Elaine Bunting looks at how Michel Desjoyeaux won the Vendée Globe so comprehensively

How did Michel Desjoyeaux come to dominate the Vendée Globe race so completely?

In theory, his boat Foncia was not the fastest in the fleet, and his track record in her has been patchy. When a leak from the ballast tank cover the day after the start led to a problem with the engine electrics, it even felt as if Desjoyeaux’s bid to defend his 2001 title might be blighted.

But the Vendée Globe is a marathon, the ultimate test of the all-rounder and of consistent speed and performance. Michel Desjoyeaux made fewer mistakes than his competitors, a testimony to good design choices, careful preparation and a sixth sense about how hard to drive his boat.

Desjoyeaux is famed for his love of technical innovation. In the Mini class, he pioneered the canting keel. His Finot-designed PRB, the winning boat in 2001, featured innovations such as kick-up rudders, twin articulating bowsprits, a semi-circular mainsheet track and a gimballing nav station. Yet in Foncia he created a boat that was surprisingly uncomplicated.

Foncia is one of seven Farr designs in the race – she is built from the same moulds as Vincent Riou’s PRB, but developed quite differently. While some skippers have tweaked the basic design with such additions as bow strakes and trim tabs Desjoyeaux kept things light and simple.

Desjoyeaux has very strong views about design and great confidence that his way is the right one. Farr Yacht Design remark that his team “wasted” some of the detail drawings when they decided to change the cockpit layout, reposition bulkheads, water ballast layout and keel ram shelves.

There seems to be a bit of schism between Desjoyeaux’s team and the designers about this, with Farr saying they were “kept at arm’s length” and Desjoyeaux’s team commenting: “They don’t know lots of things about Foncia. They don’t know how it is built, what way the ballast is or the final displacement of the boat.”

Part of the misunderstanding may stem from the fact that while Desjoyeaux is strong-minded about what he wants, he also loves to evolve ideas throughout the build process. “Every morning, Michel arrives in the office with 12,000 ideas and we have to try to go at the same speed as him,” says Jean-Paul Roux, general manager of Desjoyeaux’s business, Mer Agitée. “Sometimes he has to accept that we don’t agree with him.”

This process means that Desjoyeaux has a boat perfectly paired to his sailing style. He has ended up with the Farr design he originally coveted for the Vendée Globe eight years ago when his budget wouldn’t stretch to one, and has modified to fit his particular philosophy and experience.

On deck he chose to run the halyards in conduits through the cabin rather than a central deck tunnel and make a wide, extendable coachroof providing him with full shelter while trimming or steering.

“To me, the cockpit roof is the revolution,” says Jean-Paul Roux. “We reasoned that the main gain in performance was not to spend millions on hydrodynamic studies, it was about the skipper, his health, his well-being, his ability to react quickly. When the boat is better protected the skipper is less tired and sails the boat more.”

Looking from behind, Roland Jourdain noted Mich Desj’s decisive ability to drive hard in rough and inclement weather. “He is a lot less sensitive than others to the harshness of the weather phenomena,” he commented. “I know him well so I’m not surprised. He’s very consistent. He doesn’t stampede along at the front of the low and then crumble at the back of it. He’s more linear.”

Desjoyeaux spent a great deal of time concentrating on sail development, autopilots and weather software. His loyalty to long-standing suppliers such as sailmakers Incidences and electronics company NKE also seem to have paid dividends. He credits a bulletproof Cuben Fibre staysail as his secret weapon in the Southern Ocean. He hoisted it in the South Atlantic and replaced it with a bigger headsail after Cape Horn.

“On Foncia, I have a solent/staysail/jib, whilst others have a genoa/solent/staysail. I can unfurl my sail in 28-30 knots of downwind conditions and keep carrying until the wind reaches 50 knots. So I have a staysail I could really thrash about with.”

Some skippers have commented that the performance of the boats in heavy downwind conditions is limited by their autopilot capabilities. Perhaps that is an area where Desjoyeaux has carved out an advantage; it is rumoured that he worked very hard on this.

Nevertheless, at times when there is a big gain to be had from handsteering, Desjoyeaux is hard enough, motivated enough – and sheltered enough under his canopy – to do it. It’s doubtful if he could have won had he not been prepared to handsteer for 40 hours during two consecutive days in the South Atlantic to reach the leading pack, so in that sense his cockpit layout was a crucial design factor.

His team say Desjoyeaux is motivated as much, if not more, by the pursuit of perfection as the will to win. He is a details man and his perfectionist approach extended to electrical systems, software, weather and computers.

“Foncia is the result of all Michel’s previous boats, the multihull, the Figaro, the Open 60, and you could say that this is the final result of his experience,” says Roux.

Experience may be a huge component of his success but you can’t overlook this most vital ingredient: talent. Says Jean-Paul Roux: “Michel is not a conservative sailor. Sometimes he wants to push hard and he knows exactly what he can ask of his boat. He has a great feeling for it and a lot of things come from this feeling.”

The elusive art that the French call feeling is the counterweight to technology and science. We ‘Anglo-Saxons’ prefer to speak of one while glossing over this rather vague-sounding other. Mich Desj’s victory illustrates that you cannot – and we will not – win the Vendée Globe without it.