Barometer reading from the battlefield

Published on January 4th, 2021

(January 4, 2021; Day 58) – The ninth edition of the Vendée Globe is far from over but, with the leaders now at Cape Horn, this is a good time to take stock.

Already it is clear that this has been a remarkable race and arguably the most competitive Vendée Globe ever staged. With the biggest starting fleet ever assembled in Les Sables d’Olonne, the 2020-21 race has gone on to feature closer boat-on-boat competition than in any previous edition.

Here’s a checklist of some of the distinctive features of a fascinating contest so far:

Unprecedented build-up due to COVID-19 pandemic
All the skippers and their sponsors had to deal with a very difficult period in the build-up to the start on November 8. Sailing and testing time was severely curtailed and the two big transatlantic races that dominate the IMOCA season prior to the Vendée Globe were cancelled. However, everyone got to the start in good shape, an amazing achievement for skippers, their teams and the race organizers.

A remarkably low attrition rate
So far – and fingers are heavily crossed for the remainder of the race – the rate of retirements – at six out of 33 – has been very small compared to historical levels, when up to 50% of the fleet has failed to finish.

There were fears that lockdown and restrictions on sailing in the build-up might have seriously affected reliability – especially on the new boats ­– but it seems that this has not been the case. In the last race, at this stage, 11 boats out of the original 29 starters had retired; in the race before that, 8 of the 20 starters had dropped out.

Fears that collisions with UFOs would decimate the fleet have proved unfounded
So far, of the six boats that have retired (HUGO BOSS, Newrest-Art & Fenêtres, Initiatives-Coeur, CORUM L’Epargne, PRB, and ARKEA PAPREC), only three have done so as a result of collision damage (HUGO BOSS, Initiatives-Coeur, ARKEA PAPREC).

Several other boats have suffered damage as a result of collisions but have managed to continue in reasonably competitive shape. The other retirements have been caused by (just) one dismasting (CORUM L’Epargne), computer failure, and other issues (Newrest-Art & Fenêtres) and a total boat loss in the case of PRB.

A relatively slow race
The pre-start predictions were for another record-breaking lap of the planet to better Armel Le Cléac’h’s winning time of 74 days, three hours in 2016-17. This has turned out not to be the case in a marathon in which the fastest foilers have not enjoyed the best conditions to maximize their speed.

The descent in the Atlantic was particularly difficult and relatively slow and even the southern latitudes has seen large areas of calms slowing the fleet as it heads east.

However, the slow pace has not meant an unexciting spectacle – far from it. While this looks like being the second time that the record set in the previous edition will remain unbeaten, this is already proving to be one of the most compelling races in the event’s history.

A race of many leaders
Already eight sailors have led this race since the first night – Beyou, Sorel, Seguin, Dalin, Le Cam, Thomson, Ruyant, Bestaven – and several have held it on separate occasions. This again reflects the highly competitive early stages when the lead switched hands on a regular basis. In the big south, the hierarchy at the front has been more stable. But be prepared for this to change again in the climb north up the Atlantic.

A race to make new stars
This race has seen its most famous skippers fall by the wayside with the retirement of Alex Thomson on HUGO BOSS, the re-start of Jérémie Beyou on Charal, which has put paid to his winning chances, and the retirement of Sam Davies on Initiatives-Coeur, a hugely popular skipper in France.

Jean Le Cam has lit the race up with his mastery of the game in an old boat and he remains a household name in French sailing. Him apart, though, this is turning out to be race that will make stars of its winners and podium finishers, most of whom were not particularly well known in the way that Michel Desjoyeaux, François Gabart or Ellen MacArthur were before they set sail.

Boat-on-boat racing around the world
Inshore and short course offshore IMOCA racing produces tight finishes from highly competitive skippers in highly optimized boats. (Consider the inaugural Vendée-Arctique-Les Sables d’Olonne Race, which saw the top-10 boats finish a 10-day course within six hours and 16 minutes of each other). Perhaps the single most outstanding feature of this race has been the intensely competitive battle throughout the top-10.

This has seen a mix of foilers and daggerboard boats battling it out often in sight of each other over thousands of miles. Only in the past few days, during the approach to Cape Horn, have the two leaders managed to escape a little, but the battle behind them looks set to continue all the way to the finish.

It can truly be said that, for the most part, the formation at the front of the fleet in this Vendée Globe has resembled more a short course classic sprint than a marathon circumnavigation.

The performance of the top older boats and their skippers
This race has seen a far more mixed ranking than expected with some very old boats still able to hold their own against newer foiling designs. Among the outstanding performances have been Jean Le Cam on the 2006-vintage Yes We Cam!; Benjamin Dutreux on OMIA-Water Family, a 2007 boat; Damien Seguin on Groupe APICIL (2007); and Maxime Sorel on V and B Mayenne (2007).

In this category Le Cam has been a star performer, at the age of 61, while para champion Seguin has confirmed his status as one of the most talented newcomers to the IMOCA Class who has optimized his boat to his own needs perfectly and who has real chances of finishing on the podium.

The catch-up kids
This Vendée Globe has featured two skippers playing catch-up in Jérémie Beyou, who has demonstrated sheer grit and determination to set sail and complete his race even after starting eight days late. He is now in 18th position, 2,694 miles behind the leader. Another skipper trying to make up for early losses has been Armel Tripon on L’Occitane en Provence, a boat which has shown excellent pace since Tripon recovered from being severely delayed in the Atlantic after making repairs to his rig. The black boat is now up to 13th position.

In this category we can also count Sam Davies. She is following Isabelle Autisser’s example in having set sail again from Cape Town after making repairs on Initiatives-Coeur – a courageous decision that emphasizes that her Vendée Globe adventure is not just about the racing, but is also about the interests of her sponsors and a unique campaign to help sick children.

More coverage than ever
This race has received its usual slice of big media in France, but it is reaching sailing fans more effectively all over the world, in all areas of the media, than ever before. This has been driven by the steady flow of high quality video, voice, and text reports from the boats, courtesy of the IMOCA Class’ communications partners, Iridium and Thales, and improved presentational graphics. Meanwhile, campaign managers are reporting, anecdotally at least, more interest from race followers and fans than ever before.

And a massive virtual race too…
While interest in the race is at an all time high, the same can be said of the Virtual Vendée Globe on Virtual Regatta which has seen more participants than ever before. The fourth virtual edition began with around 500,000 boats at the start and by the end of the first night another 100,000 had been added. Since then the fleet has grown to over one million boats, reflecting a huge increase in interest in the race among armchair sailors.

Source: Ed Gorman / IMOCA

Cape Horn times:
1. Maître CoQ IV on 01/02/2021 at 13:42 UTC after 55d 00h 22min of racing
2. APIVIA on 01/03/2021 at 04:39 UTC after 55d 15h 19min 14h 56min behind the leader
3. LinkedOut 01/04/2021 at 00:40 UTC after 56d 11h 20min 1d 10h 57min behind the leader; 20h 00min behind Apivia
4. APICIL group on 01/04/2021 at 02:40 UTC after 56d 13h 20min 1d 12h 58min behind the leader; 02h 00min behind LinkedOut

Race detailsBoat typesTrackerRankingYouTube

The Vendée Globe is the only sailing race round the world that’s solo, non-stop, and without assistance, and it was all systems go for the 9th edition on November 8. Beginning in 1989 with 13 entries, and held every four years, the start line in 2020 had 33 skippers taking off from Les Sables d’Olonne, France.

The development of the IMOCA Class toward foiling will see these boats hurl themselves around the world, teetering on carbon skates through inhospitable regions, chasing the record set in 2016-17 by Armel le Cléac’h of 74:03:35:46.

2020-21 Attrition
Nov. 16, 2020 – Nicolas TROUSSEL, CORUM L’EPARGNE – dismasted
Nov. 28, 2020 – Alex THOMSON, HUGO BOSS – rudder damage
Nov. 30, 2020 – Kevin ESCOFFIER, PRB – hull damage (sunk)
Dec. 4, 2020 – Sébastien SIMON, ARKEA PAPREC – foil damage
Dec. 5, 2020 – Sam DAVIES, Initiatives-Cœur – keel damage (collision)
Dec. 11, 2020 – Fabrice AMEDEO, NEWREST – ART & FENÊTRES – computer failure

Participation history:
1989-90: 13 boats at the start
1992-93: 15 boats
1996-97: 15 boats
2000-01: 24 boats
2004-05: 20 boats
2008-2009: 30 boats
2012-2013: 20 boats
2016-2017: 29 boats
2020-2021: 33 boats

2020-21 Entries
Fabrice AMEDEO: NEWREST – ART & FENÊTRES
Romain ATTANASIO: PURE – BEST WESTERN
Alexia BARRIER: TSE – 4MYPLANET
Yannick BESTAVEN: MAÎTRE COQ IV
Jérémie BEYOU: CHARAL
Arnaud BOISSIÈRES: LA MIE CÂLINE – ARTISANS ARTIPÔLE
Louis BURTON: BUREAU VALLÉE 2
Didac COSTA: ONE PLANET ONE OCEAN
Manuel COUSIN: GROUPE SÉTIN
Clarisse CREMER: BANQUE POPULAIRE X
Charlie DALIN: APIVIA
Samantha DAVIES: INITIATIVES-CŒUR
Sébastien DESTREMAU: MERCI
Benjamin DUTREUX: OMIA – WATER FAMILY
Kevin ESCOFFIER: PRB
Clément GIRAUD: COMPAGNIE DU LIT / JILITI
Pip HARE: MEDALLIA
Boris HERRMANN: SEA EXPLORER – YACHT CLUB DE MONACO
Ari HUUSELA: STARK
Isabelle JOSCHKE: MACSF
Jean LE CAM: YES WE CAM !
Stéphane LE DIRAISON: TIME FOR OCEANS
Miranda MERRON: CAMPAGNE DE FRANCE
Giancarlo PEDOTE: PRYSMIAN GROUP
Alan ROURA: LA FABRIQUE
Thomas RUYANT: LINKEDOUT
Damien SEGUIN: GROUPE APICIL
Kojiro SHIRAISHI: DMG MORI
Sébastien SIMON: ARKEA – PAPREC
Maxime SOREL: V AND B – MAYENNE
Alex THOMSON: HUGO BOSS
Armel TRIPON: L’OCCITANE EN PROVENCE
Nicolas TROUSSEL: CORUM L’ÉPARGNE

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