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The Vendée Globe: Out there all alone (with 2,000,000 people hanging on your every gybe)

by Pierre Massé, Co-Managing Director, Harken France 1 Nov 2020 07:00 PST 8 November 2020
rmel Le Cleac'h, skipper of Banque Populaire VIII, winner of the most recent Vendée Globe, in 74d 3h 35m 46s on January 19th, 2017 © Vincent Curutchet / DPPI / Vendee Globe

The Vendée Globe is a single-handed, non-stop, and unassisted sailing race around the world on 60-foot IMOCA monohulls. Based on an original idea by Titouan Lamazou, the race was created by Philippe Jeantot, with the help of Philippe de Villiers, President of the General Council of the French Vendée region. The first edition took place in 1989.

Only one sailor, Michel Desjoyeaux, managed to win the race twice, in 2001 and in 2009. The circumnavigation record in this event is held by Armel Le Cléac'h, winner of the 2016-2017 edition in 74 days, 3 hours 35 minutes and 46 seconds.

There's nothing like following this race in France. The start line and the finish line are located off Sables-d'Olonne. The route consists of circling the Antarctic, leaving the three capes of the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, and Cape Horn on the port side. During the various editions, passage buoys or virtual gates have been placed to create a coastal course in front of Les Sables-d'Olonne to prevent the competitors from descending too far south in their turn around Antarctica with the risk of hitting ice. The distance is estimated at 40,075 kilometers or 21,638 miles. In reality, during the seven previous editions of the race, competitors have sometimes covered more than 52,000 kilometers (28,000 miles)!

The Vendée responds to a particular craze in France that began the 1960s around the solitary feat and the "spectacle sailing" with large, expensive, open-rule, purpose-built boats. This type of sporting event is more suited to media coverage and sponsorship, unlike the most famous international races, the Olympics, America's Cup, etc.

Over the years, the involvement of the French nautical industry has become more and more important, followed by significant funding from sponsors (banks, insurance companies, food industries, etc.). The Vendée Globe thus represents enormous economic opportunity for the region, the nautical industry (e.g., 6 to 10% of the Vendée industry), the port, and the town of Sables d'Olonne.

The Vendée Globe remains the most publicized race in France, where it appears as the major event in sailing among both sailing enthusiasts and the general public. The media impact is important for sponsors, some of whom invest two to four million euros for each participant over three years for the boat, the team, and communications. The Vendée Globe is followed by thousands of journalists and gives rise in France to hundreds of hours of television and radio and thousands of articles in the press. Being the only single-handed, non-stop sailing race around the world, the Vendée Globe is sometimes described as "the Everest of the Seas."

In-person audience and TV figures help communicate the Vendée Globe phenomenon. In a normal, non-pandemic year, over 15 million fans would visit the Vendée Globe Village in the weeks leading up to the race. In the last race in 2016, 750,000 fans returned to welcome race finishers. More than 1500 journalists covered the race. Worldwide, there were more than 1200 hours of TV time dedicated to the event in more than 190 countries. And there were more than 71 million views of race videos on social media. More than 450,000 people played the virtual race game online including 230,000 who finished the entire race.

The Vendée Globe, in France and all over the world, is nothing short of incredible.

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