Transatlantic Cultural Shift in Ocean Sailing
Updated: Nov 1, 2019
The Transat Jacques Vabre, the pinnacle double handed ocean race, launches from the breezy North Atlantic shores of Le Havre every two years in the fall. On October 27th 59 teams started and will hopefully finish the 4,360-mile course weeks later in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil.
There couldn't be a less breathtaking scene from high atop the vertical, chalky white Normandy cliffs where thousands stand on the thick grasses to watch the TJV start. Breathing in the salty view, the imagination is captured by human teams managing their machines and what challenges the sea will offer in the coming days. Standing on those cliffs, it's frightening, you're breathless, inspired all at the same time. These are the same sensations felt by those sailors slowly disappearing over the horizon. This is miles from the race village, but an incredibly visceral fan experience.
Started just a few years after the world was exposed to the mind-blowing solo sailing exploit around the globe called the Vendee Globe, the TJV has ever since been intimately connected to the Vendee and just as popular in France and Europe.
Tens of thousands come to the pontoons in Le Havre. They're here to see the spectacle and begin to watch two humans, relying on each other 24/7, navigating their own rhythms and the rhythms of the frighteningly fast, modern ocean racers. It's compelling stuff and we know the access to race tracking and video reports brings each challenge (broken autopilots, torn sails, accidents with submerged containers and fishing boats) to our frame of view and we see how fatigue and drive merge into a struggle that plays out on the ever changing ocean.
This year, the connection to the Vendee is as strong as ever with the six new IMOCA 60s testing out their powerful new hydrofoils that, for the first time, have the hulls mostly out of the water as the breeze peaks 15 knots. Charal with Jeremie Beyou has had the most testing and is previewing 30 knots as the "new normal" speed average in the IMOCA. The new Hugo Boss is out of another world with a completely enclosed cockpit letting us know that in the future, with the autopilot running just about 100% of the time and more high-speed pounding and crashing, protecting the skipper (can't really call them a driver anymore) will be a growing concern.
More Influential than Ever
There are other IMOCA, Multi 50 and Class 40 sailors in the form guide to discuss as favorites, but I guess I will finally get to my point: This year's TJV is about the Vendee, yes, but there are two new twists to keep an eye on and those are the connections to Paris 2024 (Olympics) and The (Volvo) Ocean Race.
As if the TJV wasn't important enough in the world of professional ocean sailing, the selection of a mixed (female and male) double handed distance event for the 2024 Olympic Games and the decision to include a shorthanded IMOCA class in The Ocean Race has set in motion a virtuous circle for today's female and male ocean sailors. And the TJV is displaying the trickle down from these bold but important decisions.
Starting with the Paris 2024 connection, it is awesome to see two mixed teams in the Class 40, five in the IMOCA (not big numbers, but hey, it's a start) and one all women's team, Alexia Barriers and Joan Mulloy, with their IMOCA "4MyPlanet." I don't have the comparison from 2017 but I do know there are WAY more women in the mix. This can be considered a direct result of the carrot of an Olympic medal at the end of a stick.
Reigning Vendee Globe champion Armel Le Cleac'h has parnered with Clarisse Cremer. I am so psyched not to be able to say "countrymen" in a sailing article. And we can only think (hope) Le Cleac'h and Cremer have their eyes on something they maybe never would have gone for in the past: Olympic Gold.
The in-demand IMOCA sailor Morgan Lagraviere is sailing with Isabelle Joschke. Vendee regular and British offshore superstar Sam Davies is in her second "mixed" race of the year sailing with Frenchman Paul Meilhat. Seeing more of the irrepressibly positive and talented Davies can only be a good thing for us all. And Brit Mirranda Merron, a top shorthanded sailor by any measure, has finally stepped up to an IMOCA after years of double handed success with her partner Halvard Mabire.
Shorthanded sailing is the only space in professional sailing where skipper size and strength is not dominant. Legendary Frank Cammas is a small individual. Dame Ellen MacArthur is strong but also very small in frame. Putting a double handed mixed ocean race up for a medal event (and the previous Volvo's move to incentivize women on teams) has instantaneously elevated the role of women in professional sailing. Years ago, Merron gave insight into the dearth of professional women sailors. Griping about the super buff America's Cup athletes when I asked, "Why aren't there more professional women sailors?", she stated with fire in her eyes, "Because the boats aren't designed to a human scale!"
By it's nature, shorthanded sailing provides craft that can be easily managed by one person. And that can be any person as we have seen. To do it well, there is stamina, intelligence, skill, grit. Woman or man, these qualities make the difference. And for a storyline, you can't have a more interesting result than having mixed teams because two men on a boat just don't have the same perspective or strengths than one woman and one man working together as a team. You don't have what you don't have!
The Ocean Race's decision to have a reduced-crew component to their around the world race and use the existing IMOCA class is a master stroke in one way because, like Paris 2024 potentially attracting stars like Davies and Le Cleac'h to possible Olympic campaigns, it is merging the efficiencies of cross campaigning and sponsorship. Think about it, one sailor can sail in The Ocean Race on an IMOCA which can serve as training for a Vendee or TJV campaign which can serve as cross training for an Olympic campaign...and let's not forget about the extremely popular, and well-funded, Solitaire du Figaro as a breeding ground for all of the above.
American Charlie Enright was poised to be a favorite for the next Ocean Race until the IMOCA was added. Seeing the writing on the wall that this division would become the place where the best are matched (more so than the two-race old Volvo 65 fleet), he doubled down on his career and has been living and training in Brittany on his 11th Hour Racing IMOCA (second place boat from the last Vendee). Having Volvo winner Pascal Bidegorry as his co-skipper and already seeing success, Enright is mapping out a path for anyone wanting to tap into the multi-event career opportunity IMOCA and the TJV represents.
Master thinker and pro sailing event guru Mark Turner foresaw all of this when he wrote a white paper to ISAF (now World Sailing) promoting the idea of shorthanded sailing in the Olympics. He wanted to showcase stadium racing and offshore solo racing to provide the "spectrum of the sport." Sadly his presentation was never heard at that 2013 ISAF meeting. But what he suggested has come to fruition along with having the IMOCA type in The Ocean Race, which he previously managed. And let's not forget that Turner's last big move when running the Volvo was to make manditory mixed crews. No matter your view on legislation, that shot of accessibility for women in professional sailing has triggered, literally, a growingly balanced landscape across the marquee events in the sport.
TJV and (you and) Me
Back to the race course! We know that the world is a better place when it showcases the best humans have to offer and we know that balance and diversity (sailing's not even close to the common definition of this word) allows us to achieve greatness and success (another word hard to define). This year's TJV has already succeeded with the start of a wonderfully mixed group of female and male sailors. And the stories unfolding over the next few weeks will be more compelling than ever. Turner also wrote that shorthanded sailing was "made for TV," and fit perfectly into the modern Olympic broadcasting ethos. This TJV will be a wonderful proof of concept.
If you enjoy watching the lifestyle, trials and victories as they unfold on vlogs and the tracker (teamwork exhibited in sweating and exhausted crews listening to each other, debating, living, celebrating), this TJV is the place to follow all these individual compelling stories as they happen and you, a viewer and fan, can piece together in your mind how each story fits in the whole puzzle of the race. It always gets better right to the end, like any great story.
For now, here's a link to my small contribution to understanding double handed racing. A collaboration with The New York Times and PBS covering the 2014 New York to Barcelona, "Strangers at Sea" was a rare and awesome opportunity.
And finally, if you have enjoyed the TJV, for the first time you will be able to follow your favorite sailors move over to the Vendee Globe, then The Ocean Race, then the Olympics. If you like all of this, it's a great time to be you!