The Vendée Globe, a planetary race
During the first editions of the Vendée Globe back in the nineties, the length of time spent alone at sea and the isolation due to few means of communication resulting in a dearth of weather information, were the hard points of the event. In 2016, for this 8th edition, the sailors are still up against themselves and racing on the same course, but over time, several architectural revolutions have changed the face of the Vendée Globe. The speed of the boats has doubled on certain points of tack and the race time has shrunk by around 30% in less than thirty years. The performances have also proved to be increasingly uniform, particularly at the front of the fleet. The initiatory journey has also transformed into a close-contact marathon where the physical and sporting intensity has found a place at the heart of the debate. It's something that Sébastien Josse is not averse to.
Shortly before leaving his adopted Brittany to set sail on his third Vendée Globe, the sailor shared his thoughts on the intensity of this match, which stays with them throughout. “Contact is important in the Vendée Globe because you don't see the time passing,” he says. “If it was about circumnavigating the globe to circumnavigate the globe then I'd prefer cruising with family. In 2004, I was setting off for the first time and the voyage itself was all important. Today, I'm looking for a competitive symbiosis with my boat. I love competition and feeling like I'm on top of my game. Managing to link together the manœuvres, performing them well and seeing the result in the race is an extraordinary motivation. On the other hand, when glitches occur and things don't go the way you want, it's less enjoyable but that's where you have to step things up a gear to get back in contact.”
Boats to slave over
A total of 1,460m2 of sail area powers the Mono60 Edmond de Rothschild. Though the progress made in the materials used has reduced the weight of the sails, there is still a significant number of them (a maximum of 9 sails permitted) and an abundance of possible sail combinations. The trimming is constant and the manœuvres punctuate the days and the nights. Tacking or gybing can take up to 35/40 minutes for example and is accompanied by a complete relocation of the gear stowed down below, with no less than 250 kilos to be shifted from one side of the boat to the other. Changing a headsail equates to several trips backwards and forwards from the cockpit to the bow, before an arduous run at the coffee grinder (upright winching mechanism).
“You need to be physically fit to be able to link together all that work because, should conditions become unsettled, you need to remain at 100%. When you're not very seasoned or honed, you can reach a deadlock on one or two manœuvres, telling yourself that the conditions are changing, that's it's not worth the effort because the wind's kicking back in. However, in today's racing, you can't allow yourself to do that. If you have to switch from the big spinnaker to a very small sail because a squall's rolling through disturbing the general flow of things, you've got to do it,” explains the man who is currently helming Gitana 16 in the NE'ly trades on the approach to the Canaries. As they tackle a fast section of the course, the top seven boats in the fleet are grouped with 55 miles of one another after 1,500 miles of racing!
Managing the effort
In the sports universe, whether it's mechanical or outdoor, there is nothing quite like this. This is due to the sailor's environment, with the lack of sleep, a rhythm that is dictated by the weather and the fact that this race stretches over ten weeks. Even in a single 24-hr cycle, the physical effort is not continuous and is coloured by random periods of recuperation. Meantime, the intellectual pressure remains constant, with regards anticipating the weather and the short, medium or long term strategy. And naturally the mind is influenced by how well the boat is making headway, with dozens of parameters to be taken into account. In short, the intensity is all-pervading and ultimately the muscles are used as one of the links in the chain. “When you have to put in a manœuvre, you've considered it and waited for the right moment, it's now! You have to really get a grip on the fact that all the manœuvres are done from a cold start. You don't warm up and the effort is completely disjointed. A change of headsail is a jogging session, then you position yourself at the coffee grinder, the old ticker is pumping hard, you get your breath back and then get going again and so on. And once you're done, you sometimes have to start all over again because the wind's changed.”