assistance is not permitted.
The second distinctive feature is the amount of interest this event generates in France and the very highly visible corporate sponsorship of boats/teams. There are any number of videos depicting the latest generation of foiling IMOCA boats blasting along, decked out the livery of some of France’s prominent companies. Banks, insurance, food, Home Depot and Staples-type companies are all represented. Search any of the company names and the first couple of hits are their sponsored sailing team in the VG.
Companies as distinctive in France as Banque Populaire, Hugo Boss and Maître Coq (the food biz) all remark on the inspiration and the exposure they get from this race. BP: “…Mobilizes millions.” HB: “Proud to be part of this extreme endeavor.” Maître Coq: “…Has helped improve our brand awareness and popularity.”
I muse on why this style of racing is so attractive to the French and to corporations as a marketing tool. This French passion for offshore solo sailing starts in 1964. Eric Tabarly, the legendary French sailor, won the O.S.T.A.R. that year and was publicly feted at the highest levels for his victory. He sailed in two more, winning again in ’76. My study of this sponsorship phenomenon suggests that the French are drawn to the human challenges of such sailing; the exposure of the human condition when facing the indefatigable forces of nature.
By the 1972 O.S.T.A.R., the first three boats to finish were French. Slowly, before the advent of being able to ‘watch’ offshore races, the way we can today, their successes were widely covered in French media: win, lose or draw, the French population lapped up the adventure. This coverage revealed the audacity of the sailing these guys and girls were doing, and THAT captured the imagination of the French. This led to sponsorship becoming a viable marketing proposition for French companies, so much so that today some of the biggest publicly traded corporations are sponsoring all manner of sailing and some have two- and three-boat sailing teams and actively recruit up and coming sailors.
Twenty-twenty has been a record-setting year and this year’s VG is no different. A snapshot: thirty-three registrations (besting thirty in 2008) including six women. What was the last major international yacht race with 18% of the skippers women? Eleven nations are represented. There are eighteen first-time skippers and fifteen repeat offenders. There are eighteen foiling boats and eight new builds. The oldest skipper is Jean Le Cam, at 61, a veritable household name in France, not least because he is one of the two skippers taking off on a fifth VG. The master showman Alex Thompson in the livery of Hugo Boss is the other five-time skipper.
In the early 1990s, Bruno Peyron, another prominent name in the French sailing fraternity, combined a famed French author with the author’s novel and founded a romantic challenge: The Trophy Jules Verne, to be awarded to the fastest circumnavigation under sail—Around the World in 80 Days. This record was first set in 1992 by Peyron and crew in a 26-meter catamaran at 79 days and change. I bring this up because in the 2012 VG race, this 80-day record, formerly the exclusive province of huge multihulls, fell to the 29-year-old François Gabart circumnavigating in an 18-meter IMOCA monohull, MACIF – an insurance company – in 78 days, 2 hours. Second place Armel Le Cléac’h finished in 78 days, 5 hours, and Alex Thompson was 80 days, 19 hours.
The current record is 74 days, 3 hours, established in 2016 by winner Armel Le Cléac’h. Alex Thompson also broke Gabart’s 2012 record, taking second. The speeds of the top boats, now all foiling, suggests Ladbrokes must be laying odds for the winner’s elapsed time. For the 2020 race I’ll take records for 65 days Pat, and put a fiver on a sub-60-day lap as well.
The first couple to sail in the VG, Sam Davies is competing, as is her significant other. Formerly, either Sam or partner Romain Attanasio would stay at home with their son. Said son is now old enough to allow his parents the opportunity to race each other around the world. Really, ya gotta love the French… Budget line item for sponsors: four months of childcare.
Another interesting record is the registered and qualified participation of a fellow with two gold medals, one silver and a fourth in the Olympics, AND three world championships. PLUS, a second and a seventh in a Class40 in the Transat Jacques Vabre over the years. His successes are in 2.4-meter singlehanded boats used in Para sailing. Damien Seguin was born without a left hand. We should get him over to coach at The Clagett.
Several entries are linked to charities. One that gets your attention is called LinkedOut. This is an app developed at MIT (media.edu) and is used by and with those incarcerated persons upon release to help keep them on the straight and narrow. This is the coolest thing I have seen in a while. One does wonder why this is showing up in France, in a singlehanded race around the world, yet seems to have been created by one of the most well-known universities in the U.S. Given the incarceration rate in the U.S., one would think the marketing guys at the Media Lab would be all over the U.S. markets for, well anything where a lot of people watch. Tells you all you need to know about the Vendée Globe sponsorship and R.O.I. For example, the 2016 race generated 198 million Euro media value in France. On social media there were 264,000 followers on FB, 54,000 on Twitter, and 23,800 on Instagram. Ten million unique web visitors, 2.25 million visitors to the Village, (up 25% from 2012), 1,274 hours of televised coverage by 33 TV outlets covering the start (vs. 18 in 2012), and 71 million videos created. And among French residents age 16 to 69, 87% know of the VG.
The VG boats carry cameras to tell the story visually. Anyone with an interest in the limits of the human condition can see what it is like to sail, alone, facing the myriad of challenges that such sailing throws at you. The footage and daily reports are presented on the French national news and on the sponsoring company’s websites.
There have been remarkable displays of seamanship, too. In the first VG, a ketch sailed by Phillipe Poupon capsized to ninety degrees. Loïck Peyron, Bruno’s brother, sailed up to him. In the video on the VG website, shot from Peyron’s point of view, we see Poupon’s boat looking like a 420 on its side. Peyron catches a line heaved by Poupon and secures it to his boat and the next shot shows Poupon’s boat being pulled upright, by Peyron, while under sail. If that does not get you biting your fingernails, then perhaps…
In the 1992 race, Italian sailor Raphael Dinelli sailing in 70 knots had pitchpoled, destroyed the mast and punched holes in his boat. The Italian hit the emergency button and put on his survival suit. In the middle of the southern Indian Ocean, he was out of the range of any national rescue services. Race HQ called British sailor Pete Goss, who spent two days sailing back upwind in storm conditions to recover the wet and cold Italian skipper. Goss dropped him off in Hobart and went on to finish fifth and was awarded the French Légion d’Honneur for this fantastic rescue of a fellow human. Instances of inner workings of the human soul, like this rescue in the most barren place in the world, are the stuff that fires the imagination. No wonder the race is popular in France.
One of the icons of French storytelling must be Jules Verne. If Monsieur Verne had been a sailor, he could not have written a book more incroyable than these real-life, and most definitely NOT reality show, tales from the Vendée Globe.
Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several, mainly small, boats.