Monstrous waves, collisions with whales, capsized boats in the middle of nowhere. The threats are real in the Vendée Globe, the sailing world’s most challenging race, in which competitors must single-handedly navigate around the world—without stopping.
Known as “the Everest of the seas,” the Vendée Globe is an extreme test of physical and psychological endurance in the face of primal nature, the journey averaging 26,000 nautical miles and three months. Those who finish are rewarded with worldwide acclaim. But the ultimate prize is to beat the record of 74 days set by Armel Le Cléac’h in the 2016-2017 edition.
Among the 33 skippers who set sail on November 8 are six women—the most in the race’s history. The oldest is 51-year-old Miranda Merron, while the youngest is 30-year-old Clarisse Crémer. Only 46-year-old Samantha (Sam) Davies is a Vendée Globe veteran—this edition will be her third attempt at the trophy.
A woman has never won, though some have come close. Ellen MacArthur ended up in second place in the 2000-2001 edition, a day later than that year’s champ. Davies just missed the podium, coming in fourth in the 2008-2009 race.
This year, these fearless captains are presenting a serious challenge for their male counterparts. “It is a great sign of the evolution of gender equality in professional sailing,” explains Davies, of the number of women competing in the 2020 edition. “I have a lot of respect for the other five women—they’re all amazing, experienced sailors.”
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A high seas obstacle course
Since it launched in 1989, the Vendée Globe has become the holy grail of the sailing world. Completing the treacherous race, which runs every four years, is an accomplishment in its own right. Only 89 of the 167 sailors who have entered the contest have crossed the finish line.
On this oceanic odyssey, the route starts and ends at Les Sables-d’Olonne on France’s Atlantic coast and follows in the wake of the early navigators who sailed through the three storied Great Capes (Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Australia’s Cape Leeuwin, and South America’s Cape Horn). From the Bay of Biscay, the skippers harness the power of the trade winds to the Equator, where they brave the windless waters of the doldrums. Then they head as far south as possible in pursuit of the fastest path around the globe.
The most daunting stretch is the Southern Ocean surrounding the coast of Antarctica. Here, the skippers must battle tempest-ravaged seas, house-sized swells, and icebergs—the race organizers actually set an “Antarctic Exclusion Zone” so that the racers stay north of dangerous ice areas. “I’ve never seen another vessel. There’s nobody,” says Merron, who’s been there three times in other contests.
Once the skippers skirt New Zealand, they are at the point farthest removed from any geographic landmass, farthest away from any kind of help in the event of a disaster. The hazards are infinite. Traveling at speeds of up to 30 knots, the boat can hit a wave so hard “it’s like a car crash,” Crémer explains, potentially hurling a skipper overboard. Often the closest assistance is in the form of a competitor: Sam Davies was one of the skippers diverted during the 2008–2009 race to help Yann Eliès, after he broke his pelvis and leg in a horrific Indian Ocean accident.
Stories like Eliès’s are not uncommon. Some have gone down in legend. In 1993, Bertrand de Broc bit off his tongue when a loose rope hit him square in the face. He used a needle and thread to sew it back together, guided by physician instructions delivered via telex, a World War II-era precursor to the fax machine. In the 2000–2001 race, the mast on Yves Parlier’s boat broke off, or “dismasted”—a devastating situation for sailors—in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Parlier managed to rebuild his rig, scavenging materials from his boat and in the flotsam surrounding Stewart Island, where he anchored off New Zealand. But then he faced a bigger challenge: running out of food. He survived on fish and seaweed—flavored with dried soup packets and washed down with a little red wine—and managed to complete the race after 126 days. (But Parlier didn’t arrive last! Though the winner, Michel Desjoyeaux, crossed the finish line after 93 days, two skippers placed after Parlier.)
They were lucky. The race has also been marked by tragedy—two competitors were lost at sea in the 1992–1993 edition.
It’s been a half-millennium since Ferdinand Magellan first circumnavigated the earth. Like the legendary Portuguese explorer on his epic quest, the Vendée Globe’s skippers are sometimes reduced to living in animal-like conditions: sleeping in 20-minute intervals, crawling around on hands and knees, avoiding concussions. But the food’s better; Crémer has a 90-day stock that includes duck pâté, chocolate, and flavorful dehydrated meals, while Merron has 100 days’ worth of tea and a freeze-dried Christmas feast.
Mind over matter
Besides the physical hardships, the mental strain can be immense. Decision-making is hampered by sleep deprivation; emotions are amplified. “For the first 24 hours, you hallucinate there’s someone else on board,” jokes Merron. “The wind’s picking up and you’re wondering why the other person isn’t dealing with the sails.”
How do the competitors endure the seclusion, exhaustion, and stress? How do they confront fear aboard their 60-foot boats? Managing sleep is a crucial component of the race, with some skippers working with university researchers to fine-tune their strategies. “The rule is: You just sleep whenever you can,” explains Merron. “You have to be on watch. The radar has an alarm but conditions [on the ocean] change all the time.”
Crémer combats the stress through yoga and sophrology, the breathing and meditation practice. In past outings, she found an outlet by making social media videos from her boat, conveying humor and infectious enthusiasm in her footage. She continued filming this year, when the pandemic lockdown in France prevented skippers from training on the water. She recorded elaborate recreations of life at sea, clad in foul weather gear, miming the motions, while her companion hurled buckets of water at her.
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The camera has become a psychological tool to help Crémer brave not just the race’s extreme conditions, but also the unknown pitfalls. Crémer insists that you can’t think of the overall, big-picture challenge. “In French we have an expression: A chaque jour suffit sa peine,” she says, which translates as: “Each day has enough trouble of its own. Take it day by day.” “When you have a goal that’s really hard to attain, it’s imperative to move forward step by step. Concentrate on a smaller task, a smaller, achievable goal.”
Merron looks at the dangers with practicality. “I have a saying, if nothing’s gone wrong in a 24-hour period, you have to be wary.” But she’s looking forward to the freedom, away from the Internet, “being on the ocean, exploring the last places on earth that mankind hasn’t completely sullied … Though there’s so much rubbish floating in the sea.”
The biggest fear for Davies is not finishing the race. In 2012 she dismasted and had no choice but to cut free the rigging to save her boat from sinking. “Failure is the other side of adventure,” she says.
Physical strength and mental fortitude are important foundations, but these women have wind in their sails thanks to those who came before them. “My mum sent me to a talk by Dame Naomi James when I was nine and I was absolutely enthralled,” Merron says of the first woman to have sailed single-handed around the world via the Cape Horn route in 1978.
(Related: Travel through time with 21 women explorers who changed the world.)
As an adult, Merron sailed with a then 23-year-old Davies on Maiden under Tracy Edwards, who had recruited the first all-women crew to attempt the Jules Verne Trophy, a prize for the fastest circumnavigation. “The reason why I’m here is Tracy Edwards,” says Davies. “She was not only my hero, but she also opened so many doors for women in sports. A younger me, when I watched her race, never would’ve imagined that one day I’d be on her crew.”
The first women to participate in the Vendée Globe were Isabelle Autissier and Catherine Chabaud, renowned French navigators and ocean racers. Pummeled by gales, the 1996–1997 race was a saga of disaster and tragedy. Yet Chabaud placed sixth (140 days). (Autissier crossed the finish line but was disqualified because of a stop in Cape Town to repair a damaged rudder. She had turned around in a storm to search for competing Canadian skipper Gerry Roufs, lost at sea and presumed dead.)
Four years later Ellen MacArthur clinched second place in the Vendée Globe. The 24-year-old British skipper nearly caught Michel Desjoyeaux, who beat her by a single day (93 days). “To see her race was really interesting,” explains Crémer of one of her role models, “she’s not exactly a tall person with big muscles!”
It was a different century altogether when a woman first dared take up the challenge of beating the circumnavigation record of Phileas Fogg, the fictional hero of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Nellie Bly was a 19th-century investigative journalist who invented a new kind of “stunt reporting” when she had herself admitted as a patient to a women’s insane asylum in order to expose the terrible conditions there. Her articles sold newspapers, with her name soon promoted in the headline itself. Hungry for maritime adventure, she convinced her editor at New York World to sponsor the trip, via steamship and train, which she accomplished in 72 days, a world record in 1890.
Her voyage—filled with jolly captains, a pet monkey, and even a visit with Verne himself—is far from the perilous, solitude-enforced Vendée Globe. But her perseverance, ambition, and spirit—only traveling with one dress to minimize luggage, charming the smallpox quarantine doctor in San Francisco harbor—conjures present-day adventurers. Bly’s published telegrams mesmerized the public, alongside the newspaper’s contest for readers to guess at her trip progress. Her one regret, she wrote later, was that “in my hasty departure I forgot to take a Kodak.”
The Vendée Globe competitors won’t forget their cameras. They record their adventures with humor and wit, using today’s communication channels: video and social media. Samantha Davies famously shot a video of herself dancing to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” as she sailed into the Northern Hemisphere in the 2008–2009 race. On a previous solo transatlantic crossing, Crémer lip-synced to a medley of French and English pop hits.
“With the current pandemic situation, with less entertainment and canceled events, we sense that spectators are keen to follow us this year,” explains Davies. “And that is a huge motivation.”