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Interview with former Vendée skipper Catherine Chabaud MEP on Ocean Health

by Camille El Beze 28 Apr 09:58 PDT
Catherine Chabaud - Vendée Globe © Vendée Globe

Back In 1997 Catherine Chabaud became the first female sailor to complete the Vendée Globe, taking sixth place and in so doing becoming the first woman to race solo non stop around the world without assistance. And for the last 20 years she has worked tirelessly, campaigning to protect ocean health and highlight the fragility and importance or our marine ecosystems. She has been a Member of the European Parliament since 2019.

She lives with her partner Jean Marie close to the centre of Angers, (to the east of Nantes in NW France) and it is there that we meet her and she answers our questions. It's six o'clock in an early afternoon and she wants some fresh air. She lives close by acres of countryside and forests. As we talk we are surrounded by daisies and buttercups. A deer approaches us at a distance.......

What is on your agenda at the moment?

"I'm just out of a webinar in English on the role of European diplomacy in Ocean health so I'm a little bit drained. I've been in the European Parliament for two years (MEP on Macron's Renaissance slate since 2019, ed). Before this politics was a long way from my interests. But since my last Vendée Globe (2001), because of the waste that I saw at sea and also of all that I have learned in ocean racing, I have become increasingly involved in questions of sustainable development and I am interested more particularly in solutions relating to the sea and our coastlines.

Over the past 20 years I have launched projects and driven opportunities for climate protection, the environment and the oceans. I realize that the sea is key to our future on earth and I try to promote that as much as I can and to ensure that as many people as possible understand that these issues are essential to us all. Europe is just the right size and scale to accelerate these processes. It's kind of an exciting big project and I have a lot more positive influence here on the inside. We are in the process of forming a real European team focused on the oceans, a proper outward looking international crew."

What are the major current challenges at European level with regard to the oceans?

"1. Knowledge from the scientific standpoints. 2. Preservation. 3. A more sustainable maritime economy. I am involved with several projects and initiatives on marine energy sources. 4. Governance: geostrategy, organization and responsibility for access to the seas at national, European, international level.

"90% of trade between countries takes place by sea. There are many, many related issues and Europe has an integrated maritime policy. Many initiatives and missions are under way: the Decade of Ocean Sciences launched by the United Nations, Starfish 2030, at our European level which should encourage many different new projects. We also want to make Europe the champion of green shipping with work on the means of propulsion and in that context ocean racing has a lot to contribute.

"The big topics of the moment are the extension of marine protected areas with a 30% objective, plastics, CO2 emissions (via the Green Deal, the European green pact), fishing, marine energies that I call blue carbon. And 3 years ago, on June 8, I called for the Ocean to be recognized as a common good for all humanity. The idea is to take this concept forward internationally and integrate it into a future UN treaty."

You remain attached to ocean racing and you admit having followed the last Vendée Globe very closely. You share the strong emotions relived through this edition.

"Everything I do today I find the energy to do and the conviction because I completed my first Vendée Globe. This year, in fact, I find that the sailors have shared their ability to find solutions in a very, special sensitive way. I believe that you can have dreams bigger than you feel capable of and that is the biggest lesson of the Vendée Globe. You just have to have the will to go out there and do it, to be true to yourself and everyone else and to get the story wrong. That's what touched me a lot this year. This race is always difficult and I find that everyone shared their race well, showing what they discovered about themselves and their ability to solve problems.

"And so in particular this Vendée Globe, I lived it with a lot of emotion, their stories moved me and it took me right back to what I had experienced myself 20 years ago. I said to myself: 'they are learning essential life lessons, not only how to finish the race but also for their whole life. They seem to have been able to get some great things out of it. It's worth believing it, going all the way. I found myself engrossed in what Pip Hare or Jérémie Beyou shared for example.

"The Vendée Globe is an extreme experience. When it's good it's extremely good and when it's hard it's really, really hard. When they were in storms I would wake up at night, look at the weather forecast. I didn't miss a single position report right up until the last competitor finished. Strangely at the end I thought to myself: 'it's time for this to stop!'

"I sent some short messages to some of them. I spoke with Alexia Barrier. She was on board my old boat (La Pengouin, Lombard plan designed for the Vendée Globe 2000, ed note). I am so proud to see this boat complete its 7th round the world passage. I also sent messages to Samantha, Miranda, Yannick Bestaven, and others. I wanted to write to everyone!

"And then I also re-ran the film of my races in my head. The one where I gave up two days before the finish, telling myself that I could have tried to finish under jury rig. I still have this dismasting in my throat! I finish and I'm last, in 140 days but thinking I could have been better. I was an adventurer at heart but also a serious racing competitor.

"But finally you have to tell yourself that there is something more serious in life than racing and just take real pride in having completed a great project. The first time I entered only one month and a half before the start. I had made the snap decision to get the "Red Cigar" from VDH. That was my dream, I was filled with crazy energy. I got my hands on the boat on October 1st when the start was on November 3rd!

"The Vendée Globe offers nothing but positives. It has tremendous potential. Other life lessons include how you need to learn to adapt. The sea teaches you to deal and work with the elements and not to fight against them all the time. You should not consider fighting, otherwise, you pay big time. You have to work in harmony with the ocean because it will always be stronger. When it comes to climate change, it's the same thing, you have to come to terms and find solutions to adapt."

You are the first woman to complete this race back in 1996/1997, what was the landscape then and what was the state of mind at the time among female sailors?

"There were women in ocean racing then. Florence Arthaud, Anne Liardet, Isabelle Autisser, Sylvie Viant, Christine Guillou, Christine Briand in the Whitbread, Louise Chambaz in a multihull and of course I forget some. There were also some in Olympic sailing. I competed in the Mini Transat 30 years ago and at the time we were two out of 70 or 80 competitors.

"So there weren't many of us but we weren't asking querying ourselves much or asking questions of the establishment and why there were not more of us. We didn't look at each other as women sail racers, just as individuals who shared the same desire to make our dreams come true. Maybe we grew up in families where we weren't educated differently or did not pursue things differently from our brothers, perhaps, maybe. But there was interest and support for us women who were racing.

"Having said that, between my Mini and my Vendée Globe, I tried to get on the Whitbread but I soon realised I would not get in a team because I was a woman and that was a big frustration. When I followed the race as a journalist and made it to the stops at my own expense, I always had my boots with me and my bag ready just in case.. Obviously I would have had to have done more to get on board. I am not from the coast I was born in Lyon, I grew up around Paris. I am not from a sailing family. So I found myself setting up my own projects to create the conditions for my own sailing."

This year there were six women at the start - a record. And in the pursuit of raising awareness in the need to encourage female participation the The Ocean Race (ex Whitbread, ex Volvo Ocean Race), and SailGP or in Olympics we more and more move towards quotas and the imposition of diversity, does that inspire and encourage you?

"It is a must. 20 years ago, I wouldn't necessarily have bought into this. But today, it seems to me as necessary as imposing parity in politics, on boards of directors. I joined the Economic, Social and Environmental Council at the Ministry of the Environment (2010-2017), it was through this kind of inclusion policy. Parity, as we have all seen, brings a new lease of life and that includes within a crew."

In the offshore racing community and hopefully beyond that awareness is also growing stronger and there are more initiatives concerning the environment and the preservation of the oceans

"For sure there is the personal passions of the skippers and the ability to sell this environmental dimension to partners. But sailors, by definition, are individualists, and for me, you have to work with the the classes and races first and foremost. Ocean racing is very innovative. We are fortunate to have partners who fund this innovation. There is a whole field to consider and to find solutions that reduce the impact of new boats.

"Look at the IMOCA class, for example, I find that there is a big topic around old boats like Le Pingouin. Why not create a class for older boats? Young people must be given the opportunity to race with simple boats and reasonable budgets. We have to create the framework to continue to sail these boats."

In four years, will you still be a faithful and devoted fan of the Vendée Globe tracking?

"Really I don't know. I admit that this year, I didn't expect to follow the race like I did! Maybe next time I myself will be sailing somewhere. I have dreamed of working with and from a boat for a long time. With Jean-Marie, we now have the Cigare Rouge (the boat on which she finished the Vendée Globe 1996-97 and with which he competed in the last Route du Rhum). It is not impossible that I am embarking on a project with this boat, not racing, but to promote ideas and initiatives all around Europe."

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