Vendee Globe 2012 Promo
It was on a platform of the Paris Metro that Michel Desjoyeaux realized he finally had to snap out of it.
He was just back from
nearly 100 days sailing around the globe with no sighting of another
human being, his only contact to the outside world a satellite phone.
His body was, in essence, still on red alert for any obstacle in his
"Waiting for the train, a
guy was in the way of the doors and I just yanked him out of the way,"
recalls the 48-year-old, who just days earlier had returned to France
victorious from the grueling Vendee Globe race.
"I was still in that
mindset of not letting anything get in my way. It was unhealthy. It was
then I said to myself, 'Michel, the race is over now.' But it's hard as
solo racing just takes over your body and mind."
It is 45 years since British yachtsman Robin Knox-Johnston
became the first man to perform a singlehanded, nonstop circumnavigation of the globe, achieving the feat in 312 days.
He was the only person to
finish of the eight-man field in the Golden Globe Race, during which
one competitor Donald Crowhurst died -- having committed suicide after
attempting to fake the details of his own round-the-world attempt.
So what makes someone
decide to take on such a daunting challenge?
To spend months away from
family and friends, coping on a mere four hours of sleep a night -- most
of that broken -- while tackling monster waves on the world's most
For Knox-Johnston, also
the oldest person to sail around the planet solo, aged 68 back in 2007,
the lure of such a perilous challenge is obvious.
"It's what I do -- I do
the sea," he says unapologetically.
"To people it may seem dangerous,
foolish even but, for me, it's not a strange environment. It's not alien
to me, it's where I'm happiest.
"As for circumnavigating
the globe that first time, I didn't want to get to 90 years old and
think what I could have done. It was dangerous, particularly as no-one
had done it before, so you couldn't read up on it, and frequently you
feel in danger. Having 27 meters crashing down on your boat will make
you feel that way."
Back in 1968, there was none of the communications enjoyed by today's sailors, requiring instinct more than anything else.
So how did
Knox-Johnston's voyage compare nearly four decades on?
Sir William Robert Patrick "Robin" Knox-Johnston, CBE, RD and bar (born 17 March 1939) is an English sailor.
He was the first man to perform a single-handed non-stop circumnavigation of the globe and was the second winner of the Jules Verne Trophy (together with Sir Peter Blake).
For this he was awarded with Blake the ISAF Yachtsman of the Year award
In 2006 he became at 67 the oldest yachtsman to complete a round the world solo voyage in the VELUX 5 Oceans Race.
"You realize that
round-the-world sailing is a young man's game," he says.
is one of the best modern-day exponents of solo sailing -- the only
two-time winner of the prestigious Vendee Globe, in 2001 and 2009 -- and
he was born into the sailing fraternity.
His father, who served in the Resistance during World War Two, founded Glenans Sailing School
-- which teaches 15,000 trainees each year.
Professor," Desjoyeaux is more than just a sailor, he is also an
He writes software for the auto-pilot systems used by many
sailors, and has also been integral in developing boating equipment,
including the introduction of a sideways-swinging keel 11 years ago.
Despite his wide-ranging
proficiency, he is no stranger to adversity on the open seas.
month, his yacht dismasted while leading the two-handed Trans-Atlantic
race from Le Havre in France to Itajai in Brazil, just 140 miles (260
kilometers) from the finishing line.
Speaking by satellite
phone to CNN just hours before that moment on board his vessel MACIF, he
explained why he first set out on the solo voyages.
"First, your life is too
short to do something you don't want to do," he says.
"Second, you will
not be efficient because you don't want to do it, and third the most
important one is if you don't want to do it then you will make mistakes
and then not be efficient.
"In safety terms, that's when things go wrong. Before anything else, you have to want to do it, otherwise that's it, no point."
Desjoyeaux says the
all-consuming nature of the racing ("24 hours of the day, you're just
trying to optimize everything") means it is a completely different way
of life, hence his personal struggles to get back into everyday norms on
He says the Vendee Globe
, a three-month ordeal held every four years, is "the most complete and perfect race you can imagine.
"So when I finished the first time, I was sure I'd come back - it was still something I wanted to do."
It is common to see
sharks and dolphins in the water, as well as whales -- although the
large mammals are to be avoided at all costs because of the damage they
can do to a vessel, which is often battling treacherous seas.
"I don't think there is
too much danger as safety on the boat is always No. 1," says Desjoyeaux.
"I don't take too many risks. If it's dangerous, I slow down and do it
properly. I want to keep my life."
Traveling around the
world in a vessel is not just about being a master sailor, a tactician
or mentally strong.
It is also about being a businessman and raising the
funds required to get such an expedition off the ground.
Budgets for the 2008-9
Vendee Globe were around €10 million ($13.8 million) for the very top
boats, each of the leading boats costing about €3.5 million ($4.8
Such numbers makes
British racer Steve White
's achievement at that race all the more
He arrived on the start line not knowing if he even had
enough funds to compete.
Under competition rules,
all boats taking part having to be in the harbor at Les Sables-d'Olonne
three weeks before the start date.
Just to get to that point, he had
remortgaged his and his wife's house four times in order to buy the boat
on which he aimed to compete.
He had two weeks in which to raise £200,000 ($328,000) to fund the trip, a big sum but small fry in global sailing terms.
"I had this green energy
company all set to sponsor me to the tune of £100,000, as well as
another businessman to another £100,000," he recalls.
"The green energy
company were on board, they just needed things to be signed off in one
final meeting. But then they went quiet and finally I got word that they
weren't going ahead.
"So I went back to the
guy (the businessman, who to this day has asked to remain nameless) and
said I couldn't match his £100,000 so I didn't expect him to fulfill his
side of the bargain. So I thought I'd have to face the embarrassment of
sailing away before the start in front of everyone.
"He just said, 'I'll get
back to you.' I carried on but felt sick and didn't hear back. I was
struggling with phone reception but got a snippet about four o'clock one
morning from my wife to say, 'We've got the money.'
"When I finally spoke to
her, it transpired this guy had stumped up the entire money. In a
flash, I'd gone from suicidal to being in tears. He'd essentially sorted
me out for the rest of my life by enabling me to do this."
In the end, the trip
cost £245,000, which White part-funded by being paid his €20,000 prize
money for finishing eighth in advance.
But it was a race
against the clock just to get ready, as he and his team worked through
the night to get the boat prepared.
By the time he set off for his 109
days at sea, he was already shattered.
terrible weather hit in the Bay of Biscay, breaking up the much more
expensive boats of his rivals.
In all, just 11 of the 30-strong fleet
"I enjoy being alone at sea, and in a weird sort of way love testing myself and seeing if I pass the test," White says.
"But it's an odd test.
As something breaks, you're like 'good grief' and it feels like torture.
But then a moment later the weather changes, as quickly as your mood,
dolphins are jumping in front of the boat and there's the most amazing
sun -- it's just a very serene, meditative experience."
White is not done with
His next challenge is another solo nonstop
circumnavigation, but this time the wrong way -- against the prevailing
winds and currents -- before returning for another shot at the Vendee
Globe in 2016.
For White, the appeal of such journeys is hard to explain.
"I remember (fellow
sailor) Mike Golding saying, 'You can't really understand it if you've
not done it.' I didn't really get that until I did it. Unless you do,
you won't either."
Heavy weather for Thomas Coville
The record for a solo
nonstop circumnavigation is a formidable 57 days, 13 hours and 34
minutes set by Francis Joyon in 2008 -- the fastest Vendee Globe
completion, by comparison, was at the 2012-13 staging when Francois
Gabart came home in 78 days, two hours and 16 minutes.
Yet another Frenchman,
Thomas Coville, is now seeking to beat Joyon's milestone -- having
aborted his fourth attempt last month, he is back on the water trying again in his 31-meter maxi-trimaran.
Will he break it?
phenomenal record," says Knox-Johnston, "but Thomas is a very
experienced sailor, and is certainly a guy capable of doing it. The
target's tough right now but that's the joy of records -- they're there
to be broken."
If he does so, what next
for Coville and the rest of the world's solo sailors?
If you have to
ask, it would seem, you clearly don't understand.