Pip Hare fulfilled a lifelong dream when she finished the Vendée Globe, the first British skipper in this year’s event, though the race was also her toughest challenge yet. Pip recounts her experiences.
The Vendée Globe race was everything I ever dreamed it could be, and more. It challenged me every day, it made me scream with laughter, it brought me to my knees with physical fatigue and the emotional agony of disappointment. But there is not one single day I did not want to be exactly where I was.
It had been a hard battle to get to the line. I was sailing the second oldest boat in the fleet, was a rookie in the IMOCA class, had a small team behind me, and very little time to test the upgrades we made after Medallia came on board as my title sponsor.
But I was determined to make the most of what I had, to value every minute of the race and get the best result with the boat I had.
At the start of the race I had really no idea where I would sit in the fleet. My previous IMOCA racing performances were in a tired boat with no funding and the sole objective of finishing races to secure my Vendée Globe qualification.
Among the non-foiling fleet there were two other boats launched in the year 2000 to benchmark myself against, and a number of 2007 boats to aspire to keep up with. It is incredible how my own expectations changed throughout the race as I learned, and loved, to push harder with every week that went by.
If you’d told me at the start I’d finish four hours behind a foiling boat and be racing against them for weeks before the finish, I would have never believed it.
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The first indication that Medallia and I were sailing hard was when we approached Storm Theta in the second week of the race. While most of the back third of the fleet chose a route to avoid the depression, both Didac Costa (who sailed a phenomenal race in another 21-year-old boat) and myself chose to gybe towards the centre of the system and the stronger winds.
It felt like the right thing to do. I’d benefitted from one month of big breeze training in the English Channel before the race and I was completely in control of how close I would go to the system. Why shy away from this now?
I was a little surprised to see other boats in the fleet not taking advantage of that extra breeze, which did make me question my judgement a little. Was this too great a risk early on in the race? But it didn’t feel like a risk, it felt like the right thing to do in the context of a race so I relished the extra speed.
I was slightly relieved to see Didac, who was on his third round the world race, chose the same tactic; we crossed gybes one mile apart.
By the time I’d reached the doldrums, I was leading a pack of boats that eventually stayed together until the beginning of the Indian Ocean. I’d even managed to sneak ahead of one of the foiling boats that had not put back at the start.
This blew my mind, but got me hungry. If I could be with these boats now, why not for the rest of the race? A new benchmark was set and I never conceded a mile to this pack without one hell of a fight.
Who dares wins in the Vendée Globe
Doing well became like a drug to me. The first time I appeared in the top three on the best 24-hour run leaderboard was a shock (I never expected to see my boat there) but it made me laugh with glee and I wanted to be there again.
Then I had my first 400-plus mile day; and that made me want another. I did a three-hour run where I averaged 19.3 knots and that blew my mind. I was outpacing the foilers behind me, Medallia constantly surfing at 25-26 knots. It was incredible.
I couldn’t eat or sleep at first. I was standing by the companionway in full foulies with the autopilot remote in my hand, just watching the numbers, holding on, listening intently to the boat.
My stomach was doing somersaults and I was caught in a continual loop of inner dialogue – was I pushing too hard? Was this reckless? Meanwhile the other part of me was thinking: this is all fine, the wind is not excessive, the pilot is working well, the bow is up, speed is my friend. Eventually I got used to living in these conditions and 17 knots felt slow.
Knowing when to back off became the most important decision for success. Back off too early and you could drop off a weather system and lose a few hundred miles. Backing off too late could lead to problems or damage that would set me back for days, or even cost the race.
It’s a fine line to tread and it would be easy to always back off early. I don’t think I left it too late once. But more often than not I changed down a sail too early, then regretted the decision and had to change back up again having lost a couple of hours of good speed – but having hung on to my weather system.
Medallia is a really physically demanding boat to sail. The lack of protection over the cockpit stung me both in the south and on the equator. It made everything more effort, harder to manage, more dangerous to me.
In the south the volumes of water coming through the cockpit would fill it up to shin level at times and pummel my body. At the equator the heat was at times unbearable and there was no shade. Sometimes I talked to myself out loud to persuade me to get out on deck and make the changes needed. “What are you doing out here if you’re not going to try?” I’d demand of myself.
I often slept in my drysuit on the bare floor to avoid getting the beanbags wet. Towards the end of the race the physicality of the boat started to take its toll. I lost 8kg in weight, and in the last month a lot of muscle mass. But I always knew I’d be able to finish.
A problem every day
Easily 30% of my time on the race was spent dealing with, or trying to avoid, gear failure.
The perceived wisdom of the race is ‘one problem a day’ and having an older boat, and a relatively short time to bed in the upgrades we’d made pre-race, I was fully prepared to be fixing stuff. The reality was more like two problems a day, but they didn’t come in at that rate and some issues just kept coming.
I have always prepared my own race boats on a tight budget and I think this served me well when it came to keeping the boat in once piece; I’m good at spotting damage or wear before it becomes a problem and I’m no stranger to the tool box.
But I was not managing this alone: I also had Joff Brown, my technical director, on the phone. The success of this race is not just mine, it is Joff’s as well. He brought experience of managing five previous Vendée campaigns to prepare my boat and ensure I was equipped to deal with every problem that came at me.
He was available 24/7 throughout the race to keep me performing. He shared my stress, but not so much of the fun.
Even if it meant extra work, or discomfort, I’d always go the extra mile to ensure any repairs or workarounds didn’t impact on my performance. A broken traveller in the first week of the race was resolved by spreading the mainsail load on port tack to a second sheet, jury-rigged to the toe rail. Every time I tacked or gybed I had to rig or unrig the second sheet and trim the two leads, swapping the winches.
Losing one hydrogenerator early on, coupled with ongoing breakage of blades in automatic pitch mode, meant I had to tack the remaining generator and manually set the blades to the best pitch.
I could have left them at a low power setting and left the leg in the water all the time, but to reduce drag time in the water I would pull up the leg and reset the blades at regular intervals to maximise power.
Without doubt, the most difficult setback to manage while maintaining performance was the loss of my wind instruments in the second half of the Southern Ocean.
I’m still not really sure what happened to the wand, but I lost one of the cups from the wind speed sensor and the wind vane jammed, which meant I had no access to wind data.
The performance implications of this are huge. It is possible to carry on sailing using a compass, telltales on the rig and sails, and a lot of brain power – but it is virtually impossible to make timely decisions and keep the boat trucking.
With no wind data, I was not able to analyse my performance according to my polars, so the last 10% of speed was hard to achieve. With no wind angle the cross-overs between sails became difficult to judge, so the punchy calls that won me extra miles before became harder to make.
However, the most debilitating problem was the loss of wind mode on the autopilot, which was vital to performance and safety when sailing Medallia in downwind VMG conditions.
Instead of setting the pilot to steer to a TWA and surf the waves (which almost eliminates the risk of a crash gybe), I had to put the pilot on a compass course, then manually adjust the steering with the remote to allow for wind shifts and wave surfs.
Much of this was done from down below and at night time where I’d be looking for clues to the wind angle by illuminating the sails and watching out of the coachroof window, comparing it to the motion of the boat, noise of the wind and our speed.
I could never switch off. I slept on a beanbag, looking up at the instruments with the remote in my hand, closing my eyes for 10 minutes at a time, waking up with every different feeling or just to check the numbers.
The fatigue of constantly being on alert slowly ate away at me. But I was like a dog with a bone: I would not give up. I kept telling myself there’d be stable or reaching conditions soon, and I could have a proper sleep; but it never came.
After two weeks I was exhausted and started making some of the worst tactical decisions of the race (around the Falkland Islands). I finally arrived at a point where I could tangibly see my ability to perform was diminished but I still had 5,000 miles to go. This was what drove me to climb my mast a second time and repair the wind wand.
I’ll be back
When I look back at the race as a whole I am immensely proud of what we as a team have achieved in such a short amount of time. I hit the line after 95 days and 11 hours and know that I gave the race everything I had – there was very little left in my tank and Medallia had been sailed about as hard as it could take.
I didn’t sail the best race possible, I made mistakes, particularly on the return leg of the South Atlantic, but this was my first Vendée Globe and I will learn from those. I battled right to the end, and am still convinced that had I not lost my fractional gennaker halyard two days before the finish there could have been a chance to come in ahead of a foiling boat.
From the beginning of the race I asserted this was only the warm up. I wanted to demonstrate my potential, to learn, to properly experience the course and to use that knowledge to craft a truly competitive campaign for 2024. I exceeded my own expectations, I loved every minute, and I want to be back out there again.
If you want to hear more from Pip about her future plans, or her Vendée Globe story, don’t Pip Hare’s Ask Me Anything session on our YBW forum.
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