Sailing’s Everest

13 Mins read

On November 6, at 1:02 pm one of the biggest worldwide events in the sailing community, the Vendée Globe, got underway.

This, is considered to be the hardest solo round-the-globe sailing races in the world – a race that is held every four years starting in Les Sables d’Ollone in the department of Vendée in France.

Rules are simple: no assistance, sail around the world and do not stop except for rescue. Engine usage is not permitted at any time for acceleration – the boats have sealed propellers, which can only be broken in case of emergency.

Emergencies happen regularly – since the first race in 1989 only 71 sailors have managed to cross the finish line out of 138.

The harsh weather and natural conditions, such as ice cold water and the 30 metre waves of the Southern Ocean, push humans to the extreme.

The sailors head first to Brazil then turn east towards the South African Cape of Good Hope.

They then enter the southern part of the race, passing the Australian Leeuwin Head, then across to Chile’s Cape Horn.

If they’re lucky enough with the weather at Cape Horn, turn to head north along the South American coast and onto the last leg to cross the finish line back in Les Sables d’Ollone harbour.

This is an around the world trip that initially took a sailor almost a year to complete. Today it takes a man or a woman around three months to accomplish.

This is illustrating an interesting progression from the explorative factor of sailing to a pure athletic endeavour.

It is said that more astronauts have gone into space, than people who have sailed around the world alone; more people have climbed Mount Everest (around 3,000 of them) than have sailed the world solo. 

The Southern Ocean is considered to be the hardest part of the race; there is no mainland to stop currents, winds and icebergs, and it deserves its name of being one of the harshest places on earth.

The more southern you go the faster you could finish but the hazards are greater as more ice is present for those who get closer to Antarctica.

Natural conditions are not the only problem; some places are remote to such extent that if no vessel is around, there are no possibilities to give them rescue.

For this year’s race, the Australian authorities warned the sailors that their area of rescue is only 1,500 nautical miles (1,726 miles) from the Australian coast. It is the competitors’ decision if they want to adapt to these guidelines.


The 1996 race saw one sailor die and nine face life-threatening situations.

Out of 16 skippers who started, only six managed to pass the finish line; four boats capsized, one went aground, one lost a mast and, unfortunately the last, Canadian Gerry Roufs, lost his life.

By Vapillon

1996: Gerry Roufs on the GroupeLG. He disappeared in the Southern Ocean [Jacques Vapillon]

The race authorities lost contact with him around the same time as the other four capsized.

Raphael Dinelli was saved by Pete Goss, while Tony Bullimore and Thierry Dubois also had to be rescued – they were picked up by the Australian Search and Rescue teams, in Bullimore’s case after a long wait inside the upturned hull of his capszied boat. Roufs’ vessel was found five months later off the Chilean coast.

Single-handed navigation is the hardest way of sailing. There are two main factors which make this sport so complicated, one of them is the actual handling of the boat.

Yachting normally requires a certain number of crew to manoeuvre the vessel, set the sails and most importantly keep a look out. Being alone is a struggle, especially in preventing collisions, which are a very common cause of accidents on the sea.

For instance, in Ireland single-handed sailing races are banned following a large number of accidents in 2005. Sailors in Irish waters are required to keep a 24-hour lookout.

This is theoretically impossible – if you intend to be in shape to control the boat, you need to sleep. Sailors of the Vendée have different sleeping procedures, the common rule is to sleep ten minutes in every forty. 

Then there is the psychological factor. Racers are on their own for approximately three months, the only humans they see from time-to-time are their fellow competitors. Some tend to say that it is only comparable to an isolation cell.

The feeling of loneliness can be unutterable, so some skippers let their closest friends and family decorate the interior of the yachts.

The feeling of fight and competition can be harder to maintain as there is no one-to-one contact with the fans and supporters, which often are key to a successful performance in any sports.

Fortunately, thanks to the new communication technologies, skippers are able to contact their relatives more often.

This year’s race is considered to be special in many ways.

It is the most international one with ten different nationalities. It is also the first to feature an Asian, Japan’s Kojiro Shirashi and an Irish one, Enda O’Coineen.

The eight races so far have all been won by sailors from France.

The biggest rivalry this year will be between the Frenchman Armel Le Cleac’h and Britain’s Alex Thomson, who both have the most innovative technologies available.

Sailing piece

Skipper Alex Thomson on the IMOCA boat Hugo Boss [Cleo Barnham]

The age ratio is also impressive – the 23-year-old Swiss sailor, Alan Roura is the youngest competitor in the history of the Vendée Globe.

Some older skippers in the 2016 race, such as the Vendée veteran winner Vincent Riou, who is the only former winner (2005) of the race, are old enough to be Alan’s father.

Others, like the oldest, 66 year-old Rich Wilson, could be his grandfather.

There are four different categories of skippers on this eighth Vendée, according to Loic Le Bras writing in the regattas’ programme leaflet.

Sailing piece.

Jean Le Cam’s capsized boat off Cape Horn [Chilean Coast Guard/Vendee Globe]

The “Winners”, who start to be first on the finish line in January.

The “Outsiders”, the ones who may steal the shine of the “Winners”.

The “Recidivists”, who perform in less innovative boats but still are able to finish the race in a reasonable time.

And finally, the “Adventurers”, those who are sailing for the first time at Vendée; they have a low expectation of winning but with the enthusiasm to experience the challenge.

It is impressive how competitors are devoted to this inhumane race.

People like Vincent Riou who have won and already achieved everything possible in the race, including saving his co-competitor Jean Le Cam, who is competing in his fourth Vendée this year.

However, arguably the greatest devotion is from Armel Le Clec’h, who buckled the race twice and was three hours behind in last race’s record beater, Francois Gabart, who was just 29 at the time.

Unfortunately, there are no women, a big disappointment of the female sailing environment:

“It is a huge shame. You think about some of the famous women who have competed in past editions; Isabelle Autissier, Catherine Chabaud, Sam Davies,” says Dee Caffari in Scuttlebutt magazine, female competitor of the first ever women team (SCA) in the last Volvo Ocean Race.

“Most of all Ellen MacArthur, of course, who was a 24-year-old and finished second back in 2001, still the best ever result by a British sailor in the Vendée Globe and one that made her a household name on both sides of the Channel, earning her the nickname ‘la petite anglaise’. Rest assured it has nothing to do with the physical nature of the event.”


One of the specialities of this race is its technological innovation and technological differences between boats. Is the race for exploration or competition?

[pullquote align=”right”]“I was in the Southern Ocean for 150 days and I was permanently damp or wet for that time. I had waterproofs but they are nothing like you have today. I cut holes in my boots because I couldn’t bear the squelching.”[/pullquote]Faster, is the main goal for the boat designers. It has to be lighter and as aero-hydrodynamic as possible. The construction of the Vendée Globe boats is constantly bring modernised.

The fight between skippers and their constructors could be compared to the Cold War, or the Russia-US “Space Race” – money plays a role in the game as technological improvements come with costly research.

Seeing the money and time pumped, every year, into these projects you really ask yourself what is the philosophy behind that race? 

The only compulsory parameters for the IMOCA-class boats are their width, length and mast height.

Vessels almost doubled their speed from 1989. The average speed of the first edition winner Titouan Lamazou was an average of nine knots (nautical mile per hour).

Compared to the last winner speed, Francois Gabart of 15 knots. This race’s equipment has developed itself to a point where boats can almost fly to some extent.

Hydrofoil is the new sailing technology, already applied in the America’s Cup but it is first time on Vendée – this consists of two specially formed wings added to sides of the boat, which as velocity increases, pushes the keel out of water, increasing the speed by decreasing the resistance caused by water.

Sailiing piece

Armel Le Clec’h’s boat. You can clearly see a wing on the side, which makes the bow (front) levitate above the water, giving him extra speed [Banque Populaire Sailing Team]

Only seven out of 29 competitors are in possession of such advantage, leading some to questions whether is it fair and legitimate that some can go faster than others only because their boats are technologically better?

In any Olympic competition the gear used by athletes has to be more or less the same, if not identical.

But in Vendée, if one accepts that there are four different categories, it can be argued that this race is not only about victory, it is about determination, and completing the three month round-the-world challenge is the main target for some.

by unknown.

Traverse board, one of the navigational tools used by Columbus to record his progress as he sailed to China. Image taken from Penobscot Marine Museum.

It has already been more than half a millennium, since Columbus reached the wild western world of America in 1492.

An experimental journey, which did not have an estimated time of arrival, a sufficient food supply nor an exact plan: “Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World” he once said.

Columbus and his crew, as well as the Vikings another half millennium earlier, embarked on explorations which were one of a kind – travelling thousands of nautical miles through the most inhumane environment on the planet, where the only reward you could obtain was fish and rain. 

Sailing then and today is hard to compare.

First of all the charts, when they existed, were inaccurate, the Christian church did not help with their improvement as it burned ‘heretics’ who questioned the spherical shape of the earth.

Columbus, was originally planning to find a new route to Cathay, the medieval name for China, by going east without having to round Africa.

His hopeful route reduction, did not take in consideration that there is a gigantic piece of land in between – America.

This shows the extent that cartography was inaccurate at the time. It is even arguable if inaccuracy is a good term to use it this case, as those lands were not simply known.

Secondly, the only navigation instruments they had was compass, a track recorder called the “Traverse Board” and a navigational tool used to calculate your position on the latitude called a quadrant, an early version of a sextant. 

Navigational methods were not as precise as they are today, especially the way sailors calculated their velocity. A method used until 1500s called “Heaving the Log” consisted of throwing a log of wood in the water and observing how fast it moves away from the ship.

Thirdly and most importantly, considering the unusual amount of time spend in such environment the basic survival necessities were not as developed as they are nowadays. It took Columbus 36 days to reach Bahamas, today the Atlantic crossings by sea are usually less than ten days.

Colubus chart

The Vinland chart based on Bjarni and Leif Riksson travels West. The chart is depicting the North American coastline. The 13th century map was redrawn two centuries later and used as an inspiration for Columbus. It represents how he imagined our planet prior to 1492.

The lack of a regular source of fresh drinking water, bacteria and a severe deficiency of vitamins were the main struggles of their search for an undiscovered world.

An average life of vegetables in your fridge is around a week. Rain was unpredictable, bacteria was growing in the food and water supplies, so even if they were able to boil it they did not know the connection between water and diseases.

Exactly 477 years later, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston achieved the un-achievable and the unimaginable. He was the first man to sail around the globe single-handed without going to shore or having any additional assistance.

In 1968, nine pioneers decided to achieve a proportionally similar exploration – not only to cross the ocean, but to traverse the world alone. Vendée Globe is the newer version of the original Golden Globe race, won by Sir Robin in 1969.

Sir Robin told the Independent: “The closest anyone had got previously was sailing non stop from Britain to Australia. Just before I left, a stranger came up to me and said, ‘Are you this chap who thinks he can sail non-stop around the world?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m going to have a go’.”

He said,  “It can’t be done and, in any case, you couldn’t do it.’

Only one of them succeeded in that race, during times that, even though modern, still without the aids sailors have today, such as rescue, communication and navigational equipment, such as GPS – something which all of us have on our phones – or a satellite phone.

Knox-Johnson said: “To navigate, I had a sextant and a chronometer [a clock].”

Picture for Vendee Globe sailing Everest.

1968: Sir Robin Knox-Johnson, alone on his boat Suhaiili [Barry Pickthall/PPL]

“The equipment had changed very little since Captain Cook’s time. MacArthur has GPS (global positioning system), which updates every three seconds, telling you where you are, what speed you are doing and what direction you’re going in. So, in fact, you don’t need to navigate.

“I spent about two hours a day trying to figure out where I was (…) I was communicating with the UK once a week via my radio – not that I always got through. Just after I’d made that call was the only time I ever felt really low,” he added.

Bill Rowtree.

Sir Robin communicating on his radio (just before it broke down) [Bill Rowntree/PPL]

“I was in the Southern Ocean for 150 days and I was permanently damp or wet for that time. I had waterproofs but they are nothing like you have today. I cut holes in my boots because I couldn’t bear the squelching.”

In the 21st century, many of these sailing challenges are not problematic anymore.

The technological progress in the last twenty years, changed the way we sail – navigation, survival, alimentation and communication are easier and quicker.

New materials, new calculations, new mechanisms, new inventions have bend the limits of exploration further than anybody could expect.

The introduction of GPS, revolutionised navigation and most importantly safety. You only need a signal intersection of two satellites to pinpoint your position wherever your are on the planet.

But, GPS can be misleading too, some skippers rely too much on it. The maps have to be systematically upgraded and configured as the sea erodes the land. Also, maritime pilotage, such as cardinal buoys or lighthouses may change their activity too.


Vincent Riou inside the “PRB” boat working on his navigation. Computers and satellite phones are a regularity today. Photo by Eloi Stichelbaut.

Paper charts are still the basic and the most reliable way to find yourself on the sea.

Sailing freshmen, in order to pass their official skipper certificates in most schools, have to show their ability to use non-computerised techniques of navigation, in case the electronics fail.

One of the Volvo Ocean Race fleets suffered an accident, some argue, as a result of the over-reliance of GPS – one of the skippers did not zoom in enough to see a reef close to Mauritius and the boat went aground.

Eleine Bunting from the Yachting World wrote: “The conclusion I come to from reading the report is that the grounding on the Cargados Carajos Shoals comes down to a basic failure in overall passage planning, and an over-reliance on electronic navigation.”

The crew, surrounded by sharks, had to evacuate into a life raft at night, as told in this video report:

On top of the positioning system, there is now a new form of global hazard scanner, which was introduced in the previous Vendée Globe edition.

The CLS (Collect Localisation Satellite), a French safety global radar able to process, if a special transmitter is fitted to a vessel, the environment surrounding the boat, including the height of the seas and ocean currents.

This can warn skippers about a potential navigational danger such as icebergs. A carbon fibre hulled boat, cutting waves at 20 knots (23 mph) could easily collide with an obstacle such as a blue whale, a sea container or an iceberg, placing the sailor in trouble.

Another popular system introduced recently, is AIS (Automatic Identification System). This is a vessel locator, which informs sailors or ships captains about all kinds of vessels around them.

The only problem with that system is that you also need to have a specific transmitter on board, something that not everybody has.

More interestingly, some fishermen switch such instruments off, as they do not want others to locate their valuable fishing spots.

Some even switch their navigational lights off, so as not to be seen. Such behaviour creates an enormous hazard for sailors and is a cause of many accidents.

Kito de Pavant found out this the hard way in the Vendée Globe 2012 race, where he went to sleep for ten minutes and crashed a non-pinpointed trawler. His boat was severely damaged. Unfortunately, he had to go back to Vendée.

The incident was caught on video:

Regardless of all these statistically rare failures of modern technology, sailing is becoming safer and more accessible for amateurs. Soon, sailing around the world solo will be incomparable with the challenge faced by Sir Robin Knox-Johnson.

Although I was amazed, standing on the starting pontoon the day before the start, I was also thinking “What is it all for?”

Sailing is the magic of human beings conquering the planet. It is the promotion of a green life by travelling around the world using green forces only. It is for competitiveness and the improvement of science.

This race is not only about sponsorship. Some skippers compete for good causes like Tanguy de Lamotte, who is performing to campaign for children with heart difficulties (Initiatives-coeur).

And how about other areas of our daily life? The political struggles, such as the war in Syria. Does the race improve us as human beings?

An interesting twitter post by @kwesMat was published on the day of the start saying: “Migrants will be surprised seeing that we follow men who spend weeks on sea without assistance.”

With so many global problems how does a race where people’s lives are at risk attract 1.5 million followers.

One should not underestimate the achievement but try to understand the essential transition of the race from being exploratory to athletic.

From what we can observe, the explorative factor of sailing around the world changes into a pure athletic competitiveness.

Vendée is the world’s most dangerous sailing race and the most inspiring one.

Artefact had the opportunity to witness the last twenty four hours prior to the start.

  • Yacht being prepared for the race
    "Banque Populaire" machine of Armel Le Clec'h. One of the seven boats equipped with the hydrofoil technology, the white wing, which you can clearly see on the side.

You can follow the race here, and track the sailors on the interactive chart online.

Featured image by Cleo BarnhamSlideshow images by Jozef Wardynski.

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