Pip Hare was the first British skipper to finish the 2020-21 Vendée Globe. She shares the highs and lows of her race
I have dreamed of competing in the Vendée Globe since reading about the race in a sailing magazine at the age of 17.
Despite the COVID-19 lockdown that shrouded the start last year, the emotion of standing on the bow of Medallia, making my way out of the channel in Les Sables d’Olonne with local people hanging out of windows, banging saucepans and shouting encouragement, filled me with such an incredible sense of joy and achievement.
I had worked so hard to enter the race, and had been supported by so many people; I was determined to savour and profit from every moment, whatever it brought.
Starting the race was a strange experience.
There was part of me that struggled to believe I was actually there.
I missed my friends and family immensely and felt cheated that my parents couldn’t share the moment with me.
But once the fog lifted and the two-hour postponement of the start came to an end, I found myself lining up with my heroes.
I was in the thick of a start line alongside 2020 foiling boats, experienced skippers and multi-million euro campaigns, but I felt I had earned my right to be there and I put the bow towards the start, unfurled the gennaker and sailed hard for the line.
My smile was wide and heartfelt and it seldom left my face for the next 95 days.
I had heard that success in the Vendée Globe has a huge amount to do with how a skipper deals with breakages and setbacks on the boat.
We had prepared Medallia to the highest possible standard in the time available, but I was always acutely aware that I was racing an old IMOCA 60 and things were going to break.
This feeling was validated in the first week when one of the stainless steel D-rings on the top of my traveller sheared off; after our first big weather front, my jib tack line was chafed, one of the elastics up the rig had broken and I had to re-seal my sat dome table.
From this moment I was in a rolling programme of boat maintenance to keep Medallia in racing form.
My background both as a liveaboard, and having run my own low-budget race programmes for the last 12 years, helped me to manage this cycle of maintenance.
I have hands-on experience in all areas of boat preparation from laminating to electronics and am used to being creative with the materials on board.
A couple of ingenious fixes included a repair to the fresh water expansion tank on the engine, using a bailer cut to fit and then bonded to the tank, and a protective cover for my keel-winch buttons made from a plastic bottle.
I was not alone when managing the technical problems onboard.
The rules allow entrants to have help from their shore teams to fix problems, although not to make upgrades or change anything that would improve performance.
My technical director Joff Brown has a huge amount of Vendée Globe experience, having prepared boats for both Mike Golding and Dee Caffari, as well as Rich Wilson in 2016-17.
Throughout my race, Joff constantly had his phone next to him.
If I had a problem we would communicate via WhatsApp on a satellite connection, sending him photos, videos and sound files so he could help to assess damage and we could work out a solution together.
The most significant issue was my rudder change in the Southern Ocean after I found a large crack in the port rudder stock.
The highs of the race
It is impossible to pick one great moment from the race.
There were so many highs and they were more about the continued euphoria of achieving such a long-term ambition and doing something I genuinely love, than one specific moment.
One thing is for sure – I loved sailing fast.
When I learned that Medallia could handle the Southern Ocean, I took every opportunity to put my foot down and the sensation of going really fast in the middle of nowhere was addictive.
It’s not an easy feeling; the boat is loud, you are continually thrown around, and there is a constant inner argument over when to back off.
I was hyper-alert to any strange sounds or indications that something was not right.
But the first time I was top of the leaderboard of 24-hour runs it made me howl with laughter.
It seemed ridiculous that I should be there, putting in 400+ mile days on a 21-year-old boat, but once I had done it I wanted more. It’s not reckless sailing, it’s calculated.
I was always aware of the consequences of getting things wrong, but I love the challenge of sailing fast and the gratification of gaining places and watching those miles fly by.
Sailing past Cape Horn was a magical moment and a lot more emotional than I had expected.
I was still recovering from the fall out of changing my rudder.
My wind instruments were not working so the autopilot was sailing inefficiently, and I had a day of squalls that exhausted me and made progress slow.
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I didn’t think I would have the energy to smile at the Horn but watching its unmistakable shape appear out of the mist completely choked me up.
I was so happy to know that I had finished the Southern Ocean.
The truth is I was happy for nearly every day I was on the water.
I worked so hard to get to the Vendée Globe and have always been sure it was something I wanted to do.
If I even felt a little miserable I went on deck, looked at where I was and what I was doing and felt lucky and happy to be there.
The race lows
Of course, there were low moments.
A sporting event that requires an athlete to perform 24/7 for three months with no breaks is going to push every competitor to the limit, and there will be times that seem unbearable.
I found it difficult when I was not able to perform or made mistakes in my strategy that cost me places.
Initially, I struggled to forgive myself for making mistakes but soon learned that everyone in the fleet was having their own dramas so there would always be opportunity to pick myself up and have another go at forging forwards.
This helped a lot in the second half of the race.
My most difficult days were crossing the equator on the return leg up the Atlantic.
I was suffering an allergic reaction to a jellyfish sting which had covered my arms and legs in blisters.
The heat was intense, there was no shade on deck and no ventilation down below.
I had to sit very still to avoid my skin touching any surfaces, and I was dripping with sweat.
During the day I felt miserable and powerless to make my situation better as I had to wait for my medication to take effect and my body to heal itself.
I sailed hard at night when it was cool and a joy to be on deck.
Crossing the finish line
The finish was the most stressful part of my entire race – even more stressful than changing the rudder mid-Southern Ocean.
I had spent the last three months avoiding sailing upwind in gale force conditions, areas where there might be a lot of traffic and proximity to the land.
In the last six hours of the race I found myself beating upwind, in 30 knots, through a huge fishing fleet and with the finish line just a couple of miles off a rocky shore.
This was not helped by one of the lines – which allowed me to cant my keel from side to side – breaking, resulting in me having to go deep inside the boat, into the keel compartment to rig a new line.
Every part of my brain was on overload, warning me of risk everywhere.
It was freezing cold, my stomach went into a severe painful cramp that did not ease until after the finish when my shore team came on board.
I was so stressed I could not imagine finding even the smallest smile and was dreading the cameras and my disappointing reaction.
Once again COVID-19 had prevented my friends and family from being at the finish, but a small shore team had been allowed to travel and a few friends who lived in France came along too.
Initially, I was sailing through the black towards a line with no noise and no fanfare.
My support RIB came out early but was hanging back to give me room to tack. It didn’t feel like I was about to finish the Vendée Globe.
I was tired and a bit deflated.
As I got close to the line, an armada of RIBS hurtled towards me out of the pitch-black and then there was noise, floodlights on the boat, horns blowing, people cheering and I was suddenly engaged in what I was about to do.
Crossing the line was incredible.
I’d achieved a childhood ambition and it had been better than I ever dreamed it would be.
My reception back at Les Sables was small, amid a French night-time curfew; the bin lorries on the canal side honked their horns, Jean Le Cam appeared and gave me a bear hug and the race committee and organisation, compensating for absent friends and family, went out of their way to make me feel special.
It is hard to sum up the Vendée Globe.
It is so unique, requiring many skills and mental and emotional toughness as well as physical fitness.
The race will take a sailor from the greatest euphoria to the most intense despair.
It requires us to perform 24/7 and to constantly strive to do better.
The sailing is immense and it is a real privilege to see the world’s oceans in this way.
I was sure from week one of the race that this was the sport for me, and from the moment I stepped off Medallia, I started thinking about 2024…
Enjoyed reading Pip Hare: What it’s like to race the Vendée Globe?
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Source: Yachting Monthly