Picture copyright Vendee Globe Banque Populaire Armel le Cleac’h aboard Banque Populaire in the Vendee Globe 2016/17
The Vendee Globe is a sailing race like no other for various reasons. This years edition has pushed the edges of performance probably a couple of hurdles further than normal boat evolution with the new foiling boats. Foiling leapt to the sailing limelight in the America’s Cup in 2013. Foiling sailing boats have been around for at least, today, close to 100 years. The most prominent recent example of a foiling sailing boat, this side of the foiling AC 72’s, is the French program L’Hydroptère. This remarkable vessel is the life’s goal of Frenchman (of course) Alain Thebault who has dedicated the past 30 years to foiling sailing.
Fast forward to the 2016/16 Vendee Globe, seven of the entries are the latest generation designs by VPLP/Verdier. Three of them have been on a cracking pace led by Brit Alex Thompson who as of this writing, (Saturday 26 November) remains in the lead over Frenchman Armel Le Cleac’h who has, however, run down the tenacious Brit from 120 or so miles behind two days ago to 12 miles as of 1500 race time today. And five of the top seven are latest generation foilers
One of the interesting details in a race full of interesting details is the spread between the foiling boats even within themselves. Thompson and le Cleac’h are alongside each relatively speaking but they have broken away from the remaining pack. In third, now over 300 miles astern is Seb Josse in Edmund De Rothschild, fourth is a non-foiling boat, (albeit the 2012/13 winner under the command of then wunderkind Francois Gabart), skippered this year by Paul Meilhat at almost 900 miles astern with fifth, six and seventh at 900, 1200 and 1700 (roughly) miles behind respectively. The last remaining foiler is under the command of Dutchman Pieter Heerema at almost 3,000 miles astern. So what accounts for this huge spread?
The top three skippers are all within a couple of years of the same age, at around 40, They are underway in their fourth, fourth and third Vendee globes respectively. These three are sponsored by, and have possibly the best funded and organized teams-Thompson has 13 people working for Alex Thompson Racing and is sponsored by the German clothing company, Hugo Boss. Second and third are funded by two banks and all three are long term sponsors, with Thompson serving Hugo Boss for 16 or so years while the two banks, Banque Populaire and Edmond De Rothschild, have been in the sailing game for at least that long, albeit with different skippers.
It is reported that Thompson’s boat while being from the same design office is ‘different’. Obvious differences are the dreadnought bow and sloping foredeck, a reportedly narrower boat and wider foils. Thompson is using Doyle sails, something of a departure from the ‘standard’ North France that the other two are using. Can it be ‘just sails? Hardly, but perhaps it is one of those situations where a lot of small details add up to a greater whole? Even more remarkable in the case of Thompson is the 6 months his boat was out of action after breaking in the last TJV and being abandoned, recovered and rebuilt. And on top of this he has already broken his starboard foil in a collision with something in the water. Thompson is considered a tough nut, which is saying something in a world of tough nuts.
Picture of Pieter Heerema’s boat ‘No Way Back’ (the yellow boat) by Joe Cooper
Pictures via Vendee Globe Press office except where noted.
Banque Populaire feature picture via Armel Le Cleac’h aboard Banque Populaire Vendee Globe
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