What’s it really like to prepare for the world’s toughest ocean race, the Vendée Globe? Pip Hare reveals how hard it can be
It would be easy to assume the toughest challenge of the Vendée Globe Race is racing a 60ft IMOCA alone, battling the elements, sleep deprived and exhausted. But for me, striving to get to the start line on a meagre budget and tight timescale, the two-year build up to the race, has caused me to dig deeper than at any other time in my life. Only 87 sailors have ever finished this race, but how many more have not made it to the start line?
The Vendée Globe is raced in IMOCA class yachts and perhaps the hardest part of entering this race is acquiring a boat to race in – a new build would cost millions. I got my lucky break in 2018 when the 20-year-old Superbigou became available for charter at a very cheap rate. Originally campaigned by Bernard Stamm in the 2000 Vendée Globe, Superbigou has made four successful circumnavigations, most recently in the 2016/7 race where she came 12th skippered by Swiss sailor Alan Roura.
When I launched my campaign in November 2018 I knew what I wanted it to look like; a well-prepared boat with a small, functional team to manage the project and allow me to focus on sailing and training. But without a title sponsor this ideal was not going to be possible.
Without a boat how could you possibly convince a backer to fund your campaign, and without the backer to buy your boat how do you get started? With Superbigou I saw an opportunity to fundraise as I went. The charter fee was payable monthly and the upfront investment to get the boat sailing again was minimal as the boat was still within class after the 2016 Vendée.
The Vendée Globe race only comes around once every four years, so I decided to make it happen by delivering as much as I could alone, fundraising and building my team along the way. I had to give it my best shot, even if that meant giving it all of me.
Getting a place
In order to secure one of 34 race entries I had to finish three qualification races in 2019. Having started the year with no IMOCA experience I needed to train hard and smart with an objective to ‘compete not just complete’, building performance along the way. I designed a three-phase approach to training, using the qualification races as milestones to punctuate my learning.
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Phase one was all about an accelerated learning of the basics, and took me up to April 2019 and the Bermudes 1000 Race, where my objective was to finish. The second phase, from May to July, focussed on performance, and ended with the Rolex Fastnet Race. The final phase of last year was about building endurance over distance, working up to the Transat Jacques Vabre in November.
Superbigou is a simple but strong boat so I had no problem learning the systems. The biggest adjustment was getting used to managing the size alone – with the biggest spinnaker flying she carries over 570m2 of sail.
Superbigou is also one of the most physically challenging IMOCAs in the fleet; my cockpit is tiny with little protection from the elements, all the halyards are managed on the mast so I need to go forward not just for sail changes but also for reefing, my spinnakers are all in snuffers, rather than on furlers, my winches are all top grind (I have the only IMOCA without a coffee grinder) and my canting keel is managed from down below using block and tackle onto an electric winch. There are many systems I’d love to change, to simplify or improve, and we’re addressing as much as budget will allow.
Stacking weight in the right place on the boat is crucial to performance and lugging 90kg sails around the deck is part of everyday sailing. When we’re going upwind I move them inside to the windward side of the sail locker; off the breeze they come out on deck, strapped to the quarter or on the transom. When sails are dry it’s hard work, but once they get wet the spinnakers become leaden lumps.
Fitness and strength are vital to sailing Superbigou safely and fast, so for the first time in my life I have had to incorporate weight training into my regime. Physically preparing to race the IMOCA has been a blend of endurance-building cardio work, weight training for power, and conditioning exercises to prevent injury.
I train six days a week with weight lifting in the gym and at least one hour of cardio a day. The cardio would be easy to miss out, with such long days, so wherever possible I commute on my bike or by running. I see a chiropractor once a week, and together we’re designing exercises I can do on board, which will help me to self-treat and stay injury free.
I’ve also had to adjust my diet, eating more protein and allowing myself to bulk up before races. This is not something I enjoy. Putting on weight is an uncomfortable thing to do but in the five weeks it took to sail to Brazil and back I lost seven kilos, so I can’t afford to start the Vendée lean.
My aim for the middle of last year was to work on performance, and I wanted a co-skipper who would push me during the Fastnet. I struck gold when Paul Larsen agreed to race with me.
King of speed
Paul has held the world speed sailing record since 2012 when his Sail Rocket project achieved 65.45 knots, so I’ll admit that I was apprehensive he might find me a disappointing co-skipper.
Throughout my sailing career I’ve had doubts about my abilities on the racetrack – especially this year, when I have been learning the boat alone without the luxury of a coach. But from the beginning we gelled well as a team, we pushed in the same way, had the same work ethic and my self confidence grew.
Working with Paul has taught me so much about priorities and where to focus my energy. He showed me that every small detail will make a difference and I have yet to meet a more positive, inquisitive, and energised person both on and off the water. I could not have asked for a better mentor.
Our Fastnet Race was the stuff of dreams; after 23 hours of racing the oldest boat in the fleet we were leading the IMOCAs on the water to the Scilly Isles. In my wildest fantasy I would never have imagined this was possible, but it made me understand that there will always be a place for good seamanship, hard work and smart tactics, no matter how old your boat.
The third race of 2019 was the Transat Jacques Vabre; it was my first ocean crossing in the IMOCA and represented my biggest risk for the whole year. Superbigou was in serviceable condition but tired, I needed to sail 10,000 miles from France to Brazil and back, keeping the boat in one piece.
It was not just vital to finish the race and secure my qualifying mileage, but I also needed to get the boat back in good time for a refit before Christmas. I was torn between wanting to compete and needing to keep the boat safe.
Just three weeks before the start my co-skipper broke his arm and I was left with no partner to race with. It seemed like I was being challenged with a new problem every day. After a lot of organisation, the race committee agreed the Dutch sailor Ysbrand Endt could join me as co-skipper.
I arrived at the TJV race village stressed and tired, with a boat that needed preparation. But I was supported by a crew of dedicated volunteers who grafted through the days to get us race ready. In a testament to their efforts, I had no breakages or gear failures over the 10,000 miles of sailing that followed. My boat was prepared with passion and it showed.
The TJV and delivery home was the perfect ending to my year. The race itself ended with a five-day match race against Alexia Barrier and Joan Mulloy in a similar aged IMOCA. After nearly 5,000 miles of racing we finished just 11 minutes apart.
It was utterly rewarding to spend five weeks at sea in my boat. I tuned into to it, learning the different sounds and feelings, growing more confident with every mile under the keel. I learned that Superbigou loves to be pushed and will pay back effort with performance. I became braver and finished the year feeling like a competitor and with enough miles to secure my place on the Vendée Globe start line.
The emotional cost
This pace of life has taken its toll. I’m tired and at times it has been lonely, carrying all of the risk, stress, and sheer volume of work on my shoulders.
It is totally ironic that I am so at peace on the ocean alone, but the responsibility I’ve had to manage on shore has been isolating in the extreme. I’ve not had time or capacity to consider anything outside my own campaign. I often feel guilty about neglecting the people I care about and reticent to share my problems as I don’t want to burden them with it.
But every day I’ve moved forward, focussing on priorities for that moment. I make small objectives to get me to the next stage and find a way around obstacles. The trick is not to look up.
I’ve only ever retired from one race in my life and I will never accept a negative status quo when racing, it seems that I am tougher, more direct, less compromising when in race mode and I’ve tried to channel that part of my personality to keep things going ashore.
The M word
I’m working with the smallest budget of any Vendée competitor. I set my fundraising goal at £1.2 million to deliver the best race I was capable of. That would allow me to employ a small team of professionals to support my campaign, and include a new sail wardrobe and upgrades to onboard equipment as well as the costs of racing for the two years prior to the Vendée Globe. I knew that finding the ‘big ticket’ corporate sponsors was going to take time and so I needed a strategy that would allow me to get moving from the beginning.
I have a three-tier approach to my funding: crowd funding; a business syndicate; and corporate sponsorship. When I launched the campaign I set up a crowd-funding appeal and was absolutely blown away by the generosity of people all over the world. Donations from the general public raised over £40,000.
My business syndicate is a plan I created following several conversations with local businesses in Poole that were keen to support me but did not have the capital for a corporate sponsorship package, which starts at £10,000. Business Syndicate membership costs £5,000, payable in monthly installments, and these memberships have covered my monthly basic costs.
The return to members is not branding but experiential, including regular talks and open days on the boat to which members can invite clients and employees. These early investors have made my last year possible and I will be forever in their debt.
Corporate sponsorship packages are the big-ticket items: title, gold, and silver level sponsorships, which will eventually get to brand the boat. It was obvious from the start of 2019 I’d have to compromise on my ideal budget, the objective was to qualify for the Vendée and to get racing and I had to work with what I had in any given moment. I’d need to make tough decisions on what to spend my money on.
One immediate saving I could make was to manage the entire project myself until I’d raised the funds to employ a team. This would mean working full-time and without salary for as long as it took. So I found a lodger and have lived off my savings for the past year, working solely on my Vendée campaign. The workload has been immense and diverse, ranging from updating my website to wiring in wind instruments at the top of the mast.
When the workload has been too great for one person I have appealed for volunteers and both friends and strangers have responded giving their time for free, cleaning, carrying, sorting, sanding. I’m not used to asking for help and it’s been a big mental shift to make this step but every time I have asked, help has been given. In this way I have been carried through the year.
Through a lot of hard work and juggling many balls I was able to deliver my first year for just under £350,000 (in cash and value in kind). There’s no escaping the fact I still need to raise a large amount of cash to compete. My winter refit is critical to reliability and over the next year I need to step back from the day-to-day running of this project and focus on my own preparations.
A huge part of my time now is taken up looking for sponsorship; phone calls, emails, meetings. I chase down every lead, I try every opportunity. It’s already the toughest part of what I do and for a shy introvert who hates the idea of self-promotion it is harder than you could possibly imagine. I am driven by my passion for this race, but the act of asking, selling and promoting is more draining than anything else I do.
Is it worth it?
Why put myself through this stress and exhaustion? Why push myself so hard for so long? The constant joy and grounding force of the last year has been the time I have spent training afloat. I’ve loved every minute of sailing this year, and I have grown as a sailor.
I have connected with my boat, I can tell from below decks what tweaks need to be made when we fall off the pace, I’m altogether casual about sleeping when we are cruising at 20 knots. The energy and excitement I feel when pushing the boat hard is incredible.
Sometimes I look up at the 29m mast and I think: ‘This is madness’ – to race this boat alone, non-stop around the world, being forced to perform for three months solid. But it’s the magnitude of this event that appeals to me. It is forcing me to be the best version of myself. It is pushing me to improve and to endure at every level. Who would not want to do that?
How to qualify for the Vendée Globe
This year’s race is a sell-out. Vendée Globe skippers are allocated places on the following criteria, in order of priority:
- Skippers who completed the 2016/17 Vendée Globe.
- New build IMOCAs (declaration of build must be post 2017).
- Cumulative mileage sailed in IMOCA Globe Series races (double-handed race mileage counted at 50%).
- Four wild cards: these entries may be chosen by the committee and given places in favour of any other skippers who have qualified through the above system.
Pip’s journey to the Vendée
I’ve been a professional sailor since leaving school and, although I love all sailing, my real calling is solo ocean racing. I first read about the Vendée Globe when I was a teenager living in land-locked Cambridgeshire and since then have dreamed of competing in the race.
Eleven years ago, I started on that road by taking part in the OSTAR, a single-handed transatlantic race, and since then I have steadily worked my way through the short-handed racing ranks, competing in Minis, Class 40s and finally securing my IMOCA at the beginning of 2019.
First published in the May 2020 edition of Yachting World. You can find out more about Pip’s campaign and support her in the Vendée Globe at: piphareoceanracing.com