The only woman racing in the Vendée Globe, Samantha Davies is hugely popular in France. Could she replicate this back home?
Photo: Vincent Curutchet/DPPI
As crowds swarm along the pontoons in Les Sables d’Olonne to see the fleet gathered for the Vendée Globe race, you begin to see a picture of which are the public’s greatest heroes.
Outside France, we tend to think in strictly competitive terms – who may win, who may not – but here people put a higher value on the sailors’ whole backstory. The appreciation is as much, and maybe more, qualitative than quantitative.
(This narrow focus on sporting performance is, I think, is why we have such slender interest in yacht racing in the UK and have had no success in replicating the French sailing phenomenon. But that’s a topic I’ll come back to again tomorrow, because it touches on part of big plans for the IMOCA class.)
My preamble is by way of explaining why, while in the UK we tend to concentrate on the prospects of Mike Golding and Alex Thomson, in France the Brit who seems to stand out is Samantha Davies.
Today, as Sam gave interviews on board her boat Savéol, the largest crowds gathered around her, a tight knot that formed and reformed throughout the morning in the hope of a photo opportunity, a glimpse, a chance to wish her well.
“Bon courage!” people called to her. “Bravo!” Every time she looked over there was an excited cheer.
Ironically Sam is much better known here than in the UK. People know that she grew up sailing and that her parents live aboard a schooner. She conjures an agreeable image, the modest, blonde girl-next-door who finished 4th in the last Vendée Globe, and who lives in France with her French partner.
She is hugely admired, partly because she’s a great sailor with a well understood professional track record in solo Figaro and IMOCA sailing, but also because she’s the only woman in a race with a habit of minting some colourful, ironclad heroines.
When the French magazine Voiles et Voiliers ran a poll and invited readers to vote on their favourite Vendée skipper, thousands did, and the two who topped it were Sam and Jean Le Cam. Between them they claimed over 60% of the vote.
Fewer people know that she became a mother last year and has a year-old son she’s leaving behind with her partner (French sailor Romain Attanasio). That information is only sinking in and it’s adding to the sheen of admiration – as well as the routine of questions now always asked in interviews.
In strict performance terms, Sam admits she may struggle at first to keep up with the leading pack because she is sailing in a 2004 yacht that is the third oldest in the fleet. And she is around 4kg underweight after breastfeeding this year.
“This boat is more physical than Roxy [her yacht in 2008/9] and I have less muscle because I couldn’t go straight into weight training. But I’m quite confident it will come back after the first few weeks.”
Sam is smart, she’s experienced and in a race with a history of a 50% drop-out rate she is once again a good bet for a finish. And a finish usually means a pretty good result.
For now, though, most interviewers’ questions are understandably about being the lone woman in the race and about motherhood and leaving her baby behind. I ask Sam how she feels about these questions.
“Yes, I think it’s relevant because it’s normal to want to know. I’m lucky that my partner is a man who is not only capable of looking after the baby, but willing, even though he would love to do the Vendée Globe himself.
“People forget the whole fleet is made up of fathers. Two of the skippers have babies younger than mine. There are lots of women in France who have kids and who still sail, and sail really well.”
“I think,” she continues, “that the best performances could be the ones you make after you become a Mum, because you have a different opinion of things, and of yourself.”
It will make her race that much tougher, but it also makes her experience the more interesting and sympathetic to follow. There’s a suggestion that this could be the budding of a new Ellen MacArthur-type awakening. Maybe.
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