From a total entry of 25 solo racers who are set to take on the 3.500 nautical miles Vendée Arctique - Les Sables d’Olonne race which starts this Sunday on a course northwards to Iceland and the Arctic Circle, there are eight sailors who are representing nations other than host nation France.
Already that international contingent represents an increase on the first edition of the race which took place in July 2020, then at less than four months before the start of the Vendée Globe. Now as the first qualifying race for the 2024, tenth edition of the solo non-stop race around the world, it is a clear sign that interest from non-French skippers continues to grow.
Indeed to have a fighting chance of securing a spot among the 40 entry limit for the 2024 race, sailors increasingly need to have an IMOCA on the water now, or otherwise to be nearing the completion of building new boats, such as is the case with the top two international finishers on 2020’s inaugural Vendée Arctique Les Sables d’Olonne, Britain’s Sam Davies who finished fourth and Germany’s Boris Herrmann who finished seventh.
Italy’s Giancarlo Pedote (Prysmian Group) has substantially refitted his IMOCA through the winter changing the bow section to make it better in cross seas and reinforced it structurally in advance of fitting new foils this winter. The hard driving Pedote knows his boat perfectly after finishing the last Vendée Globe in eighth position. And in last month’s shorter Guyader Bermudes 1000 race Pedote finished eighth, the same position he achieved on this Vendée Arctique course last year.
Franco-German Isabelle Joschke (MACSF) comes into this race on the heels of an excellent fifth on the Bermudes 1000 profiting from similar bow updates. Joschke shows an amazing ability to push her boat hard and fast, sailing smartly to account for her relatively petite build. Having had to abandon her Vendée Globe because of keel damage after Cape Horn, Joschke maybe does not like the cold but she proved her mettle in the ‘big south’ pulling back miles and places to be firmly in the main top ten ‘peloton’ when she had to retire.
Switzerland’s Alan Roura, the youngest skipper to finish the Vendée Globe at 23 years old in 2016 was on the point of giving up and getting a full time job after his funding dried up following his second Vendée Globe race, finishing 17th. But at the last minute his story struck a chord with watch brand Hublot and now he has the VPLP design which finished second in 2016 as Alex Thomson’s Hugo Boss and which was subsequently further optimised as 11th Hour’s Alaka’i.
Japan’s Kojiro Shiraishi (DMG MORI GLOBAL ONE) has had his IMOCA back in Japan since the Vendée Globe on which he finished 16th, first Asian sailor every to complete the solo race around the world. Shiraishi maybe gained his best IMOCA result in tenth on the Vendée Arctique in 2020 but the first race with his, then new boat was beset with problems. Shiraishi is looking for a solid, clean race.
Hungary’s Szabolcs Weores is very much the definition of an IMOCA rookie but nonetheless has tens of thousands of ocean miles, including a fully crewed round the world race under his belt. Inspired by the Vendée Globe and round the world exploits of his legendary compatriot Nandor Fa, ‘Szabi’ has Ari Huusela’s Stark IMOCA which started life as Dee Caffari’s Aviva and is ‘dreaming big’. The 49 year old professional America’s Cup rigger’s aim to get to the finish line of this race, his first step towards the Vendée Globe in 2024.
French based Kiwi Conrad Colman (who holds dual US citizenship) is back. The so called ‘Crazy Kiwi’ is putting his everything on the line to be back at the start of the Vendée Globe in November 2024. He has secured enough funding to be racing Maxime Sorel’s former boat which is renamed ‘Imagine’ but, like others, is looking for sponsorship to ramp up his campaign. Colman made a great start to his programme, underlining his potential with an excellent tenth in the recent 1300 miles Bermudes 1000, actually his first solo IMOCA race since he limped into Les Sables d’Olonne under jury rig to finish 16th on Ferburary 24th 2017
“I have a few sponsors helped me put a down payment together and then have borrowed the rest to buy the boat, hoping that with an existing project that exists, racing a boat which can be put in sponsor’s colours in days or weeks rather than months or years that I can pull it off and land sponsors. Meantime that has put my financial situation in some peril. I have to make this work.” Says Colman, adding, “ I am a little nervous on this one because I feel it will be tough to replicate another top ten result because it is a much longer race and it will give people time to sort themselves out and get foiling and go fast. But equally it is a much tougher race. There will be some attrition. But I think experience will come into play as well in terms of managing oneself and the boat over several thousand miles. So I am really looking forwards to getting my teeth stuck into it.”
And for all that he has lived in France for many years he remains an ardent Kiwi.
“ There is a decent following, good interest in New Zealand. I think that it is disappointing now that the NZ Volvo 65 did not get the support to be able to go on The Ocean Race and I am saddened by the lack of Kiwi ocean racing. I feel like we are losing the grip on it. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur that I might be carrying the hopes and dreams of all New Zealanders but I am here, I am a Kiwi, going offshore and I have a flag with me. I keep that in mind all the time.”
Britain’s Pip Hare (Medallia) is determined to have a better, more enjoyable race with her new IMOCA than last month’s Bermudes 1000 which saw her finish 17th of 21 finishers. The longer, tougher course which will have multiple weather transitions should suit her style of sailing better than the intense sprint of the last race on which she over pressed herself. Hare said, “I am feeling a lot better than I thought I would. I have drawn a line under the Bermudes 1000 race. I don’t think my own expectations were too high but maybe others expectations weighed on me a bit. I am me. I have only got my journey behind me. I have come from where I have and I don’t have an elite sailing background. I am working as hard as I can to step up to the level of this boat and working with some great people but I am where I am. My success in this race is not going to be determined by where I finish in the rankings but how I sail the boat, which decisions I make, how I improve during the race. And most of all I just want to enjoy it because this is what I love doing.”
She would be happy to finish in the upper middle of the 25 boat fleet:
“ On paper this is the mid fleet boat. It has small foils and it is now two generations old. And I think probably I am mid fleet. I think this boat is a good boat for learning. I would like to be closer to Giancarlo Pedote, to Damien Seguin and to Isabel Joschke. If I could be close to them I would be super happy.”
And Belgium’s Denis Van Weynbergh races Nandor Fa’s former Spirit of Hungary in the colours of Laboratoires de Biarritz. A 54 year old former transport business owner who has graduated from the Mini 650 and Class 40 to the IMOCA, rookie Van Weynbergh is on a modest budget and has a small army of local Les Sables d’Olonne volunteers who help him.