François Gabart, 29-year-old Vendée Globe rookie, is part of a club that has dominated this race
How has François Gabart, a 29-year-old Vendée Globe rookie, come to dominate the solo round race so conclusively? He has a commanding lead closing the Equator on his return to France and has led for much of the race.
He’s a quick sailor with a background of scrapping hard and ruthlessly in one-design and other tough offshore competition. Sure. But there is so much more to winning this race than competitive ability and it’s his all-round mastery that impresses so much.
It’s worth pointing out a very important thing here: if Gabart does win this race it will mean the unassailed master of the Vendée Globe, Michel Desjoyeaux – aka ‘le professeur’ – has been the engine of four successive victories. Two of them have been his own; another two will have been substantially reliant on his engineering: Vincent Riou was his boat captain and raced his Finot PRB; now Gabart, the protegée he spotted and brought on during the Barcelona World Race and whose VPLP/Verdier design Macif owes much to Desjoyeaux’s thinking, input and experience.
What exactly does the Mich Desj tutelage mean? It means deep attention to the minutiae of preparations before the sailing even begins. Boat design is the most obvious area, but it extends to realms where other teams have little expertise or close connections: autopilot software, sail development, special tweaks to routeing software to take account of factors such sea state as well as wind speed and angle, and a team behind the scenes that is devoted to solving technical problems while Gabart is sailing – plus many other factors.
“The race is won 80 per cent before the start, in the choices made by the team, how it is organised and our experience,” Desjoyeaux told me at the finish of the last race. “It’s a whole bunch of things and the remaining 20 per cent is the competition.”
You could talk about sail choice. Gabart is said to have been using a potent blast reacher in the South which is the equivalent weapon to Desjoyeaux’s Cuben fibre staysail four years ago. This is a sail his rival Armel Le Cleac’h does not possess and gave him an advantage at key points.
He also has this important attribute Desjoyeaux must have spotted: knowing exactly what he can ask of his boats, with a great feeling for it.
Self-management comes into the equation massively on such a long race: the ability to preserve resilience and keep a margin in hand for when a big push is needed or repairs have to be done. There’s been a fair bit of chat about whether or not the fresh-faced Gabart has been as well rested as he claims to be. Is he bluffing or not? Are there really no problems aboard his boat?
He probably has managed himself well, perhaps sometimes has slept as long and soundly as he’s implied. But no problems? Highly unlikely.
That’s an armoured carapace typical of the Desjoyeaux school. The maestro never confessed weaknesses during his races lest it give his rivals the incentive to redouble their efforts. But he had plenty of troubles and repairs to do, and it’s sure to have been the same with Gabart on Macif. Don’t forget, the two leading boats are the lightest IMOCA 60s yet built.
It will probably all come out at the finish, and that will be fascinating. Here’s a telling little insight into how professionally even this aspect of a race is managed à la mode Mich Desj.
I was working in the media centre four years ago when Desjoyeaux was a few hours from the finish. We’d heard not a whisper of any problems on board, but with a few hours to go, his PR team came around and silently put a sizable A4 document down on each person’s desk. They knew who everyone was. If you were English speaking, the document was in English; in French if you were French.
As we all opened these up and read we were amazed: it was a day-by-day account of Desjoyeaux’s race, what had happened to him, every single problem he’d had with the boat, every breakage, complete with photos, explanations and diagrams to help elucidate the technical points.
When I interviewed Desjoyeaux on board Foncia the next day, he explained all the breakages detailed in the document and allowed me to crawl over the boat with him and his boat captain.
My guess is that Gabart will do something similar. The full story is about to open up – and there’s going to be so much more to it than meets the eye right now.