November 8, 2012

A race of superlatives

Swiss skipper Bernard Stamm fights
70-knot winds in a previous Vendée Globe

IT’S HARD FOR US to imagine what a big deal the yacht race known as the Vendée Globe is for the people of France. Someone recently described this non-stop, single-handed round-the-world race as rather ‘parochial,’ and in a way that’s true because the great majority of the 20 entrants for this year’s race are French, and there seems to be very little interest in other countries such as the United States, which is not represented at all.

Neverthless, the Globe, which starts tomorrow (Saturday, November 10, 2012) is a unique race, a race of superlatives. It’s by far the toughest test of human endurance at sea, and of human ingenuity in designing and building 60-foot sailboats capable of withstanding the extraordinary stresses of crashing through the world’s stormiest seas at speeds in excess of 20 knots for months on end.

Not all the solo starters will finish the race, that is almost a certainty. Boats have limped into port under jury rig, and lives have been lost, before. Gallant rescues have been made to save the lives of fellow competitors out of reach of normal rescue services.

This race should touch the hearts of all who sail, no matter where they live in the world, but it also strongly affects millions of French people who are not sailors themselves, but who recognize the drama in this supreme test of man against nature. More than a quarter million of them are cramming themselves into the little western seaside town of Les Sables-d’Olonne in the department of Vendée every day to see the boats and catch a glance at the brave souls who will sail them on this two-month lone odyssey, among them Britain’s female entrant, Samantha Davies, mother of a young child.

As Bruno Retailleau, president of the General Council of Vendée, put it:

“The Vendée Globe has taken on a more popular dimension in the village. What has impressed me is the capacity and passion of the public. There has not been so much of a queue as a procession. People wait patiently, talking quietly, look at the boats and share the dream. You sense a certain harmony, forming a communion between the event and the public. There is something which develops between the public and the skippers. People want to see them because they are heroes. The concept of the race is so simple that everyone can understand it, you don’t have to be any kind of sailor. I think mostly it is a beautiful, simple story, a legend. It is more than a competition, a race. This is the story of a confrontation between man and nature. Man in a world in which he is fragile faces nature which is big and dangerous. But whether you are French, Brazilian or Japanese you can live this race. And the race is gaining an even more international dimension.”

Like the U.S. presidential election, the Vendée Globe takes place only once every four years, and no one who is not French has ever won it. Maybe this year it will be different. In any case, I tip my hat to the brave souls taking part, and wish each and every one of them safe voyaging on their remarkable journeys around the world.

 Today’s Thought
No game was ever yet worth a rap
For a rational man to play,
Into which no accident, no mishap,
Could possibly find its way.
-- A. L. Gordon, Ye Weary Wayfarer.

“Did you hear the news? Flossie just sold her second novel.”
“Great! What did she use for the plot?”
“The film version of her first novel.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)