Strange things happen at sea. For Pip Hare, one of the sailors racing around the world in the gruelling, single-handed Vendée Globe contest that began from the French west coast in early November, it happened just before she reached the doldrums.
“I got rained on by insects,” she told me by satellite phone from the south Atlantic off the coast of Brazil. “A cloud appeared and you could smell flowers and trees on the wind. It hovered over me and all these insects just fell out of the sky — massive dragonflies and these really small beetles. I just found a dragonfly still alive in my spinnaker.”
Almost as strange and wonderful as this entomological deluge is that the race is happening at all, given that the 33 boats left Les Sables-d'Olonne more than a week into France’s second nationwide coronavirus lockdown.
Other sporting events have been cancelled by the pandemic or deprived of spectators, but the Vendée Globe adventurers with their 60ft carbon-fibre racing machines are now into the “Roaring Forties” latitudes of the windswept Southern Ocean followed by enthusiastic online supporters.
The Vendée Globe’s success is testament not only to the determination of the organisers but also to France’s obsession with sailing and circumnavigation. Hare, like Alex Thomson — an early Vendée race favourite — is British, but most of the competitors and their sponsors are French.
So popular is the Vendée that 900,000 people have signed up to compete in a virtual version of the race online, a welcome distraction in a country where the pandemic still confines people to their homes for most of the day.
“On the departure day we were privileged,” said Maxime Sorel, a 34-year-old French competitor who started life as a civil engineer before switching to full-time sailing. “France was totally locked down and we were setting off around the world. It’s a welcome time of freedom.”
Hare, who is 46 and comes from Poole in Dorset, agrees. “As a major sporting event we’ve been really lucky,” she said. “That to me is a huge privilege. The spectators are online and we [as solo sailors] are obviously socially distanced.”
For those confined on dry land, it is tempting to envy sailors free to cross the seas, but it is also important to know that the boats used in the Vendée are not normal yachts. Rather, they are high-speed surfboards aided (in the newer models) by hydrofoils designed to lift the hull from the cumbersome drag of the water below. They are not comfortable, and they are inclined to break.
Jean Le Cam, a veteran Breton sailor — he is 61 — rescued fellow-competitor Kevin Escoffier from his life raft after his boat folded in two and sank in big seas. Thomson’s boat broke twice and he had to withdraw and head for Cape Town.
Another even faster race around the globe is also under way, this time against the clock. Two crewed French multihulls set off — again from western France in mid-coronavirus lockdown — in search of a record in the Jules Verne trophy. Only instead of going round the world in 80 days they wanted to do it in 40 (the previous record was set by Francis Joyon in 2017 in just under 41 days).
Edmond de Rothschild’s super-maxi foiling trimaran Gitana, co-skippered by Franck Cammas, had to return to Lorient after it hit an unidentified floating object that broke a rudder and a hydrofoil, leaving only Thomas Coville with Sodebo in the running.
The problem with sailing fast is that you hit things fast, too — whales, icebergs, semi-submerged containers. I recently tried skimming over the waves off Lorient with Cammas. He explained that at the staggering speed of nearly 50 knots, the sensation of being in an aircraft is not an illusion. “Multihulls and flying multihulls are not the same,” he said.
Cammas, who started sailing Optimist dinghies in Marseille at the age of 10, still has a healthy respect for the sea, as do the Vendée competitors.
Sorel and Hare both have older, slower and probably more robust boats, and both are experienced, but neither has sailed in the deep Southern Ocean before and they do not take it lightly. “It’s something I’m approaching with some trepidation,” said Hare. “It’s not to be messed with.”