Sunday, 8 February 2009

Vendée Globe: Armel Le Cléac’h - A Three Year Flight to Success

Armel Le Cléac’h on Brit Air, the second to arrive home in the Vendée Globe, after 89 days 9 hours 39 minutes and 35 seconds (including redress). Image copyright Jacques Vapillon/DPPI/Vendée Globe.

by Andi Robertson

After the cool, calm delivery of Michel Desjoyeaux just over five and a half days ago to win his second Vendée Globe, Les Sables d’Olonne welcomed the rookie with a bite, Armel Le Cléac’h, who brought Brit Air across the finish line at 08:41 hrs GMT this morning under perfect blue winter skies and a watery sunshine, to finish in a well deserved and highly creditable second place.

They may call him the Jackal, a skipper just 31 years old, whose patience and prudence masks an innate predatory instinct and timing, which has seen him regularly succeed as runner up after other favourites have fallen, but he still admitted today that his mother worried if he had been eating enough.

Le Cléac’h feasted on the warmth of the welcome, drank deeply of the memorable hours from the minutes he spotted the first media boat an hour after a chilly dawn this morning, pacing every metre of the deck of his Finot Conq design Brit Air to acknowledge the cheers from his family, friends and sponsors as he approached the finish line.

A two hour wait until the tide rose enough to allow him to pass down the canal was just an opportunity to draw breath after a long, stressful final week, winds gusting to 50 knots and big seas, which ripped away his protective canopy and pulled his mainsheet track car off two nights ago.

He paid tribute to winning skipper Desjoyeaux, and to the unfortunate Roland Jourdain, who held second place for more than half of the duration of his race, from whom Le Cléac’h inherited second place. He recalled the emotional, stressful times at Cape Horn when he took turns to pass the upturned hull of VM Matériaux, knowing skipper Jean Le Cam was inside, and explained the stress of these final days. He was a novice in the Southern Oceans where he found his rhythm much of the time alongside Vincent Riou, the 2004 Vendée Globe champion, before sailing an assured leg up the Atlantic, simply consistent and regular to the end: the watchwords to his success. His abiding philosophy has been to ‘hold on and hang in there til the end’ and that is what he did.

Meanwhile, some 1500 or 1600 miles back down the Vendée Globe track, out in the Atlantic west of the Azores, Marc Guillemot has swiftly taken the upper hand in the duel for third with Sam Davies, GBR, (Roxy). Davies had a long, very slow night in the clutches of the Azores High pressure, which effectively took a second bite at her. The stark tale is told by the 24 hour stats, Marc Guillemot made 365 miles in 24 hours, Sam just 69.7, a punishment scarcely deserved by Davies, but one which she has acknowledged she will put down as a Vendée Globe lesson, and which in effect should have little bearing on her finishing place. The Roxy skipper had picked up speed this afternoon again and was making 10.8 knots, calculated to be 98 miles behind Guillemot on Safran.

Brian Thompson, GBR, (Bahrain Team Pindar) had suffered this morning and overnight with the slow, sticky going as he seeks to cross the west side of the Azores high but he has picked up speed again this afternoon, making around 10 knots again but with some 250 miles, or at least a day’s sailing before he reaches the track of the Atlantic low pressure systems and the brisker SW’lies. He knows he has a race on his hands with Dee Caffari, GBR, (Aviva) who is now less than 50 miles behind in terms of DTF but she too will have to route west around the high, so her margin to Thompson is slightly enhanced by the fact she is closer to the theoretical direct course to Cape Finisterre. In straight line terms the direct distance between the two is closer to 220 miles. Caffari is slowing slightly but still two knots quicker than Thompson.

Steve White, GBR, (Toe in the Water) will cross back into the Northern Hemisphere later this evening, with 70 miles to go to the Equator and 1630hrs GMT, making a very respectable 10 knots given that he is supposedly traversing the ICTZ or Doldrums.

Armel Le Cleac'h's arrival into Les Sables d'Olonne. Image copyright Jacques Vapillon/DPPI/Vendée Globe.

Armel Le Cleac'h:

" It was fairly tough for the last three days with some strong winds, 35-40 knots gusting to 50 knots in squalls, but above all some rough seas with 7-8 metre high waves with the seas on the beam and the boat doesn’t really like that. After 89 days at sea, the boat and skipper were both a bit tired and finishing like that was a bit tough. The hardest part was the climb back up the Atlantic, because the conditions weren’t always kind to me and I found it a bit long at times. When journalists kept asking me about how I felt finishing second, I couldn’t say as I was busy dealing with the rough conditions. I didn’t have time for anything else. It was only this morning about twenty miles from the finish that I began to think about it when I started to see a lot of fishing boats from Les Sables d'Olonne."

"The start of the race went very quickly as there were ten of us battling it out on the way down. As we were so close, time just slipped by. I soon found myself in the southern ocean and had to concentrate on that. I played it cautiously, always keeping an eye on the equipment, going more slowly than I could have. So it was only the climb back up the Atlantic where I found it a bit long at times."

" At the time of the first Vendée Globe, I don’t think I really wanted to sail around the world. Those people were my heroes, but I couldn’t imagine myself doing that. I started on an Optimist in St Pol de Léon and so I could only admire those legends. Now I’m a round the world sailor, but that desire came later, when I had acquired some experience. After the Figaro I did the Transat, and then I wondered what to do next, so thought of the Vendée Globe."

Armel Le Cléac’h on:

Had no big problems

“ I had a few little problems that I didn’t talk about, but I never had any major worries. At no point did I imagine having to retire from the race, or slow down to carry out repairs. Perhaps the fact that I was slower in the southern ocean meant that I took fewer risks. After the final Pacific Ice gate, I was knocked down. The mast was in the water and my wind vanes didn’t like that. I think the water got in, as the next days they stopped working properly. Since Cape Horn they haven’t worked at all, so I didn’t have proper wind data for the whole climb back up the Atlantic. I had to work on the batteries too. But it was the last week that was particularly tough on the boat. The wind was on the beam from the NW with gusts that were very strong in the squalls. One big wave started to rip off the protective cover and by the time I got out there, a second one had finished the job.”

He describes the pace and stress

“... 12 to start, latter stages on my own...”

“I’m sure that experience helps by reducing the stress, when you are at such high speeds. It’s also important to be at ease with your boat. That’s something that each of us has to be able to do. In the south, I was slower than the leaders because I didn’t feel so at ease. I don’t have any regrets. I didn’t worry about losing ground. I just stuck to my philosophy of sailing my race as I felt fit. I didn’t do anything stupid anyway.”

Next time::: big project

“I’m pleased to be able to continue with Brit Air for another year. So we’ve decided to go back to the Figaro this year. And then, we’ll be lining up for the Jacques Vabre with Brit Air, this boat that has just sailed around the world. She’s the boat belonging to the company, so it’s important to allow employees to sail aboard her this year.”

On meeting up with Michel Desjoyeaux this summer in the Jubilee Figaro:

“ It’s not the same thing. There I have a chance… I’ve already beaten him in the Figaro. In 2003, he was third, when I won. So I know what it takes to beat him!”

Brit Air enters the harbour at Les Sables d'Olonne. Image copyright Jacques Vapillon/DPPI/Vendée Globe.

Food – he took 90 days and so did not have much left to eat over the last two to three days”

“ My Mum’s a bit worried. In our family it’s important to eat well. I set out with 90 days of food. The experts kept talking about 80 days or less, so I thought 90 would be just right. We were a bit slow on the way down, then the route was extended. In the south I was hungry so ate more than planned, thinking of 83-84 days. Then, the climb back up the Atlantic was difficult and long. So for the past two or three days I didn’t have much left. I had some crepes and bread and butter this morning. The steak and chips later on will be perfect.”

Moments when the media boats arrived to greet him were magic.....

“ It gradually built with a few boats, then a few more zodiacs and motor boats. It was fine weather. It was really magical this morning. All that excitement with the team coming aboard, all the people I could see on the motor boats. Then the passage through the harbour entrance channel with all those people there to congratulate me and Brit Air and the team… That was what we were here for after three years of work. So I really took advantage and enjoyed it.”

“ The stress is permanent. So I lost some weight due to that. I could still do manoeuvres, so it’s not a real problem.”

His philosophy:

“ The goal when I set out from Les Sables d’Olonne was to complete the round the world race. Secondly, I wanted to sail to the best of my ability with good routing decisions, making as few mistakes as I could with the weather. And then I had to deal with the southern ocean as best I could, as I didn’t have the experience of some. So that’s the philosophy I applied to the whole race and in the end that paid off. “

I am a specialist at being rookie on big races – business as usual...

“ I am becoming a specialist at finishing second in my first races. I did my first Figaro and finished second. Then, I did my first Transat and finished second. And now my first Vendee Globe and I’m second again. So it’s business as usual for me!”

On age and experience, he was 31 at Cape Horn:

“ I thought initially it was strange there was no one under thirty taking part in the race. Gradually I understood. Because this is a race that requires experience and a lot of hard work if you want to get a decent result. It’s not by chance that Michel won, as he has such a lot of experience.”

Brit Air – pilot, ground crew, engineer, hostess and steward:

“I’ve got my fan club with me. It’s always well planned at Brit Air. We scheduled a return from Les Sables d’Olonne to Les Sables d’Olonne. It’s a bit complicated on board, as I was pilot, co-pilot, steward, hostess and mechanic, so there was a lot of work to do. But Brit Air is good at organising things – even a finish in the sunshine. And Brit Air is Morlaix, and the Bay was where it all started for me.”

Vendée Globe

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