Home > Journals > 2004 – 2005: Vendée Globe

So Near But Yet so Far

February 21, 2005

In sailor’s terms, there is “just a Bermuda Race to go” for Bruce Schwab and Ocean Planet before they complete their loop of the planet. At the latest poll Ocean Planet was just over 600 miles from the finish in Les Sables d’Olonne, or about the distance from Newport, Rhode Island, to Bermuda. The distance of the famous Fastnet Race is about the same, as is the distance of the infamous Sydney Hobart race. For a sea weary skipper it must feel like he is almost home, but Bruce is too astute to get complacent. There are dozens of stories of dreams being shattered just miles from the finish line, and the old adage, “It’s not over until the fat lady sings,” holds true for an endurance event like the Vendée Globe.

Mike Golding’s finish in France just two weeks ago is one stark reminder of how unforgiving the ocean can be. With just 50 miles to go, the boat lost its keel. Fortunately for Mike he was able to drop sails and load the water ballast tanks with water to stabilize the boat before it turned turtle. In an act of superb seamanship, Golding sailed safely across the finish line to take third place.

There is another similar story that Bruce is all too familiar with. During the Around Alone race the Italian sailor Simone Bianchetti was battling it out for third place overall. Bianchetti had sailed a brilliant final leg of the race from Salvador, Brazil to Newport, Rhode Island. It was important for him on his Open 60 Tiscali to finish second in order to beat British sailor Emma Richards in the overall standings. The leg up the Brazilian coast, across the Caribbean Sea and up the Eastern Seaboard of the United States had been long and hard, but Simone was looking good for a second place finish. Once past Bermuda he got into the Gulf Stream and that was where it all started to go wrong. Dark squalls blew up in the warm water, and at one point it was blowing over 50 knots. The wind was bad enough, but what made it worse were the seas. The wind was blowing against the current in the Gulf Stream, and the wind-against-tide situation was causing the seaway to become brutal and dangerous. At one point during the night, on what was to be his final night of the race, Simone called his shore team to tell them that he feared for his mast. The wind was blowing hard and he could not control his boat as it lurched violently from crest to trough.

Bianchetti had good reason to fear for his mast. His boat already had a bad history with masts. Before the Italian sailor bought Tiscali it had belonged to a French lady by the name of Catherine Chabaud and was called Whirlpool. Chabaud was competing in her second Vendée Globe, and was well placed as she entered the Bay of Biscay, less than 500 miles from the finish. Just when she thought her dreams would come true, the rig broke and Chabaud was forced to retire from the race. So near yet so far. The summer before the Around Alone, Tiscali was racing in the Mediterranean when the boat was dismasted once again. It seemed almost impossible that the same boat was losing so many masts, but it happened again just at the start of the second leg of the Around Alone. Bianchetti was able to borrow the spare mast of a fellow competitor and was back in the race until the severe storm the night before the finish of the Around Alone.

The wind continued to blow hard, but the sea state calmed a little. Simone called race operations to alert them that he was 30 miles from the finish and expected to be across the line within four hours. Despite the late hour, a boat load of Italian journalists, friends and fans were on hand to record his arrival. A few minutes later the phone rang again; it was Simone who reported hastily that his mast had broken. He was just 29 miles from the finish. The mood on land changed immediately from heady excitement, to a somber one as we took in the news. There was no way that Simone was going to be able to complete his race. The journalists dispersed, as did the race officials. I was just contemplating heading back to bed when the phone rang again. It was Simone. “I will be at the finish in two hours,” he shouted down the satellite phone. “I am able to sail the boat.”

We left the dock on a cold morning and headed out to the finish line to greet Tiscali, wondering what we would see. The first fingers of a bleak dawn were breaking through thick clouds when we came upon the boat. The top 25 feet of the mast had snapped off and was hanging awkwardly like the broken wing of a beautiful bird. Simone had climbed aloft and lashed the mainsail to the mast. With the sail under control, he was able to make slow progress toward the finish using his small staysail for power. Each time the boat hit a wave the mast swayed precariously, threatening to come crashing to the deck. Simone stood behind the helm looking like an old sea captain born a hundred years too late. He smiled his charming smile that had disarmed hundreds of women over the years, and with a half salute crossed the finish line to take third place overall.

This story, the one about Mike Golding and Nick Moloney, who also lost his keel during this race, and Catherine Chabaud’s unfortunate dismasting in the last Vendée Globe are fresh in Bruce’s mind as he sails the final few hundred miles to France. You can’t win if you don’t finish, it’s as simple as that. Sadly the great Simone Bianchetti died a month later, of a brain aneurism; he is still sadly missed. Simone was also a veteran of the Vendée Globe and solo sailors around the world salute his courage and tenacity.

— Brian Hancock

Brian Hancock is a veteran round the world racer who has parlayed that experience into a career as a writer and is author of five books. His latest are: “The Risk in Being Alive” and “Maximum Sail Power.” “Risk” is an autobiographical account of his sailing and travel adventures. “Maximum Sail” is a definitive guide to sails and sailmaking and sail technology.


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