Vendee Globe—Why Francois Gabart?

Since the Vendee Globe started, 5 days ago, one young skipper has led virtually the whole race, putting some of the best IMOCA skippers in the world in his wake which frankly is saying something. To paraphrase Butch and Sundance—Who is this guy?

More to the point how did a 29 year old get to be at the helm of a brand new IMOCA 60 Sponsored by a major publically traded (on the Paris Bourse) insurance company?

Turns out he pretty much earned the spot. I have found no evidence at all of nepotism.

The following info is all garnered from the Internet, so “Caveat Emptor”

Francois Gabart is of course French. He sailed with his parents as a 7 year old on a circle cruise of the Atlantic so starting in at least 1990, this fellow has been around the water.

By 1997 he was skilled enough to win the French Optimist Championship. Two years later, now 16, He also won the French Moth Championships and came 4th in the Junior European Championships for the Moth, in 2000. All pretty impressive in itself I reckon.

Between 2001 and 2005 his various on line CV’s cite him as “Olympic Tornado Preparation” and winning the Tornado Junior Worlds in 2003 in the process. Certainly sailing a Tornado is excellent practice for sailing an IMOCA 60. By 2006 he had gotten into the Figaro 2 and finished second in the Cap Istanbul race, one of the major events in the Figaro solo series. The Cap Istanbul sails from Toulon to Turkey with several stops: the race is almost as long as the Figaro itself. In 2006, or 7, he was second. He won it in 2010. In the same 2006/7 time he won the Student class in the Tour De France a la Voile. This is a crewed race in the Archambault 34.

Come 2008 he was sailing as the skipper of the Figaro 2 Espoire Region Bretagne, the Brittany Region of France. This is a common proposition among the French maritime districts. It is as though say Rhode Island & Massachusetts had joined forces to promote the region. Years ago I interviewed the late  Paul Vatiene, then skipper of an ORMA 60 foot tri, in New York to set up for a shot at the solo Transat record. His boat was the same idea-Regional promotional except his was promoting the region of Normandy.

This was also when  Gabart won Rookie of the Year in The Figaro that serious training ground for Soloistas.
And somewhere in there he managed to get an engineering degree.

In 2009, it gets really interesting.

In this year he won the “Skipper Macif Selection, for 2010-meaning I imagine that he was to join the Macif Sailing Team for the 2010 season-Goodbye Espoire Region Bretagne. On the Macif Vendee Globe website for Sponsors, there is a very professionally done website covering everything the Macif company is doing in sailing, including sponsoring the IMOCA 60, and two new skippers for the Figaro team-As far as I can read in my limited French.

So in ’09, he joins Macif, is third in a Transatlantic Race from Brittany to Guadeloupe in the Figaro2, singlehanded. He is out of first by about an hour,  two minutes, fifteen seconds…After 3,400 miles or so. The first and second skippers are 4 minutes apart-The winner is 40 year old Gildas Morvan a fixture on the Figaro circuit for FOURTEEN years, with a record including a second and 3 thirds in The Figaro. Second is Erwan Tabarly  (8 years on the Figaro Circuit) & Gabart is third.

He is 23 years old.

Later he wins the French Solo Offshore Racing Championship sailed in the Figaro 2’s….. Wha? Think about this for a minute- he beats out, over a 10 or so race series, over the summer, some of the best names in one design and solo offshore racing, in the world. No wonder Macif hired him. This is in itself an interesting change of events. Used to be solo skippers would go around with their pitch looking for sponsors-I know I have done it. Think also of Mike Plant, Hal Roth, Phil Steggall, Bruce Schwab, Rich Wilson and so on. In France companies are now looking for talent, so successful is sailing as a medium for getting one’s company recognized

Towards the end of 2009, he gets a third with Kito de Pavant, another luminary from the Figaro world in the Transat Jacques Vabre.

In case you thought this was the boost he needed, it was not.

The gist of a quote from Francois, on the Barcelona World Race site for 2010 says “When I learnt Michel Desjoyeaux was building a new boat for the Route du Rhumb then the Barcelona World Race, I sent him a message right after his press conference in Paris making the announcement—“I’m up for it” He did not learn of his new job until May 18th. But Desjoyeaux reports in the same quote that “opting for Francis was practically a done deal in my head in February but I was focused on the boat building and did not want to be distracted”.

Desjoyeaux goes on to say-“I discussed it with Christian Le Pap, the coach at Port-La-Foret and we concluded it was the right choice.” This was an interesting insight too.

Christian Le Pape is the head guy at something called “Pole Finistere, Center of Excellence in the Nation” in essence a training center for French solo sailors. It’s Mission, in my poor French is the training at a high level for sailors in the IMOCA and Figaro class for ocean racing. It appears to be supported by the FFV, and the regions of Brittany and Finisterre, the Town of Port La Foret & the French Ministry of Sport, amongst others.

So our hero is hired onto the Macif program sailing in the Figaro Class up to 2011 with a side gig of a lap around the planet on a new Foncia, Desjoyeaux’s long time sponsor with The Professor as Desjoyeaux is called. Despite this being like learning computers from Bill Gates or Politics from Bill Clinton, Desjoyeaux  says he was impressed by Gabart’s” mindset, different view of things, and being younger, of a different culture. I want Francois to exercise his opinion and free will”, says Desjoyeaux. “Yes men are no good”.

Unfortunately for both Gabart and The Professor, they did not get too far in the Barcelona World race. The mast broke near Cape Town to which they were able to sail with what was left of the spar.

So, Francois Gabart is one very promising young sailor and one cannot but wonder what might happen if he was at the help of an AC 72…..?

And this just in at 1835 EST Thursday  Armel Le Cleac’h has pulled to within striking distance of the “golden Boy” as the VG press site calls him now. Still 5 days into a 90 day race…..

And another OOP’s: -Sam Davies, the sole woman and 1/3rd of the GBR contingent has apparently dropped her rig near Maderia. She is well and the boat is afloat. More to follow.