On Thursday, French yachtsman Armel Le Cléac'h crossed the Vendée Globe's finish line at Les Sables d'Olonne, bringing a dramatic contest for first place to a close. He completed the course in 74 days, 3 hours and 35 minutes, beating the previous speed record by almost four days.
The race organizers say that Le Cléac'h and his closest competitor, Alex Thompson, set a higher bar this year thanks to the use of hydrofoils – L-shaped daggerboards that were not fitted on the previous generation of purpose-built IMOCA 60 racing yachts. The foils convey lift and extra speed under certain conditions, allowing the vessels to cut through the swells at up to 35 knots. However, the design reduces performance upwind, and yachtsmen have to make smart strategic decisons to maximize its potential.
The French frigate Nivôse escorts Thompson and Le Cléac'h in the Southern Ocean
“It is the sailor who makes all the difference," Le Cléac'h said at the starting line in November. "The one who comes out on top will be the one who makes the fewest mistakes. We are setting off as pioneers, as no 60-foot monohull has ever sailed around the world with foils. I am one of the favourites, but I’m not the only one. There have been four transatlantic races since I started sailing on [this vessel] and I won one of them.”
Both Thompson and Le Cléac'h were top contenders in previous years and had been widely favored. They traded off in the lead position several times, even though Thompson was competing with a handicap – he struck an unidentified object early in the race, breaking off his yacht's starboard foil. In spite of the damage he set a new speed record for the segment from Les Sables d'Olonne to Cape Horn. (Others had worse luck. Floating object collisions caused several contestants to quit this year's race, some with shattered hulls and some without their vessels at all.)
Celebration at the finish line
In an interview Thursday in the cockpit of Banque Populaire VIII, Le Cléac'h expressed gratitude and amazement at his historic win.
"I wanted this victory so much . . . I felt that everything was against me. This was my third Vendée Globe and I knew it was the one that had to go for," he said. "I did not let go, never, not a meter . . . The race was intense from start to finish and I never had a break."
Le Cléac'h's success sparked an outpouring of national pride. French president Francois Hollande commended Le Cléac'h for his "courage and determination," and prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve hailed him as a flag bearer of "l'excellence française." The yachtsman and the team that built his boat are from Brittany, and the leader of Breton's regional council said that their performance was testimony to "Breton's excellence in offshore racing . . . A man, a boat, high technology, all of Brittany is proud today of Armel Le Cléac'h."