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Vendée Globe heroes: 10 remarkable sailors who embody the race’s spirit

The 25th and final competitor in the Vendée Globe, Ari Huusela, crossed the finish line last Friday after 116 days of racing, drawing a line under the latest edition of the world’s toughest sailing race

The Finnish airline pilot was the first Nordic skipper to complete the Vendée Globe and, besides enjoying every minute of the adventure, has become something of a hero in his home country of Finland for his endeavour.

But every Vendée Globe skipper has an epic tale to tell: we pick out some of other heroes of this remarkable ninth edition of the solo round the world race:

1. Sam Davies

Strange though it may seem to choose a skipper who did not – officially – complete the race, there’s no doubt that British skipper Sam Davies is a hero of the 2020 Vendée Globe.

When Davies’ IMOCA 60 Initiatives Coeur violently collided with a floating object back in early December, her race ended. She pulled into Cape Town to make repairs, thus disqualifying herself from the solo, unassisted Vendée Globe.

But Sam’s Vendée Globe had always had two objectives: one, to be competitive – and she is a fiercely competitive and highly technical skipper; but secondly, to raise money and awareness for her partner charity, which funds life-saving heart operations for children in the developing world.

The fundraising model was perfect for a skipper as engaging as Sam – likes and shares on her social media page generated matched funding from her partner backers. But with her race cut short, the fundraising opportunities would have stopped early.

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Sam, who has always been genuinely passionate about the project, decided to sail on, completing the circumnavigation on her repaired boat to continue raising donations and awareness for Initiatives Coeur.

“In my head the race was dead – I had stopping sailing, I had retired, I could already picture myself at home ready to pick up our nine-year-old son, Ruben, from school and back to making food at home,” she said in South Africa, “And then after 24 hours… I changed my mind. I came to my senses. ”

“It is obvious. Finishing the course out of the race makes sense. Initiatives-Cœur is a solidarity project. And that’s what gives me the strength and the energy to start again.”

But it was not easy. With three-quarters of the course still to go, Davies had to battle loneliness as well as ongoing issues with her repaired IMOCA. “When I left Cape Town, I was behind everybody and all those guys were just so far away there was no way I was going to catch them,” she told the IMOCA class.

“I was worried about something else breaking on the boat, so I didn’t want to push and so it wasn’t the same sailing sensation that I am used to when I am racing. I felt lonely and it was a little bit scary as well being out there and being the last one. If something happened, I was there to help others but there was no one behind me…”

While her partner Romain Attanasio also finished the race, Sam sailed on to complete the course. On the way she raised enough funds for 102 lifesaving children’s heart operations on the way. You can read more about the remarkable work Sam helped to fund on the Initiatives-Cœur website.

2. Jean Le Cam

There is little that hasn’t already been said about Jean Le Cam; the undisputed king of the 2020 Vendée Globe. Racing a straight daggerboard boat that he campaigned on a modest budget, the hugely experienced Frenchman kept pace with the newest foiling designs for most of the race, frequently in the top four placings.

In between, he plucked fellow skipper Kevin Escoffier from the South Atlantic after Escoffier’s PRB suddenly and catastrophically broke up, leaving Escoffier adrift in a liferaft in 3m seas, without a radio. Showing superb seamanship, Le Cam located Escoffier, then managed to return and rescue him – at night, whilst short tacking in demanding conditions.

Le Cam finished 8th, despite the fact that his IMOCA was delaminating for most of the race. With the time compensation he had been awarded for the rescue, he took a hugely deserved 4th.

He spoke at the end about how he hoped his achievements would inspire others to pursue a Vendée campaign on more modest budgets. “I believe that between Benjamin Dutreux, Damien Seguin and me, we gave young people confidence that the Vendée Globe is still accessible.”

3. Damien Seguin

Damien Seguin took 7th in the 2020 Vendée Globe, but his race was not just remarkable for his ability to keep an older boat up with the new foilers, but because he was the first Paralympic skipper to complete the race.

Having been born without a left hand, Seguin became the first sailor with a disability to complete the solo race. He finished in flamboyant style, donning a pirate costume, complete with hook, to sail up Les Sables d’Olonne’s famous channel.

Jeremie Beyou training for the Vendee Globe. Photo Gauthier LEBEC / Charal Sailing Team)

4. Jeremie Beyou

An unlucky 13th place is not the result Jérémie Beyou would have been hoping for when he started his 4th Vendée Globe last November. The widely fancied race favourite was setting out on one of the fastest and best prepared new foiling yachts in the race with Charal, and had enjoyed a near immaculate preparation schedule, including winning the Vendée Arctic Race.

But a collision soon after the start put paid to his winning chances, leaving Beyou only with the option of returning to port for repairs, restarting (allowed in the immediate early stages of the race), and continuing the course.

Beyou, who is more accustomed to being at the front of the fleet than chasing the tail-enders, initially struggled with being uncompetitive. Nevertheless, he continued, adding his personal challenge to the legions of Vendée human stories.

“This was not the Vendée Globe that I expected, I can’t hide that fact,” he said after finishing. “Deep within me I discovered a part of my personality that didn’t exist or that I had maybe repressed.

“I went out there for the competition, the win, but… I discovered a different way of sailing, I learned a lot on the boat and did have a lot of fun. That is a big victory over my old self.”

Louis Burton after finishing the Vendée Globe. Photo Bernard Le Bars/Alea

5. Louis Burton

Louis Burton’s Vendée Globe was heroic for its never-say-die, no-holds-barred approach. The Breton skipper finished 2nd across the line, and 3rd overall, having pushed his 2012 IMOCA Bureau Vallée 2 to the limits.

His full-throttle approach took its toll at times and Burton was twice forced to make major repairs, at one point climbing the mast three times while drifting in the protective lee of the remote Macquarie Island halfway between New Zealand and the Antarctic. Burton even had to contend with a fire onboard during his Atlantic return.

“Crossing the line in 2nd position is a crazy thing, especially with the race I had,” he said at the finish. “I tried not to think too much about the finish during the race, it’s like when you are riding a bike and you have a very steep hill to climb, if you look all the way up you get discouraged.”

The Vendée Globe demands absolute commitment of its heroes, and Burton gave himself completely to the race. For the skipper, the rewards were equally consuming: “I would not like to have anything more than what I am living here and now,’ he said at the finish.

Pip Hare celebrates with Champagne after arriving back on the dock at Les Sables d’Olonne. Photo Richard Langdon / Ocean Images

6. Pip Hare

For Pip Hare, completing the Vendée Globe was a lifetime dream come true. It was an ambition that Pip had poured her very heart and soul into, and finishing was a moment of pure celebration.

Pip Hare finished the Vendée Globe on Medallia in 19th position, with a final time of 95d 11hr. Sailing the second-oldest boat in the fleet, the 21-year-old former Superbigou built by Bernard Stamm, she finished within a few hours of the two closest foilers ahead (Alan Roura’s La Fabrique in 17th, and Stéphane le Diraison on Time for Oceans).

She is only the 8th ever female skipper to complete the Vendée Globe (four of which have been English). Before setting out, Hare had hoped to beat Ellen MacArthur’s record for a female skipper of 94 days. She just missed out on that (Clarisse Cremer has set a new female record this year in 12th place at 87 days); it doesn’t matter.

This race has been a slower one than expected for almost every competitor, but everyone who has followed Pip’s race will know that she has sailed Medallia’s socks off. “I never thought it would be like this, I never thought I would be playing with foiling boats,” she said in disbelief at the finish. “It’s been incredible.”

Pip became one of the stand-out heroes of this year’s Vendée Globe thanks to her open, honest, and often very funny videos, as she communicated the highs and lows of the world’s greatest sailing race to an audience far beyond usual ocean racing fans. When she executed an incredible mid-race rudder change in the Southern Ocean, she confirmed her place as one of the race’s legends (a mid-race birthday message from Russell Crowe just added to her superstar-status!). She can’t wait to be back, and neither can her legions of her fans.

7. Thomas Ruyant

Thomas Ruyant’s 4th place finish in the Vendée Globe doesn’t fully reflect a remarkable race for this Vendée rookie. Widely considered as one of the favourites for the race, Ruyant put together a slick, professional campaign including a latest generation Verdier design – impressive in itself for a first-timer to the race.

He was duelling for the lead, just three weeks into the race, when LinkedOut’s port foil suffered major damage. Incredibly, Ruyant climbed out onto the end of the foil to cut the most badly damaged section away using an electric saw, before resuming racing, although his speed was severely compromised on starboard tack for the remaining 19,000 miles of the race.

Despite this, Ruyant pushed hard all the way, and was 3rd rounding Cape Horn. A rematch between Ruyant, Dalin and some of the other emerging talents in four year’s time is a mouth-watering prospect for race fans.

Skipper Kojiro Shiraishi, DMG Mori Global One. Photo Olivier Blanchet/Alea

8. Kojiro Shiraishi

Kojiro Shiraishi became the first Japanese skipper ever to complete the around the world race. It took him 94 days to complete the course, but for the 53-year-old sailor it was the culmination of a 34 year dream.

Shiraishi heroically refused to give up his Vendée dream even after his mainsail split so badly it could have ended his race in the very first week. In total he spent more than seven days completing a major repair, and afterwards always had to sail cautiously, with at least one reef in the main for the entire circumnavigation.

After crossing the finish line Shiraishi said: “It is a miracle; I really did not think that my mainsail would hold, and it is truly incredible that it pulled through and I have been able to complete this wonderful adventure.”

For Shiraishi the voyage was also a homage to his own hero and mentor, the ground-breaking Japanese skipper Yukoh Tada. “For over 30 years I have been dreaming of doing this Vendee Globe, ever since Philippe Jeantot invited my master Yukoh Tada to compete in it. It has taken thirty years to complete the circumnavigation and I am proud to have been able to fulfil what Yukoh Tada wanted to do.”

Photo Jean-Marie Liot/Alea

9. Charlie Dalin

This year’s Vendée Globe winners honours deservedly go to Yannick Bestaven, who crossed the line in 80d 13h 59min 46secs and was awarded 10 hours and 15 minutes of redress for his part in the rescue of Kevin Escoffier. But nothing can take away from Charlie Dalin the fact that he crossed the line first on his first ever Vendée Globe.

Despite being in the top two placings for much of the race, Dalin did not have it all easy. His port foil casing failed in the Southern Ocean, leaving Dalin to construct a remarkable 18-hour repair – the true MacGuyver-esque nature of which, with a cat’s cradle of lines and stays, only became evident at the finish.

“I was going back and forwards between the cockpit and the foil exit location on the hull,” Dalin explained. “I was suspended by a halyard to reach the point where I could fit the chock and I don’t know how many times I went back and forth – 30 or 40 times – to adjust the carbon piece to fit the foil case.”

Dalin sailed an otherwise near-faultless race, leading at the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Leeuwin, but chasing rival Bestaven at the Cape of Good Hope. Despite the foil damage, a tactically smart eastern route saw him reel Bestaven in on the climb up the Atlantic, gaining over 400 miles past the coast of Brazil.

Despite having to relinquish victory, Dalin was gracious at the finish: “What I’m going to remember is that I was first over the line – no one can take it away from me. It’s normal for boats that stop to help others to have time compensation and that’s out of my control. But whatever the outcome I’m here in front of you now and I’m happy that I’ve done a good job.

“Before leaving I said that finishing this round the world race would be a victory. Now I am even more aware of it – each of us has had many problems to overcome – and just to finish is a victory.”

10. Clarisse Cremer

French skipper Clarisse Crèmer is now the fastest woman to sail singlehanded non-stop around the world, when she completed her Vendée Globe after 87d 2hrs 24 mins, breaking Ellen MacArthur’s 21-year monohull solo non-stop record of 94 days (when she took 2nd in the 2000-2001 Vendée Globe).

Cremer’s achievement inspired a message from Dame MacArthur herself, saying: “Hi Clarisse, just a little message to say a big bravo for your race around the world. It’s great to see you at the finish line. It’s truly an exceptional lap. Well done for everything you have done! “

But the 31-year-old played down her achievement, saying at the finish: “We know that being a woman in ocean racing becomes a differentiator on land. But this is a mixed race and a mixed sport. There is no female classification. At sea, I am a sailor and I don’t tell myself that the sailor in front is a man or a woman, I don’t think about that at all.”

Cremer won legions of fans for her upbeat, positive videos, although she also spoke honestly about her doubts and fears at time, endearing her to many followers. “I’m afraid I’m going off my head. I know that each gale seriously affects the condition of my boat,” she worried in the early stages of the race when facing Storm Theta.

However, she grew in confidence throughout the race, sailing along the edge of the Ice Exclusion Zone with waves in excess of 20ft and winds of more than 40 knots in the Pacific, and overcoming her personal fear by climbing the mast twice on the return Atlantic leg.

“I learned to switch off my brain, continue to advance, eat, sleep and look after myself,” she explained.

When she passed Cape Horn, she felt like she had ‘“earned my stripes”. Now, as the fastest woman ever to have completed the race, she joins the ranks of Vendée Globe heroes.


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