It ain't over til it's over
Sailing Today|April 2021
An edge-of-your-seat Vendée Globe thriller came down to the final hours, with a last minute drama that shocked millions

The ninth Vendée Globe had promised to be a lightning-fast head-to-head between two or three boats, a sprint around the globe that would surely lower the 74-day record and herald a new era in offshore racing.

In the event, the two big favourites had serious collisions that ended their podium dreams before the race passed Cape Town.

What we were left with was something far more open and arguably far more exciting, a group of nine or 10 boats that stuck together around the world, each successive attempt to break away reeled in by the pack.

And the finish, overnight on 27 January, was as gripping as sport could be, with the closest ever winning margin and a victor that nobody could predict even in the final hours.

Chess match

The global press woke up to the fact that this was likely to be a true epic in offshore racing as the fleet sailed up the south Atlantic towards the equator. Off Rio, on 12 January, there were no more than 120 miles covering the first nine places. The race was effectively reset – for the nine contenders, it would be a 4,000-mile sprint back to France.

The skippers readied themselves for a gruelling test where they knew the tiniest mistake might mean the loss of a podium position. Any of the leading pack had the ability and the desire to win, but what we didn’t know was the condition of their boats. After more than 20,000 miles at sea, all would be nursing tired machinery and given the high stakes, it was likely that not everyone was being 100% open about what disabilities they were carrying.

The leading fleet comprised IMOCA 60s of vastly different ages and theoretical abilities. The latest generation foiling boats had proved difficult to sail at speed in the big southern ocean conditions. Now they might have shown their pace, but several had suffered collisions and were carrying broken foils or other damage.

Attention focussed on the race’s only German entrant, Boris Herrmann, who had amassed a global army of supporters for his engaging videos and seemingly unflappable personality. His boat, Sea Explorer-Yacht Club de Monaco, possessed the biggest foils and given the right winds, had a clear chance of doing well.

Almost immediately, however, the German skipper’s dreams were put on hold, as he was caught in a fiendish Doldrums and failed to make the predicted breakaway.

The leaders were Charlie Dalin, the quietly spoken naval architect who trained at Southampton Institute, in Apivia, and the rugged Saint-Malo man Louis Burton, whose campaign on Bureau Vallée 2 was being managed by his wife Servane, herself an accomplished sailor.

Also in the running as they entered the north Atlantic was Thomas Ruyant on the latest generation foiling boat Linked Out, one of the pre-race favourites, and Yannick Bestaven on Maître Coq IV, who had led the race through the south Pacific and around Cape Horn.

A fascinating chess game developed, with pundits on land poring over the weather models and routeing options for each boat. The fleet fanned out, with Burton taking a bold westerly option and Dalin sailing a more direct route. Herrmann had got back in the running was third, but Ruyant and Bestaven were neck and neck just behind.

A few miles to the east and not to be discounted was one of the most remarkable stories in Vendée Globe history. Damien Seguin was born with the use of only one hand. He won medals at the Athens, Beijing and Rio Paralympics, but when sailing was dropped from the Paralympics, he turned to offshore racing. This was his first Vendée Globe and his achievement was all the greater as Seguin’s boat, Groupe Apicil, was designed in 2008, with daggerboards, not foils, yet he had kept pace with the latest generation IMOCAs all the way around the world.

Not far behind him was France’s beloved veteran, Jean Le Cam, in his boat Yes We Cam!, responsible for rescueing Kevin Escoffier from his liferaft850 miles off Cape Town earlier in the race.

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