No Surprise

There’s some pretty breathless reports coming from the Vendee this week with boats breaking under the pressure of the Southern Ocean rollers or hitting the inevitable debris that litters our oceans. Should we be surprised? Not really. This is par for the course at the grand prix level with boats being built to minimum tolerances in the search for outright speed and the outstanding sailors pushing the envelope wherever they can. You have to admire their guts and craft. This is scary stuff.

So the latest to call time-out are (my favourite) Sam Davies and Sebastien Simon, who both hit UFOs (Unidentified Floating Objects) and are up the creek trying to dial down the speeds and seek sanctuary to the north, out of the weather bombs in the south. I feel for them. Can you imagine having a knackered boat down there, miles away from anywhere, and having to find a solution from the Jenga-box of spares you keep onboard? You’re already absolutely on the limit of exhaustion and now have to make judgements that even the most experienced of boatbuilders would be scratching his head over.

INITIATIVES COEUR, Samantha Davies, 12 June, 2018, Cockpit, Nuit

But looking at this from the lens of the armchair spectator, it’s compelling viewing and what makes this race so damned good. The soundbites coming off the boat are just awesome and the tracker is addictive – especially when you overlay the weather and start making completely Corinthian judgements: “well I would dive south and get into that depression” I mutter to the dog in my utterly clueless, schoolboy navigator manner.

Comparing the Vendee to other sporting events that involve carbon objects built on the limit, it’s right up there. I momentarily awake on the sofa from my afternoon snooze on a Sunday after a nice roast dinner when an F1 car crashes or spins – otherwise it’s a snore-fest. I watch the downhill bobsled not to marvel at some Norwegians finishing 0.01 seconds ahead of the team from Finland but to see the plucky Brits topple over at corner four and do the rest of the luge on their heads. And world-class cycling is akin to sleep-inducing mood music until either they hit some horrendous mountain in the French Alps that cars can’t even get up or the favourite tumbles down a ravine at 80km/h.

This is how we watch sport now, unfortunate as that may sound. The Vendee is serving it up beautifully and whilst for sure, we will be mildly interested in who finishes first across the line in about 50 days time, it’s the drama along the way that keeps us fascinated. Let’s be honest, nobody but nobody is interested in a load of steel-hulled cruisers housing a bunch of mid-lifers doing the Clipper Race. The Ocean Race died a death a very long time ago – and let’s be honest here, the last decent one was when we watched Ian Walker having an almost mental breakdown as he guided Abu Dhabi to victory. We only watched to see the state of the bags under his eyes every day as sleep deprivation and total stress added about 20 years to him. Great victory but can anyone name any other boats in the race? Not me…

So the Vendee is serving us up a treat. It’s true that there are some cruisers out there who just want to get round and all credit to them. No problems with that whatsoever. But for those pushing for the chocolates, it’s a race of attrition and a race of pure luck. Get unlucky and hit a whale or a UFO and your world suddenly looks very different. Get lucky, sail fast and know when to put the peddle down, well the riches are there for the taking.

I’m expecting a load more break-downs and rescues in the coming weeks but it’s definitely what makes following this event on social media so addictive. Heroes the lot of them. Fascinating.

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