On Sunday November 8th, 2020 at 13.02, 33 boats set off from Les Sables d’Olonne on the French Atlantic coast in the Vendée department. They’re taking part in the Vendée Globe 2020, the most challenging, round-the-world non-stop race without assistance for single-handed sailors.

Looking down from top mast onto deck of Clarisse Cremer boat Vendee Glbe 2020
Clarisse Cremer © Yvan Zedda

The race was started as ‘The Globe Challenge’ in 1989 by French yachtsman Philippe Jeantot. He planned this new race as the ultimate challenge for single-handed sailors. It runs every 4 years and is organised by IMOCA (International Monohull Open Class Association).

Regular Vendée Globe 2020 updates

I am updating the race regularly. So much is happening, with boats being damaged and some having to abandon. It’s an exciting race, so check out the latest updates here.

The Route

The course is a circumnavigation of the globe, following the historic clipper route. From Les Sables d’Olonne, the boats hammer down the Atlantic Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope. They then go around Antarctica, past Cape Leeuwin and Cape Horn and head back to Les Sables d’Olonne.

On November 3rd, the Antarctic Exclusion Zone was announced. It’s calculated by CLS (Collecte Localization Satellites) which monitors the movement of ice in the Antarctic zone, the Indian Ocean in the Pacific Ocean. Now that’s been established, the course distance is 24,296 nautical miles/44,996 kms (around 28,000 miles) through the most dangerous seas on earth.

In 2016-17 the course distance was 24,394 miles.

Out of 167 sailors who have taken part in all the races only 89 have finished.

The Vendée Globe 2020 Skippers

Giancarlo Pedote in Vendee Globe 2020 looking from back to boat to front with sea swirling around and mast at top of picture
Giancarlo Pedote setting off on the 2020 race © Giancarlo Pedote #VG2020

This, the 9th edition, is the largest ever with 33 solo sailors taking part. While the majority of skippers are French, this year there are ten non-French skippers. They come from Great Britain (1 man and 3 women); Germany, Spain Switzerland, Italy, Japan and Finland (for the first time).

Sam Davies on her boat pre Vendee Globe 2020 showing boat going fast out to sea with spray at the back; sails covered in sponsors logos
Samantha Davies © Eloi Stichelbaut – POLARYSE / INITIATIVES COEUR

A record number of women are taking part: six women from France and Great Britain. Only six women have competed in the race before this one, so that is a great step forward. Why not? It’s a sport where men and women compete equally.

There are 18 rookies competing in the race for the first time which is another record.

Some of the skippers have raced the Vendée Globe before. Britain’s Alex Thomson is competing for the fifth time; Jérémie Beyou for the fourth; several others for the third, and second.

The youngest competitor is 27-year old Swiss Alan Roura. The oldest entrant at 61 years old, Jean Le Cam is attempting his fifth race this year.

Damien Seguin is a paralympic sailor, having been born without his left hand.

Armel Le Cleac'h on his boat in yellow salopettes waving to crowds on the stony bank as he sets off on the Vendee Globe 2016 race which he won
Armel Le Céac’h sets out from Les Sables d’Olonne in 2016 © Eric HOUDAS

The current record dates back to 2016-17 and is held by the Breton Armel Le Cléach, who completed the 24,000 nautical miles (over 44,400 kilometres) in 74 days, 3 hours, 35 minutes and 46 seconds, after an interminable battle with the Briton Alex Thomson, who secured the second spot. Thomson is the reigning runner-up, having taken 74 days 19 hours and 35 minutes in 2016-17.

He is one of the top favorites to win the race. This year, due to technical changes in boat design, he reckons that a new record will be between 59 and 79 days depending on the weather.

Alex thomson on Hugo Boss boat in gathering gloom fixing something on a rope
Alex Thomson on HUGO BOSS © Alex Thomson Racing

Track them all on this official Vendée Globe map.

The Challenges of the Race

Winning the Vendée Globe is about a whole mix of things. A fast, reliable boat, skill and of course, luck. It’s an extraordinary test of endurance as well as skippers go beyond what they thought they were capable of.

The Vendée Globe is a race, but also a personal adventure.

As Miranda Merron said: ‘I know the Big South. I don’t know if that’s a plus or a minus. We are spoiled when we are at sea alone. We are reduced to being just ourselves alone with the sea and the sky. I tell myself that I am so very lucky to live this for three months.’

The Vendée Globe 2020 Skippers
SkipperNationalityBoatsPrevious VG Races
Fabrice Amedeo FrenchNEWREST – ART & FENÊTRES2016
Romain AttanasioFrenchPURE – BEST WESTERN 2016
Alexia Barrier FrenchTSE – 4MYPLANET
Yannick Bestaven FrenchMAÎTRE COQ IV 2008/2012/2016
Jérémie BEYOUFrenchCHARAL2016
Arnaud Boissières FrenchLA MIE CÂLINE – ARTISANS 2004/2012/2016
Louis Burton FrenchBUREAU VALLÉE 2 2012/2016
Didac Costa SpanishONE PLANET ONE OCEAN 2016
Manuel Cousin FrenchGROUPE SÉTIN
Clarisse CremerFrenchBANQUE POPULAIRE X
Charlie Dalin FrenchAPIVIA
Samantha Davies BritishPOLARYSE/INITIATIVES-CŒUR2008/2012
Sébastien Destremau FrenchMERCI2016
Benjamin Dutreux FrenchOMIA – WATER FAMILY
Kevin Escoffier FrenchPRB
Clément Giraud FrenchCOMPAGNIE DU LIT / JILITI
Pip Hare BritishMEDALLIA
Ari Huusela FinnishSTARK
Isabelle Joschke FrenchMACSF
Jean Le Cam FrenchYES WE CAM ! 2004/2008/2012/2016
Stéphane Le Diraison FrenchTIME FOR OCEANS
Miranda Merron BritishCAMPAGNE DE FRANCE 2016
Giancarlo Pedote ItalianPRYSMIAN GROUP
Alan Roura SwissLA FABRIQUE 2016
Thomas Ruyant FrenchLINKEDOUT2016
Damien Seguin FrenchGROUPE APICIL
Kojiro Shiraishi JapaneseDMG MORI
Sébastien Simon FrenchARKEA – PAPREC
Maxime Sorel FrenchV AND B – MAYENNE
Alex Thomson BritishHUGO BOSS2004/2008/2012/2016
Nicolas Troussel FrenchCORUM L’ÉPARGNE

The Boats

Kevin Escoffier before the Vendee Globe in his boat. Oceans of spray but boat showing through with roil lifted
Kevin Escoffier © Jean-Marie LIOT / PRB

Don’t think of them as just ‘boats’. The IMOCA class boats are racing machines, challenging technology and improving all the time. On the main website of the Vendée Globe, the details of each boat come immediately below the skippers. Some boats have appeared before in the Vendée Globe, been bought by new skippers, adapted and improved.

Alex Thomson in the Vendee Globe 2020 race in his cockpit, which is covered operating what looks like a machine, with cables, and handles everywhere!
Alex Thomson © Alex Thomson Racing

Alex Thomson has Hugo Boss behind him and this year the team has designed an extraordinarily complicated boat with a fully closed cockpit and short deck. And it’s very fast indeed.

Foils that make the boat fly

Alex Thomson © Alex Thomson Racing

The latest generation of these 60-foot carbon monohulls have foils fitted. A foil is a wing immersed in the water helping speed up the boat. Like the wing of an airplane, the foil lifts the sailboat out of the water, reducing drag. They were introduced in the last race.

But now the foils are much bigger, three times the size of the 2016 race ‘chicken wing’ foils enabling the hulls to ‘fly’ in as little as 12 knots of wind.

Top speeds of these 7.5 tonne yachts can reach 35 knots which means that daily 24 hour averages are expected to top 600 nautical miles.

This year 19 of the 33 boats are fitted with these ‘underwater wings’ while seven of them are the very latest 2020 generation boats. They’re very impressive, but the extra physical toll on the sailors is considerable.  

Armel Le Cléach: “At these speeds, the boats are transmitting big slams and shocks and the skippers have to adapt to this extreme level of discomfort”.

For a great website on the technical aspects of the boat, check out Mech Traveller’s post.

Here’s a video on the remarkable advances made over the years. It’s in French but with subtitles and conveys the passion of the innovators.

Previous Vendée Globe Races

The race presents real challenges as the severe wind and wave conditions in the Southern Ocean take their toll. Racing at night at high speeds adds another dimension. Skippers have to snatch a few hours’ sleep when they can. Many of the entrants of each race are forced to retire. They lose masts, suffer keel problems; or are disabled in some way; in the 2004-5 race, Sébastien Josse hit an iceberg head-on.

Some skippers leave the race to rescue their fellow sailors; some skippers do not return. In 1992 British sailor Nigel Burgess was found drowned off Cape Finistere; in the 1996 race, Canadian Gerry Roufs was lost at sea. It led to a tightening up of safety measures for the 2000 race.

Great Britain and the Great Ellen MacArthur

The 2000-01 Vendée Globe was particularly exciting for Great Britain. At 24 years-old Ellen MacArthur was the youngest entrant ever on her custom-built boat Kingfisher. She was up with the leaders when she was diverted to find Yves Parlier who had lost contact. She found him safely and then rejoined the race in fourth place.

By the mid-Atlantic point, MacArthur had caught up with the leader Michel Desjoyeaux, 600 miles ahead of everyone else. But she hit a semi-submerged container and had to make repairs.

Desjoyeaux won the race in 93 days, 3 hours and 57 seconds. He’s the only sailor to win the race twice, the second time being the 2008-09 race. Ellen MacArthur came second at 94 days, 4 hours and 57 seconds.

Ellen MacArthur arriving in Plymouth after her round the world singlehanded record with lots of small boats around her with her mast dwarfing them and headland with green grass in background
Ellen MacArthur arriving in Plymouth after her round the world singlehanded record Wikimedia Commons/Rod Allday CC-BY-SA 4.0

On 7 February 2005 she broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe, a feat which gained her international renown.

OSCAR and Safety Measures in the 2000/01 Race

View of OSCAR safety camera on mast of boat at sea with another behind
OSCAR fitted to the mast ©Yvan Zedda -PRB

18 of the 33 boats are using OSCAR. It’s a system design to detect hazards that won’t show up on normal radar, AIS or sonar devices. As 10,000 to 15,000 containers are lost off cargo ships every year it’s a very welcome addition. And don’t forget the whales, trees, flotsam and jetsam that a boat can hit. Icebergs are now out with the advanced knowledge of the Antarctic Exclusion Zone but ocean racing remains pretty hazardous.

OSCAR is fixed to the top of the mast or signal mast, scanning the surrounding seas via two thermal cameras and a day camera. It works day and night, weighs just 750 grams and is tiny: 144 x 114 x 96 mms, able to fit into one hand.

OSCAR camera fixed to top of mast of a boat
OSCAR © Yvan Ravussin

From this it sends video footage to the processing unit in the boat which analyses the information in real time via algorithms that then show up alerts on a navigation APP. The APP can be installed on a tablet or the on-board computer and displays the floating objects.

It can also be linked to the auto pilot which will automatically steer the boat away from the object.

It’s been designed by Raphaël Biancale, a charming, shock-headed and immensely enthusiastic Franco-German automative engineer. His father bought an ocean-going boat in 2013, so he took it out on a 6-month sailing trip. He was a novice and found night time sailing constantly worrying. He looked around for a system that would let him navigate at night. Nothing there. He was working on developing the technology for the car industry and driverless cars. Why not transfer that to boating? Voilà!

The Calm before the Storm

Looking at boats from water level alllined up for the start of the 2020 Vendee Globe race, with some sails up
Boats lined up for the start of the 2020 race © Yvan Zedda/Alea

The boats are here and they’re all safe and sound. Many of the skippers have already isolated due to covid-19 though they only have to do this officially from November 1st.

The Vendée Globe Village

Vendee Globe Village 2020 showing pontoon with boats lined up on either side and public walking down to look at boats and exhibits
Vendée Globe Village 2020 © Vincent Curutchet/Alea

Every year a special start village is set up in Les Sables d’Olonne. Anybody can access it, but you do need to register first on the site.

It gives you everything you need to know about the race around seven topics. Big screen projections, videos, maritime sound effects show you the skippers, the race and its history. You can see what life is like on board an IMOCA – hard work, little sleep and endless decisions to make.

Partners and sponsors of the race have their own stands and there’s an official shop full of tempting merchandise. The VOG Bar, open from 7pm daily, overlooks the race pontoon. Here’s the place to chat to other enthusiasts, all involved in the great business of ocean racing.

The Globe ‘Caffe’ area becomes the radio reports centre from November 9. It hosts a Live broadcast show every day at 12.30pm French time, 13.30 international time. The shows are open to the public.

Outside you can walk along the Quai de la Gravière and go on board an Imoca.

This part is as much to do with the Vendée department as the race itself. The Tourist Office area has a lot of information, covering what else you can see and do in this part of France.

There’s also a Vendée cooking area for those after local specialities and products.

Boulevard Vertime and Allée du Frère Maximin has stands from the sponsors, food trucks for snacks and a giant zip-line to try.

This year’s Vendée Globe is all about the need to protect the oceans. You’ll find a lot aimed at young people in one area, and also an exhibition about protecting the oceans in conjunction with UNESCO, the Principality of Monaco and skippers in the IMOCA class.

It was scheduled to run from October 17 to November 8, 2020. But sadly due to the coronavirus lockdown in France, it closed on November 1st, 2020.

The start will also be different with no crowds to cheer the skippers and their boats on.

From mid-January, when the winner is expected to arrive, a giant screen will be installed on the Vendée Globe esplanade. It’ll be a great moment.

The Start

The boats set off in four minute intervals from 13.02pm from the pontoon. First out was Armel Tripon in L’Occitane en Provence. The order was drawn randomly before they pulled up to the pontoon.

Out of Les Sables, it takes a couple of hours to get them all to the official start line, and the timing varies each year. The four crew members helping them get out there have to get off the boat onto the ribs following. A last quick embrace, a good luck and the skippers are alone.

If any boat crosses the start line prematurely, they are not sent back to start again (too dangerous), but they are given a five-hour penalty.

If a boat has to return because of a fault/damage, they have to wait until the tide turns and they can get back to Les Sables for repairs and their new start.

They sail in south east winds and good conditions with 12 to 15 knots of wind. The first front is on the Bay of Biscay which they pass through at night.

The boats fitted with foilers have the best chance, but just after the start they are told to go on a particular course that will give the non-foilers an advantage in wind speed. Then it’s out into the Atlantic and they are racing!

This year’s Vendée Globe promises to be the most exciting yet. So good luck to all the skippers (but I have to say, particularly the British ones).

Start of the Vendee Globe 2020 with boats in the sea
Start of the 2020 Race © Jean-Louis Carli Alea

Check the official Vendée Globe website

Les Sables d’Olonne Tourist Office

Vendée Tourisme

More about the Region in and around Les Sables d’Olonne

Guide to the glorious Vendée department

The French Atlantic Coast

Visit delightful Ile de Ré