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Vendee Update #2

Update 11-02-00


What is the essence of singlehanded ocean racing? Is it fully supported, professional sailors with the highest tech gear possible and the need to win, or is it the devoted adventurer who wants to face the worst the sea can offer and come back alive? This is a debate I have heard (and pondered) for years.

In my personal sailing home base on San Francisco Bay, there is an avid shorthanded racing community that fields some of the area’s most well attended races. The annual “Three Bridge Fiasco” which often fields 200+ entries was my first singlehanded race (and first singlehanded win). The popular Singlehanded Sailing Society promotes this race along with many others including its signature biannual Singlehanded Transpac Race to Hawaii. Even within this organization there is a debate whether that race should become a more professional event or remain the fascinating and fun “Bug light for weirdos” it is now. 

Yet for both schools of thought there is no debate about which is the ultimate singlehanded race. Singlehanded, nonstop, around the world, the Vendee Globe Challenge captures the imagination of every sailor who knows what an imposing goal it is just to finish. The modern version of this race has been held only three times. In 1989/90, the winner was Titouan Lamazou, in 1992/93 it was Alain Gautier, and in 1996/97 it was Christophe Auguin. Each one of these skippers is a legend for his victory, but in this race there are many legends and heroes. I am here now at Les Sables d’Olonne, France, at present the singlehanded Mecca and ground zero for the Vendee Globe Challenge. Even though I don’t speak French (yet) it feels everyone speaks the same language. I haven’t had any problems communicating with the skippers in this year’s fleet and with some of the legends that have built this race.

One of my personal sailing heroes is Jean Luc Van Den Heede, affectionately known to singlehanded fans as “VDH“. I met VDH for the first time last night. He had been doing a lot of interviews for French TV as a ‘color commentator’ at the Vendee Village. Adrien, Tim, and I had downed quite a few beers and we were heading out of the Vendee Village looking forward to another great French meal. I spotted the famous VDH beard and approached him in the dark rain outside the pandemonium of the huge Vendee Village tent. I introduced myself and gave him the quick pitch on my program and the Wylie Wocket. At first he didn’t recognize Tom Wylie’s name, but when I told him about Tom’s boat design in the 1979 Mini Transat his eyebrows raised when he remembered Norton Smith’s victory in ‘American Express’. “Ah yes! Very fast!” When he found out that our “Wocket” is a modernized “skinny” Open 60 his eyes lit up and he exclaimed “Do you have drawing?!” We went back inside the Vendee Village club house, grabbed a table, ignored the crowd and got down to discussing boat design and long distance single handed racing. I was of course delighted to show him the material I had brought along. We had a good time talking about design philosophy and the travails of fund raising. He got a kick out of the fact that I, an American, had memorized much of his racing history! His record is an example of the caliber of the many sailors hanging out here right now.

He was 3rd in the 89/90 Vendee and 2nd in 93/94, and he was also 2nd in the 94/95 BOC. VDH is one of the most respected skippers in the world. He has sailed consistently and safely (for the most part) around the world so many times it’s hard to keep track. To me he is one of the sailors who demonstrated both the desire to win, and to finish safely. All of his races since 1990 were aboard his famous slender yawl; an incredible boat that is no longer super competitive but is still racing. In fact, it is racing yet again this year under charter to Frenchman Joe Seeton. VDH has long been a proponent of a light, narrow, and safe boat as opposed to the wider more powerful (and sometimes dangerous) designs. Both he and his boat have repeatedly shown how hard they are to stop. Even after falling asleep from exhaustion and running up on an Australian beach in leg 2 of the 94/95 BOC, the indomitable boat and sailor were towed off the beach and through the surf relatively unscathed. He went on to finish 3rd in class 1! Last year his final race was an attempt on the West-East “Wrong Way” around the world record. After getting a huge lead on the former record his trusty yawl finally suffered some delaminations while pounding to weather in the southern ocean. VDH abandoned the attempt and evidently decided that he too had had enough. 

But his boat is repaired and going around the world (the right direction, in the Vendee) again, and he is here to watch the new crop of great sailors head out to sea. He found out that he has helped to inspire a crazy American to build upon the spirit of his design philosophy. When we shook > hands and said good night, he had a heck of a big smile on his face, and I knew I just had one of the best experiences of the week. 

I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world right now. Three days to the start!

Below are a couple of pics from the harbor, including VDH’s old boat next to the new PRB.

Bruce Schwab
Skipper, Made in America Globe Challenges


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