French skipper Jean-Luc Van Den Heede has won the Golden Globe Race, the 'retro' solo around the world race, in 211 days

Jean-Luc Van Den Heede today won the Golden Globe Race after an astonishing 211 days and 23 hours at sea, in an incredible demonstration of seamanship.

The French skipper sailed across the finish line under spinnaker, arriving back into a grey and damp Les Sables d’Olonne. Having completely run out of fuel, Van Den Heede then sailed up the famous channel of Les Sables under mainsail.

This was the first round the world race victory for the 73-year-old, who also set a new record for the oldest skipper to sail solo non-stop around the globe. He had led the solo race for almost its entirety, and finished with a margin of over 300 miles ahead of 2nd-placed Mark Slats.

Both he and his yacht, the Rustler 36 Matmut, appeared in excellent health after seven months of non-stop sailing. Van Den Heede was in high spirits on arrival, leading the crowd in song on the pontoons, and cracking jokes throughout the press conference. He gave no impression of being particularly tired or unsteady on his landlegs, but did say that he was looking forward to a bath, a steak and a beer – in that order.

Photos © Christophe Favreau/GGR

First impressions of Matmut, meanwhile, were that the Rustler was in surprisingly good condition – there were no obvious barnacles (which have so plagued other Golden Globe competitors) on the hull, the deck was not green, the topsides were shiny. A little growth on the transom and some lines threaded around the port first spreader were the only hint of what the yacht and her skipper had been through.

The Golden Globe started on July 1 2018 with 18 entrants – of which just four are now still racing – and the hugely experienced Van Den Heede was among the front-runners from the outset. After fellow French skipper and early race leader Philippe Peche retired, Van Den Heede built an almost unassailable lead at the Cape of Good Hope.

While the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans saw multiple retirements and yachts rolled, dismasted and abandoned, Van Den Heede arrived at the mandatory pit stop in Hobart virtually unscathed. Matmut by then had a small leak to one porthole, but was otherwise standing up well to the rigours of prolonged Southern Ocean racing.

Before the start, Van Den Heede, together with his shore manager Lionel Régnier, had ensured Matmut was one of the most thoroughly prepared yachts in the race – including a shortened mast and all-new rigging and sails, additional watertight bulkheads, and upgraded deck gear.

But in November, in the middle of the South Pacific, Van Den Heede was knocked down in 65-knot winds and 11m seas. Although the mast held, a connecting bolt which attached the lower shrouds on the port side of the mast was damaged, leaving Van Den Heede unable to tension his rigging. He effected a temporary repair, initially planning to make for Chile to fix it, before deciding to continue racing, re-rigging ropes to support the shroud as he went – he climbed the mast seven times.

At today’s press conference he recalled: “For three days I thought about how to save the boat and so I ran off course. I started to plan my stopover in Chile … and then I said to myself: the mast is so… damn damn damn! I thought I was trying. We did have makeshift rigs, which were mandatory on board.

“Until then I have never abandoned a single race. But I admit that climbing a mast is no longer ok at my age. I climbed seven times! The worst thing was trying to undo the pins. It’s not easy in a workshop on land, but six meters high is a little bit ‘Fort Boyard’ [like the Crystal Maze]!”

Original Golden Globe winner Robin Knox-Johnston and race organiser Don McIntyre welcoming in the winner Jean-Luc Van Den Heede

With Van Den Heede having to nurse Matmut up the Atlantic, especially on port tack, Dutch sailor Mark Slats was able to reduce his lead from nearly 2,000 miles to less than 100. In mid-January the tracker was showing the theoretical advantage at just 49 miles, although Van Den Heede was better placed to extract himself from the Azores High system.

But Van Den Heede was able to reassert his lead through the final weeks, and despite a challenging Biscay crossing that brought a final test of 50-knot winds and 7m seas, arrived safely into Les Sables this morning just ahead of the gale force conditions which began battering the Atlantic town as Van Den Heede spoke to the waiting crowds and press.

The race win sees Van Den Heede complete his sixth full circumnavigation (he has started 10 times) in the ‘retro’ around the world race which set off last July to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Golden Globe.

The 2018-19 Golden Globe Race required skippers to recreate many of the limitations of the original around the world challenge, including no modern navigational aids, which made this Van Den Heede’s slowest ever circumnavigation at 212 days. Nevertheless, his Rustler 36 was a full 100 days faster than Robin Knox-Johnston’s original circumnavigation, the first ever single-handed non-stop around the world, in Suhaili.

This is also Van Den Heede’s first round the world race victory. He holds the record for the fastest east-west circumnavigation, set in 2004 at 122 days, and has twice returned to Les Sables d’Olonne to stand on the podium of the Vendee Globe  (3rd in 1990, 2nd in 1994). He also finished 2nd in the 1986 BOC Challenge Around Alone Race and 3rd in the 1995 BOC.

Despite the downpours and biting cold, the people of Les Sables turned out to welcome Van Den Heede home, lining the famous channel and waiting patiently in the rain to cheer his victory. He is a true local hero, and lives in a seafront apartment in the famous Vendée town.

Would he do it again? “After my second Vendée Globe, I said no, I will not do it again. Then after my four world tours, I thought it was over for me. Then I did it the other way and broke the record (122 days).

“Now I will not sail around the world unless someone makes a great thing that still interests me… But hey, no, I don’t plan to go around the world again. That said, my boat is for sale and I can do coaching… ”

Second placed Mark Slats is due to arrive on Friday, 1 February. He initially planned to put into La Coruna to shelter from the storm conditions sweeping Biscay, but sent a message by YellowBrick tracker today “HEADING FOR LSDO [Les Sables d’Olonne]. WEATHER SEEMS TO BE BETTER AND I AM HUNGRY”

We’ll have a full report on the Golden Globe Race in the April issue of Yachting World, on sale in March.