With a dramatic history of bravery and tragedy, the Vendeé Globe is the ultimate test of ocean sailing. Now, new hydrofoil and autopilot technology is about to push the boats – and skippers – harder than ever.
Held every four years, the Vendeé Globe is an arduous, dangerous and sometimes fatal undertaking. Yet, despite its fearsome reputation, this non-stop, single-handed yacht race around the world, starting and finishing on the west coast of France, continues to attract increasing numbers of competitors and global attention.
On Sunday 8 November, a record fleet of 33 state-of-the-art 60ft craft set off from the tiny port of Les Sables d’Olonne to take part in this year’s event.
Based on long-established clipper routes, the course makes best use of prevailing tides and currents, taking the yachts down through the Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope, then clockwise around Antarctica, before rounding Cape Horn and heading back up into the Atlantic once again towards France.
Running from November to February, it is timed to place the competitors in the Southern Ocean during the austral summer.
No outside assistance is permitted. The sailors must carry out all running repairs on their own and take care of themselves if they become injured or unwell. They are, though, allowed to consult backup technical teams for advice.
The yachts can stop during the race, for example by anchoring in shallow water, but the skippers must not step ashore beyond the high tide mark. And no one else is allowed aboard at any time during the race.
Danger and death at Vendée
In the eight events completed so far, 167 competitors have taken part, but just 89 have made it round the world and all the way back to France. The main cause of retirement is the structural failure of masts, keels, rigs and rudders due to heavy weather – 2020 started with terrible weather and two yachts having to head to safety with major structural damage.
In 1992, the American sailor Mike Plant was lost at sea on his way to the start of the race. Four days later, the highly experienced British yachtsman Nigel Burgess drowned after falling overboard, just three days into the race.
In 1997, Canada’s Gerry Roufs was also lost at sea in the Pacific Ocean. As the remaining fleet entered the ferocious and unforgiving Southern Ocean, it encountered ten-metre waves and 70-knot winds.
Frenchman Raphaël Dinelli’s yacht had its rig torn away before capsizing and surfing uncontrollably across the sea at 20 knots, finally hitting a massive wave that pitch-polled his craft end over end, causing the mast to smash through the superstructure.
Knowing Dinelli was beyond the reach of any organised rescue, British yachtsman Pete Goss turned back from a leading position and fought for two days against prevailing winds to reach the Frenchman. It was an act of courage and selflessness that would see Goss awarded the Légion d’honneur.
Two other competitors, meanwhile, had to be saved by the Australian Navy – British sailor Tony Bullimore, who survived in an air pocket in his upturned yacht without food or water for five days, and French sailor Thierry Dubois who was rescued, hypothermic, from his life raft after his yacht also capsized.
Technology lifts performance
Although the design parameters of the 60ft yachts are strict, improvements in performance continue to accelerate thanks to new technology.
“Sailing singlehanded you can’t trim the sails fast enough to keep up with the autopilot, with the result that you have to learn a whole new style of sailing.” Sam Davies
The 2016-17 race saw the introduction of hydrofoils, which allow the yachts to rise out of the water and skim across the surface in upwind conditions. Unsurprisingly, ‘foilers’ took all top four places that year, with the winner, Armel Le Cléac’h, finishing in a record-breaking time of 74 days and 3 hours.
This year, a new generation of hydrofoils will lift not just 30 per cent of the boat’s weight out of the water, but up to 100 per cent – from three to nine tonnes.
Exhausting conditions mean the skippers rely heavily on their autopilots. However, these days their autopilots need to do a lot more than just steer the yacht – they also have to sense its pitch, roll, yaw, and even altitude.
“My autopilot responds a lot faster than I can,” explained British yachtswoman Sam Davies, one of six female skippers taking part in this year’s event.
“Sailing singlehanded you can’t trim the sails fast enough to keep up with the autopilot, with the result that you have to learn a whole new style of sailing.
“These boats aren’t actually designed to be hand steered, which means the steering position isn’t prioritised during the design and build. However, crew protection is. At the speeds we’re travelling you can’t stay in an exposed position for more than a few minutes without getting hit by a wall of water.”
Alex Thomson, another British skipper and one of the favourites having finished second last time round, has taken crew protection to the extreme, having designed a revolutionary boat whose aesthetic lines contrast sharply with anything seen before: a fully closed cockpit that enables him to sail from inside below deck, oversized curved foils, an autopilot that uses AI and machine learning to predict the yacht's motion, and many other innovations which haven’t all been revealed. He was leading the fleet as they passed the Azores at the end of the first week of racing.
Ocean research collaboration
Scientific technology has also been introduced on this year’s Vendée Globe yachts, with several skippers agreeing to help with ocean research as they race through some of the world’s most remote seas.
In a collaboration with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO and the World Meteorological Organization, they will deploy two types of marine monitoring systems: ten drifting buoys able to measure currents, surface temperatures and atmospheric pressure; and three specialised floats capable of diving to 2,000m every nine days to measure the salinity and temperature of water columns before sending the data back digitally to researchers.
Three other skippers have agreed to carry thermosalinograph machines to collect regular data about sea temperatures, salinity and CO2 levels.
All that – and tackling the world’s toughest race.
Follow the latest official race news here.
Dennis O’Neill is a journalist specialising in maritime.