The Jackal and the British Lion
Around the sun drenched hunting grounds that the Vendée Globe race dock represents to the huge crowds enjoying a slow promenade round the 29 IMOCA round the world race boats, Armel Le Cléac’h and Alex Thomson are the ‘big beasts’, The Jackal and the British Lion. The appearance on their race boats today causes long, human traffic jams. Logic alone dictates that they are two of the outstanding favourites to win this eighth edition of the solo non stop round the world race.
Le Cléac’h who grew up on the Bay of Morlaix with Jéremie Beyou has been runner up twice, to Michel Desjoyeaux in 2008-2009 on Brit Air, and in 2012-2013 when he finished less than three hours behind François Gabart after a round the world match race. Thomson was third last time.
Le Cléac’h, 39, long since known as The Jackal for his proven ability to stay the pace, ready to swoop on the misfortunes, bad luck or bad judgement of those ahead of him, is skipper for Banque Populaire VIII, one of the Vendée Globe programmes with the biggest budget and the most accomplished cutting edge technical programmes, including the optimisation of their hydrofoils and sailplan. Le Cléac’h has come a long way since he finished second in 2008-9 in an epic war of attrition. He is accompanied along the dock by the necessary PR and marketing staff, photographers and videographers and is in high demand from the French media, many of whom consider him heir apparent to the Vendée Globe crown.
Blue eyed Brit Thomson, whose early sailing experience was windsurfing in the North Wales surf, has already done a big volume of media in his native England, all the major broadsheet newspapers, the big TV and radio channels want reports when the race is under way, as well as commitments in Germany, Italy and, of course France. His Hugo Boss is the most menacing, threatening IMOCA, the latest and most extreme looking design to be launched. One year ago today his boat was upside down in the Atlantic off Portugal and he was being rescued in a helicopter. But today his boat is substantially rebuilt and reinforced. He may not win a popularity contest in the Vendée Globe host nation but the interest in him and especially his black Hugo Boss and Mercedes branded missile certainly matches that of Le Cléac’h.
Thomson showed great speed potential when he led the summer’s New York-Vendée warm up before problems with his electrics compromised his attack. This is his fourth Vendée Globe start and he is now well versed in the art and science of staying cool, focused and keeping the balance right in his pre race ‘bubble’ during the last week before the off. “The main thing this week is to keep the balance right. I have the family here. I have friends coming. We have media. We have sponsors. And we are so lucky to have hundreds of thousands of people on the pontoon. So it is really about trying to remain relaxed,”smiled Thomson as he set off out for a final day of light wind sail testing. “It is about trying not to do too much. Do little but do it well. That is my aim this week.”
Thomson is shy of the preparatory miles he had wanted to do before the start but has added a further 10,000 miles in the Atlantic since the summer. His second iteration of his foiling daggerboards failed almost immediately and he is back on his Version 1, but he is content his boat is sound and significantly faster even than during his Transatlantic race. “The New York –Vendee was a good indication of the speed we have except for the electronic problems which have been fully sorted. So we have a boat which has done 20,000 miles. Now we have to do 28,000 miles round the world, so we can’t be 100 per cent sure but we have a lot of experience in this team. We are well set up and have made some conservative choices. And if anything since the New York-Vendée the boat has got faster. I feel pretty confident. We have 10,000 miles since the New York Vendee. We feel very confident.”
Thomson remains something of an unknown threat to the top French hierarchy. Le Cléac’h considers him a rival capable of winning: “Alex is the one whose boat we know least about,” Le Cléac’h said today, “We haven’t raced very often against him. He scares us a bit, because the other favourites all know each other from Port-la-Forêt. We know their strengths and weaknesses. We saw at the start of the NY-Vendée that his boat has a huge potential. For me, he’s there amongst the favourites.”
Le Cléac’h learned about sustaining a hard, fast pace around the world when he was narrowly beaten by the younger Gabart: “We’ve long since turned that page. What happened four years ago is behind us. We got over the grief of coming second and we’re facing a new adventure now with a new boat and more preparation. With 29 boats lining up, this is a very different line-up from 4 years ago. It won’t be the same story. We’ve been preparing for this with Banque Populaire and the new boat now for two and a half years. The preparation went well and we’re ready to go. It’s up to me to get off to a good start and do what I can.”
He is confident in his choices concerning the foils and their development programme. “The advantage of the foils is that in certain points of sail we get an extra 5 or 10% speed, which is far from being insignificant. Upwind they are less effective. In light conditions, some of the other boats on the pontoon here are lighter and create less drag, so could perform well. We have our advantages and disadvantages, but the key thing is feeling confident about our boat, which is the case for me.”
He has few concerns about the increase in noise and mental stress which the foils bring: “As soon as the sea is rough, it is stressful, but not so different from my previous boat. I’m not worried about that and deal with the lack of comfort. We sailed as much as possible before the Vendée Globe. It’s a fantastic line-up. Around ten boats with a lot of experience on good boats. There are twice as many potential winners as four years ago. I’m here to compete, so that’s a good thing for me. In the Vendée Globe, there are always boats forced to retire. One of the older boats could do very well. There are always surprises in this race.”
If the weather is conducive a new record is possible: “It’s possible that the race will be even faster than last time. We put a lot of pressure on each other last time throughout the race. We can imagine that it will be done in 75 days. The boats have the potential, but it is the weather that will decide. The course isn’t the same a s there are no longer Ice Gates, but the Exclusion Zone in the Southern Ocean, which will require a different strategy. My goal isn’t to get a new record, but to be in front of all the other competitors.”
Gabart’s victory was the product of his secret sail programme as well as his talent, while Le Cléac’h damaged a key reaching sail. “We worked with North on the sails from the design stage. Unlike in the past that was something we considered early on, so that today we are fully ready. We don’t have any secret sails like François did four years ago. But the sails are adapted to sailing with foils. We needed to take that into account.”