An Extraordinary Adventure

A review of Yves Parlier's Vendee Globe by Ed Gorman.

Friday March 16th 2001, Author: Ed Gorman, Location: United Kingdom
At the elite end of single-handed round-the-world racing, when things go badly wrong - like the mast falling down - you get yourself to the nearest airport and go home. But Yves Parlier refused such an easy option and has fulfilled his promise made in mid-December, that he would finish his last Vendee Globe within the rules - that is without outside assistance of any kind - come what may.

In doing so he has completed one of the great solo ocean voyages of all time and one which has confirmed his status in France as a legend in the sport. His story, his battles and his ingenuity, have captivated the French public and no-one in Les Sables d'Olonne has any doubts that his arrival today will be a far bigger affair than that which attended race winner Michel Desjoyeaux or even Ellen MacArthur.

At the time when Aquitaine Innovations' rig came crashing down back in mid-December deep in the southern Indian ocean, most people thought Parlier was nuts to think he could carry on. How on earth was he going to sail halfway round the world without a proper rig and with food for only 100 days? One had visions of him starving to death in the Doldrums, rather than give up the prize of finishing.This was best summed up by his fellow countryman, Desjoyeaux, who reckoned Yves would "come to his senses" and go to Perth, the nearest port, about 1,500 miles to the northeast.

But Parlier is an exceptional individual in every sense and neither we nor Desjoyeaux had reckoned with his extraordinary determination to carry through his plan - a level of commitment matched only by Ellen MacArthur in this epic race. What we had forgotten, perhaps, is that Parlier is not only a racing yachtsman but a man with a real passion for boats and the sea. A man with the resourcefulness and instincts of a true mariner who very quickly and naturally switched from grand prix driver to adventuring survivor.

One was struck as the weeks went by, how much the Frenchman from Arcachon enjoyed the challenge he had set himself, despite the ever-present danger that he could get into serious trouble either through lack of food or through problems with his improvised rig. Here is a good example of the man's spirit in a message he sent after he had sailed through a small depression off the Brazilian coast which had made him sick with worry that his rig might fail.
"I caught a 4 kilo fish yesterday which was 80 cm long: a beautiful baby so my morale is high. As my speed wasn't great I prepared myself psychologically to get fishing. The lines were ready, and I put on my Arcachon T-shirt, so that the fish would recognise me, as it's a famous French port. I hooked something but then I couldn't reel it in easily and it disappeared back into the sea. Five hours later the line jumped again and this time I grabbed the victim with both hands and threw it into the cockpit. I'm going to dry it out with some salt and make a feast fit for a king!"

Even at the very begining of the race back in November, the big question as far as Parlier's prospects were concerned was the mast on Aquitaine. The yacht had dismasted on the single-handed transatlantic race last summer and Parlier had installed a new one shortly afterwards. Unhappy with it, he then changed it again within weeks of the Vendee start. When he left Les Sables he did so with a section which was unpainted and unproven.

Parlier - the mad genius of French sailing - knows only one way to race and that is full-on. If the man has a weakness it is his ability, or inability, to judge the fine line between speed and preserving the boat. To begin with, it was very noticeable how much more quickly he fell into the routine of the race and the challenge of the isolation and the weather, than all his 23 rivals. Unsurprisingly he led from early on and then did so for almost all of the first month, as he dragged the fleet along behind him at breakneck speed.

Watching from the outside and reading Desjoyeaux's complaints about how fast Parlier was going, it all looked dangerously simple. Parlier was going to push himself over the edge. The critical moment came when he made an inexplicable routing error in the first week in the Southern Ocean - possibly the result of mental exhaustion. Having led for weeks, he was suddenly in third place and in danger of falling further behind to boats to the north of him. Parlier could not help himself as he thrashed Aquitaine, flying along in dangerous squally weather and averaging up to two knots faster than Desjoyeaux ahead of him.

On the day the rig fell down, Parlier was caught out with too much sail in a sudden and violent squall. His description of the moment his dreams of victory evaporated is frightening even in print. "My boat bore away and rolled on her side to windward. When she flipped back upright, the force was so powerful that Aquitaine Innovations went into a gybe and I was thrown into the cockpit. The boat started surfing and the bow dug deep into the water, which led to the mast falling down."

In the same message he reflected on his state of mind and the state of his race at the time, providing, at the end, a revealing pointer to what was to come. "If I understand the mechanics and the chain of unfortunate events which provoked the dismasting, I still can't work out in my head what happened. I was well into my race and mentally on form, totally in synch with Aquitaine Innovations. She was performing brilliantly, achieving incredible speeds without pushing her. The two of us were like a perfect couple who knew and loved each other, both wanting to do this trip around the world together."

He limped on to Stewart Island and there - over 10 days in January - performed the impossible. Having planned it all before he arrived, he set about re-building the broken rig, making two joins, to create an 18-metre improvised mast. He anchored Aquitaine using rocks - at one point he had to drag her back into deeper water when she ran aground - and he foraged for mussels on the shore, always keeping below the high tide mark as required under the race rules.

Parlier knows his carbon and his epoxy and he was able to make a little of the latter go along way. He devised an ingenius "oven" to help cure the joints, using a series of light bulbs and a survival blanket. Where most would fall victim to self-doubt and defeatism - he could so easily have gone to the nearest village - Parlier plugged on, driven by self-belief. He got his mast built and then stepped it using the boom as a derrick and off he went.

Aquitaine peformed excellently under jury rig and skipped across the southern Pacific, often averging 10 knots or more. The issue by Cape Horn was not the boat so much as food and her skipper's problems with fishing. He had lost a lot of weight and was eating hardly anything - a spoonful of muesli for breakfast, for example, and seaweed with something freeze-dried for most other meals. Eventually he worked out that if he shone a torch on Aquitaine's sails at night, the flying fish would come like moths to a lightbulb. Parlier went from no fish to 30 in one night.

In the past few weeks, as Parlier's adventure has drawn to a close, he has kept us entertained with his good humour and enjoyment of what has clearly been the most fulfilling experience of his action-packed life. The other day he spoke movingly as he contemplated the end of his adventure. He joked about not coming into Les Sables and just carrying on, but added that his wife had given him an ultimatum and so he was definitely coming ashore.

"I'm a little anxious about the finish," he said. "These are my last moments of serenity and peacefulness and I am loving every minute of it. The boat is happy under her jury rig. She is a little restless. I hope she is not too unhappy from our adventure. This boat was designed for the Vendee Globe and I wanted to give her victory. I hope her next owner will bring her victory. I'd help out if necessary. After all, I feel like I'm her father and I'd love to see her win, even if I'm not there."

Well done Yves.

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