Feature | Sailing

Vendée Globe 2020 - Everything you need to know

Sailing's ultimate test begins off the west coast of France on Sunday with the 33 solo competitors bidding to go non-stop around the world.

By Rory Jiwani ·

The Vendée Globe is the ultimate test in ocean sailing.

Held every four years, it is a non-stop solo round the world yacht race starting and finishing at Les Sables D'Olonne on the west coast of France.

The 2020-21 epic begins on Sunday (8 November) and you can watch the start - now closed to the public after France enforced stricter Covid measures last week - live on Olympic Channel.

A record 33 boats will set off on an arduous and at times dangerous journey which, barring accidents, will take between 70 and 130 days and cover a total distance of 45,000km (28,000 miles).

Olympic Channel will bring you weekly highlights and live coverage as the first boats arrive back to shore at Les Sables D'Olonne.

Vendée Globe 2020 start, route and rules

The Vendée Globe starts in the Vendée region of France and, like the Volvo Ocean Race, takes the clipper route of circumnavigation used by ships carrying goods between Europe and the Far East and Oceania.

This is the fastest round-the-world route starting out in the Atlantic towards the Cape of Good Hope south of Africa and then travelling east through the Southern Ocean making use of the 'Roaring Forties' winds found at latitudes of between 40 and 50 degrees.

The fleet then passes by Cape Horn at the south tip of South America before tacking north back to where they started.

The yachts are all monohulls conforming to the IMOCA 60 class, also known as the Open 60.

Inclement weather can place sailors in grave danger, not least due to their vast distance from normal emergency services, and competitors must have completed a solo trans-oceanic race or a previous Vendée Globe to be eligible to take part.

Outside assistance is not permitted although competitors can anchor to carry out repairs.

There has been a handful of cases of sailors rescuing rivals who have suffered serious boat damage or capsized, the last coming in the 2008-09 race when defending champion Vincent Riou brought Jean Le Cam on board near Cape Horn.

Le Cam was trapped in his overturned boat for 16 hours and the dramatic rescue damaged Riou's mast leading him to abandon the race in the world's southernmost city Ushuaia.

Riou, who had beaten Le Cam by less than seven hours four years previously, was awarded third place overall.

Winner Vincent Riou (L) and runner-up Jean Le Cam celebrate after the 2004-05 Vendee Globe, four years before Riou saved his rival's life

History of the Vendée Globe

The Globe Challenge, now known as the Vendée Globe, was founded in 1989 by French sailor Philippe Jeantot.

He was fourth in the inaugural 1989-90 race behind Titouan Lamazou with 12 men - 10 Frenchmen, a South African and an American - taking part.

There were seven official finishers although Mike Plant completed the race and set a new American single-handed circumnavigation record despite disqualifying himself for receiving minor assistance.

On his way to finishing in second place, Loick Peyron rescued Philippe Poupon who capsized in the Southern Ocean.

Plant was the race's first fatality when he was lost at sea off the Azores on his way to the 1992-93 race before his friend, British yachtsman Nigel Burgess, was found drowned just four days after the start.

Alain Gautier won the second renewal from Jean-Luc Van den Heede who improved on his third-place finish from two years previously.

The race then switched to being held every four years but poor weather led to there being just six finishers from 16 starters in 1996-97.

Christophe Auguin took victory with Catherine Chabaud becoming the first woman to complete the Vendée Globe, but this edition was marred by a number of capsizes.

The upturned yacht of Tony Bullimore during the 1996-97 Vendee Globe race. The Briton was rescued five days after its capsize

Briton Pete Goss rescued Raphael Dinelli in the Southern Ocean, an act for which he would receive the Legion d'honneur, with two more competitors - Tony Bullimore and Thierry Dubois saved by the Australian navy.

Then Canadian sailor Gerry Roufs was lost at sea as the race suffered its third fatality prompting organisers to strengthen safety rules for entrants and boats.

Those efforts were rewarded with 15 completing out of 24 in 2000-01.

The race is best remembered for a fine duel between Michel Desjoyeaux and Britain's Ellen MacArthur whose victory bid was ended when her boat needed emergency repairs after hitting a semi-submerged container.

MacArthur took second to become the first non-French sailor to finish in the top three and the youngest competitor to finish the race at 24.

Winner Desjoyeaux set a new solo circumnavigation record of 93 days three hours and 57 minutes with he, MacArthur and third-placed Roland Jourdain the first sailors to go round the world single-handed in under 100 days.

Michel Desjoyeaux after winning the 2000-01 Vendee Globe race
Ellen MacArthur celebrates finishing second in the 2000-01 Vendee Globe (Photo: Allsport UK/ALLSPORT)

The race grew in popularity after that with Riou beating Le Cam to victory in 2004-05 before Desjoyeaux claimed his second triumph four years later.

Armel Le Cleac'h was runner-up in 2008-09 and had to settle for second again in 2012-13 behind Francois Gabart when the race's last capsize - Spaniard Javier Sanso who was rescued near the Azores - occurred.

But Le Cleac'h finally emerged victorious in 2016-17, winning in a new race record of 74 days three hours 35 minutes and 46 seconds from Britain's Alex Thomson.

Armel Le Cleach celebrates victory in the 2016-17 Vendee Globe

The contenders for the Vendée Globe 2020

With Le Cleac'h opting not to defend his title, Thomson will be hoping to become the first non-French Vendée Globe winner having finished third and second in the last two events.

The 46-year-old Welshman won the Clipper Race back in 1999 making him the youngest captain to claim a round-the-world yacht race.

He has since excelled in single-handed events despite being forced to retire in both the 2004-05 and 2008-09 Vendee Globes.

Four years ago, he made a blistering start race reaching the Cape of Good Hope in less than 18 days, but a broken starboard foil slowed his progress and made his second place all the more creditable.

If he can avoid serious boat damage, Thomson is undoubtedly the favourite to take the title out of France for the first time in its ninth edition.

Before setting off from his home base of Gosport on the south coast of England, he told Portsmouth News he was hoping to fulfil a long-held ambition.

"This is 20 years of my life so, yes, this is what we’ve all been waiting for and what we’ve all been working towards.

"A win would certainly validate everything that we as a team, together with our partners, have put into this journey.

"Obviously, the goal is to go out there and win it. But to get there, you have to finish and this race is very, very tough to finish." - Alex Thomson

There are no previous winners in the line-up although 2004-05 runner-up Le Cam, who has finished fifth and sixth since being rescued in the 2008-09 race, will also make his fifth start.

More than half the fleet hails from France with four competitors from Britain and one from each of Switzerland, Finland, Italy, Germany, Japan and Spain whose Didac Costa will helm the boat MacCarthur steered to second place 20 years ago.

There are five women taking part with three from Britain including Samantha Davies who finished fifth in the 2008-09 race.

Finland has its first entrant in the shape of 58-year-old airline pilot Ari Huusela who races Ariel 2, the boat Dee Caffari steered to seventh place in 2008-09.

Boris Herrmann is Germany's first Vendée Globe sailor over a year after he and his boat, Malizia II, were involved in a headline-making transatlantic journey.

Herrmann transported climate change activist Greta Thunberg to the UN Climate Action Summit last August with the boat's energy supplied by solar panels and underwater turbines making it a zero-carbon trip.

A keen environmentalist himself, Herrmann's boat will have an ocean sensor onboard to monitor water temperature, carbon dioxide and pH levels in the Southern Ocean to gather data for scientists examining climate change.

He will hope to go the distance unlike Malizia II's previous Vendée Globe outing four years ago when French skipper Sebastien Josse had to quit due to foil damage 30 days into the race.

Boris Herrmann and Greta Thunberg start their transatlantic journey in Malizia II from Plymouth, UK in August 2019

Also in the fleet is the incredible Damien Seguin who is the first sailor with a disability to compete in the Vendée Globe.

The 41-year-old Frenchman was born without a left hand but went on to become a skilled seaman and won gold at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games in the solo 2.4-metre keelboat class.

He has won now appeared in four Paralympic Games, winning three medals in total and regaining his 2.4mR title in Rio.

Seguin, who carried the French flag in the London 2012 Opening Ceremony, is also a regular on the IMOCA offshore racing circuit.

With the help of Le Cam, Seguin has made ergonomic adaptations to his Groupe Apicil boat ahead of the start of his awe-inspiring challenge.

How to watch the Vendée Globe 2020

You can watch the start of the Vendée Globe 2020-21 live on Olympic Channel on Sunday 8 November with the fleet set to depart at 12:02 GMT.

Olympic Channel will also stream weekly highlights of the race as well as live coverage of the finish in Les Sables D'Olonne with the first boats expected back in mid-January.


8 Nov 2020

2020 Vendée Globe - Les Sables d'Olonne