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Off Watch: Globe Girdling

DATE POSTED:January 13, 2021
 not even ­remotely a comfy ride.
The foiling IMOCA 60 Hugo Boss: not even ­remotely a comfy ride. (Courtesy Vendée Globe Media /)

By now, of course, we’ve all come to realize that the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the world in ways previously unimaginable, and as we go into the first uncertain winter with the coronavirus, nobody knows what lies ahead. One of the ways in which our lives have changed is the way in which we consume sports—admittedly a small item in the grand scheme of things. But sports have always been important to me, going far back to my own athletic career, the highlight of which was captaining my college football team (back in those ancient times when the ball was a rock, but still….).

Despite COVID-19, the NBA and MLB somehow made it through successful (if abbreviated) seasons. In years past, I would’ve been on my seat devouring the NBA Finals and the World Series, but not this year. Watching sports played in empty stadiums and arenas, for me at least, holds little appeal; it makes for passable reality television but holds little emotion compared with epic games played before real, packed houses.

But this month—at least at press time—a competitive sporting contest was scheduled to get underway on November 9 that I am well and truly looking forward to: the ninth edition of the anything-goes, wild-and-woolly quadrennial Vendée Globe singlehanded around-the-world race. (One notable change for 2020: The pre-race “village” in Les Sables-d’Olonne, which in a normal year attracts tens of thousands of rabid fans, was basically scrapped.)

Think about it: Marathon, offshore solo yacht racing is pretty much the perfect game for a pandemic. You can’t get much more “socially distanced” than alone on a sailboat somewhere between Australia and Antarctica. And modern technology—using real-time tracking software, high-quality video and images from the far Southern Ocean, daily first-person blogs and reports from the skippers, and more—makes following the race not only possible, but also highly interactive and entertaining.

The race itself, now contested in skittish, outlandish IMOCA 60s, many with foils to add thrills, speed and sleepless nights—they are the undisputed answer to the question of what is the scariest, loudest, most uncomfortable sailboat on any ocean—provides plenty of drama in its own right. If past editions are any indication, there will be no shortage of casualties, crashes, rescues and retirements; it’s like a waterborne NASCAR race, with the added degree of difficulty of never stopping and lasting a few months. You need to check the “I’m nuts” box before even contemplating a Vendée campaign.

The sport of solo long-­distance racing was actually invented in the 1960s by a crew of what became household names in Merry Old England, where it originated: Chichester, Hasler, Knox-Johnston and the like. That all changed, basically, when a couple of Frenchmen from across the English Channel—the equally legendary Bernard Moitessier and Eric Tabarly—threw their watch caps into the ring and showed the fine tea-drinking chaps a thing or two.

Today, the sport is ­completely dominated by the French, where it’s every bit as big as football and basketball in this country: Every Vendée has been won by a Frenchman. Twice, however, an English sailor has almost barged in the door: In 1990, Michel “The Professor” Desjoyeaux was the winner, but a wee British lass named Ellen MacArthur was right behind him, and stole the show. And in the last race, charismatic Englishman Alex Thomson darn near pulled off an upset, also finishing second.

Thomson is a veteran campaigner who has sailed a string of boats called Hugo Boss, titled after his menswear sponsor. He’s well-known for YouTube stunts such as climbing his mast on a steep heel in a tailored suit and diving into the sea, but he’s also one helluva sailor. He’s back again this year, probably his last swing at a Vendée victory after multiple attempts, and is one of the prohibitive favorites. But there are plenty of great stories sprinkled through the fleet of 33 entrants, including a half-dozen skilled and ­dauntless women skippers.

Let’s face it, the pandemic has made many if not most of us landlocked to a high degree. And in almost every circumstance, I’d rather be on a bike or a stroll than parked behind a computer screen more than I already am. But this Vendée should provide a salty smack in the kisser or two, even if it’s a virtual one. Though from afar, I’m fully planning to hook in and hang on.

Herb McCormick is CW’s executive editor.