“The Vendee is like being trapped in a room with a tiger for three months and trying to survive... the good news is sometimes the tiger sleeps”
- Pieter Heerema, Vendee Globe 2016
As I sit and sip my morning coffee and refresh the race tracker I reflect on the profound disconnect between myself and this race. On my screen little icons which represent each of the 33 entrants move imperceptibly across a placid navy background. They leave colorful lines behind them, tracing the contours of the race. Currently, they are just south of the Cape of Good Hope and while I can see their heading, speed, and local conditions I am acutely aware of how far apart we are.
I click on Charlie Dalin's yellow and blue boat which the tracker dutifully tells me is currently ripping through the ocean at 20 knots in 18 knots of breeze. If that sounds fast, it is. And, while the tracker brings me closer to the racers, it's Youtube that really shows the difference between my morning ritual and Charlie's current reality. Charlie's boat, Apivia, is bashing through 10 foot high waves. The wind howls like a banshee through the rigging of the boat, and sheets of water wash over the boat in such rapid succession that it's hard to tell where Apivia ends and the ocean begins.
It's through brief videos that I get a glimpse into the challenges of trying to sail alone nonstop around the world. Battered by winds which can gust up to 50 miles an hour, waves taller than a two story home, and a myriad of mechanical, navigational, and technical problems these sailors are truly adventuring on the edge of what is possible. At times they are the most isolated people on earth, dependent almost exclusively on themselves, their ingenuity, and their seamanship not only to win, but to survive.
This race is truly unlike most others. While placement and podiums are on everyone's mind, just reaching the end of this race in one piece is a major accomplishment. The emotional gamut sailors run through, reflected in the videos, posts, and interviews they do from the boats is surprisingly candid. Sometimes, near tears, they beat themselves up for making foolish mistakes. Other times they bask in the glory of being free, their boats flying from wave to wave. The race is just as much an emotional, character-building journey as it is a physical one and, over the course of the 80 - 100 days it takes to complete you develop bonds and connections with the competitors.
These all-too-brief moments give a glimpse of what this race is really about and what makes following it a compelling multi-month spectacle.
A day later, I’m quickly reminded of the real and omnipresent danger in offshore racing, a danger which is reflected in fellow competitor Jean Le Cam’s GPS track. Over the previous 12 hours, Jean Le Cam’s boat Yes We Cam! began a series of zigzagging maneuvers which sharply altered his course northward and then had him double back on the same patch of ocean 5 or 6 times -- not exactly what you’d expect from a boat in a race.
Most of the coverage of the race is in French, so it takes me a few minutes to figure out what happened, but Yes We Cam!’s path indicates only one of two scary possibilities -- capsize or injury. Because the Vendee happens so far from civilization, often the first responders to distress calls are fellow racers routed there by the race organization.
In this case, Jean's boat dances around a ghostly transparent icon of another boat. The blue and orange PRB, skippered by Kevin Escoffier, hasn't moved. There is no data coming from the boat. Clearly, something has gone horrifically wrong.
At 1:54 PM, Kevin activated his Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) on the most urgent setting. A few seconds later his team received a message - “I’m sinking. This is not a joke.” How anyone would joke about such a life and death matter is beyond me, but after hearing Kevin's story I'm convinced he was almost in a state of denial about what was happening.
Immediately upon receiving the distress signal, the race team in Les Sables D’Olonne sprang into action. Using satellite radios, the team contacted Jean Le Cam, the closest to Kevin’s emergency broadcast. He was instructed to abandon the race and head immediately for Kevin’s last known location. In off shore sailing, this is the fastest way to get help and the diverted sailors are compensated with time allowances to make up for the rescue effort.
With 35 knots of wind and 10 - 15 ft waves, the seas were rough and posed a real challenge to finding Kevin as Jean arrived on scene. Yet as daylight faded and Yes We Cam! approached the location of the distress beacon's broadcast, Jean spotted Kevin’s life raft floating nearby.
After making radio contact and a brief radio exchange, Jean decided he would douse his sails and come back under motor to rescue Kevin. Given the sea state and the winds, attempting any sort of rescue under sail would be far too dangerous. For those of you who haven't been on a boat before, this type of rescue is fraught with risk. Yes We Cam! weighs about 15,000 lbs and, at 60 feet long, isn't very manueverable at low speed. Compared to the 5 ft and about 150 lbs of Kevin's life raft it's easy to see how Jean Le Cam could accidentally crush Kevin or his raft in the course of a rescue.
In order to get his sails down, Jean Le Cam first had to start his engine and point his boat into the wind. Unfortunately, Jean experienced some (still-unknown) difficulty in getting his engine turned over and, in the 45 minutes it took to get going, he and Kevin drifted apart.
When Yes We Cam! returned to where he spotted Kevin, the life raft was nowhere to be found. Radioing back to Vendee headquarters and explaining the situation, the race staff dispatched two more boats, Germany’s Boris Hermann on Seaexplorer - Yacht Club de Monaco and Yanick Besthaven aboard Maitre Coq IV. Bringing Yanick into the search was surprising. Usually the race staff only dispatches boats which are behind the signaling vessel, so asking Yanick to turn around and come back to Kevin's last known location is indicator of how serious they believed the situation was.
As the boats made their way toward PRB's last known location, the race committee set up a search grid. Using a computer-generated model of drift that takes into account wave height, current, and wind direction, they set up a structured search where Kevin was most likely to be. Each boat was assigned an area to the southwest of Kevin's last known position.
These must have been tense hours. There had been no word from Kevin. His EPIRB had stopped transmitting, and the failed chance to rescue him earlier in evening must have hung heavy on the race committee and the racers themselves.
The three search boats, now under motor, began making horizontal passes through their respective zones, each skipper staring into the darkness looking for any sign of a 5x5 raft in the middle of a turbulent sea. Big waves and darkness made for slow going and poor visibility. Moreover it was exhausting work. Kevin’s raft could be hiding behind each and every wave and distinguishing a life raft from the crest of a wave or the moonlight reflecting off the water must have been exhausting.
For two long hours, the three boats continued their search.
Fortunately, the moon provided a strong source of illumination and at 2:28 am, Jean Le Cam spotted a reflection. At first he thought it was the moonlight bouncing off the crest of a wave, but as he drew nearer the reflection remained too static to be waves. Jean Le Cam had found Kevin’s life raft.
“The closer to the light I got, the clearer I saw [Kevin's boat]. It is amazing because you switch from despair to an unreal moment in an instant.”
With engine running and sails furled, Yes We Cam! maneuvered itself downwind of the life raft and once again established radio communication. The men now faced the difficult task of figuring out how to get Kevin from his tiny 5 ft inflatable life raft onto Jean’s 60 ft boat with 30 knots of wind howling around them and 15 ft seas throwing both boats around like toys.
With Kevin being unhurt, the plan they formulated was sensible. Jean would toss Kevin a line with a ring on the end and then, using the winches on board, Jean would slowly winch Kevin’s raft to the stern of Yes We Cam! where Kevin could climb aboard. With both boats pitching up and down in the waves, getting close enough to transfer Kevin to Jean would have been a very dangerous maneuver.
The details here are sketchy, but immediately after tossing Kevin the tow line (which Jean Le Cam somehow got to him on the first throw) the life raft flipped over, dumping Kevin into the ocean. Thankfully, Kevin had the other end of the tow line in hand and, working with Jean, hauled himself first to the rudder post on the back of Yes We Cam! and then onboard and to safety.
While I'm certainly not a professional sailor, the intensity of this situation must have been palpable. Jean had lost Kevin once before and, now in the water, both men must have been running on pure adrenaline. Kevin's approach to Jean's boat must have been particularly harrowing. While the IMOCA class has big, wide, flat transoms (rear ends), they're still a few feet out of the water. The swell was likely bringing the boat high above Kevin's head as it crested each wave and then slamming it down at each trough. The impact of boat on man would have been a disaster. Again, details are sketchy on exactly how Kevin got himself back on board, but his rescue is a testament to the determination and skill of both men.
When asked if he was frightened, Kevin replied, "“No. As soon as I saw Jean I was sure I would be saved.”
Situations like this one make following the Vendee akin to following a baseball game in the early 20th century. With no radio, fans in distant cities either had to wait a day to read about what happened in the newspaper or they could head down to a public space where a telegraph machine would be scoring the game live. Either way, the delay must have been frustrating. Just like the Vendee, these fans knew something was happening but didn't know what it was until much later in the game.
For race fans, none of this drama is revealed until the next day when a short video shot by a 60 year old Jean Le Cam (who clearly has no idea how selfies work) shows Kevin in the background of his boat, chatting away with the race committee via radio. So, it's really only a day later that we have even a remote sense of the drama that unfolded and, even now, much of it is left up to our imagination.
When Kevin speaks to his team, we finally get a more complete picture. Like the other competitors nearby PRB was dealing with windy, wavy conditions. Cruising through the swell, everything seemed fine until the bow of the boat planted itself in the middle of a wave. Instead of shedding the water off, popping up, and continuing on, something horrific happened. According to Kevin, the boat split in half right in front of the mast and, looking forward, Kevin could see the bow pointed into the air at a 90 degree angle to the water. To say that this was a catastrophic failure is an understatement. Quite literally, his boat sank in seconds. He barely had time to activate his EBIRP, send his message, and grab his neoprene survival suit. Without exaggeration, he stepped upward from PRB into his life raft as his boat slipped beneath the water and subsequently spent the next 11 hours bobbing around in the Southern Ocean, hundreds of miles from South Africa until Jean Le Cam rescued him.
Once again, I imagine what must have been going through Kevin's head. Seeing your boat, parts of it still visible above the water, almost peacefully sinking into the ocean as you sit in an inflatable life raft in the middle of a enormous gale alone must have been one of the scariest moments of his life.
We weren't even a third of the way through this race and I am completely hooked.
Next time we'll talk about the Vendee as an institution, meet some of the racers, and wind the clock back four weeks as 33 boats prepared to cross the starting line of the sixth Vendee Globe.