Skippers count down the days to Vendée Globe

Miranda Merron is about to embark on her first Vendée Globe. She’s competed in other events such as the Transat Jacques Vabre, the Route du Rhum and the Volvo Ocean Race. MIN caught up with her in Sables d’Olonne while she’s counting down the days to race start.

“Getting to the start line is hard,” Merron says, “but getting to the finish is harder. The Vendée Globe is the pinnacle of top solo sporting events. It’s been pretty hard work to get here. But the Vendée Globe and all the publicity it generates is a good way of thanking my loyal sponsors.”

She’s supported by Campagne de France, a brand belonging to a dairy cooperative of 800 dairy farmers who make fromage frais and other products.

“I’m representing people who get up every morning to milk cows and never get a day off,” she says.

Merron will be getting very little time off from now until departure – 8 November – and even less after she sets out, but she says while lively, the atmosphere’s very different in the village than originally expected due to Covid-19.

Image courtesy of Yvan Zedda

The public has been restricted in numbers and Merron is supportive of all the measures in place.

“The race village is as full as it can be, as many as can get in have got in,” she says.

“But we’re not able to have a drink late in the day, or mix with the public on the pontoons.

“All the teams are being very careful – we go from the house to work on our boats or go to the tech zone – but we don’t mix at all. Given the circumstances, we’re all doing the best we can. Us and the organisers.”

Come the week before race start, it’ll get tougher as skippers are sequestered away for seven days with, in theory, no access to their boats (skipper confinement is mandatory from November 1). But pandemic adaptations like these mean that the race can continue and it’s an adventure she’s really ready to grasp. Aside from the challenge of sailing endurance, she’s very ready to go offline.

“I’m looking forward to no shopping, no bill paying, no g-mail – it’s a bit of a luxury.

“I’m extremely lucky to get to go to sea without the internet. It’ll be bliss away from it all.

“There will be times when I want company obviously, but I can’t call a taxi to go home.”

For those lonelier moments, Merron will be utilising WhatsApp to stay in touch with her team and fellow competitors – when satellite connections permit.

“Half the time you don’t even know you’ve got a notification,” she says. “And then when I have a connection, I have to remember to say things are going fine and not just mention technical problems.”

She’ll be relaying those technical challenges to her partner, Halvard Mabire, who is her full-time team member, and although her support has grown in the run-up to race start, she’s used to working in the super streamlined team – of two.

Currently her team has grown to include her ‘race mother’, Marie-Claude Heys, who Merron says is: “on hand to make sure we eat and look after us and help look after the sponsors and their clients. But, due to Covid-19, there’s much less sponsorship activity this time around.”

Merron is also supported by Sam Holliday who did work experience with her when he was seventeen. A decade later, he’s now involved in organising a round-the-world race for Class40s, but still comes to help Merron prior to her challenges.

Once those are done, she plans to make the journey in 100 days although she’s terrified of getting hit by lightning and points out that, theoretically, boats in the ocean should be struck much more than they are. Her boat, under a previous skipper, survived one such incident, so she’ll be hoping the old adage of lighting never striking twice is correct.

But one moment she’ll experience every day is the pre-dawn.

“I love pre-dawn light,” Merron says. “Although if it’s been pretty rough all night, seeing just how big the waves are when it gets light isn’t always a pleasant surprise. But the pre-dawn light is magic.”

Race organisers say that like Merron, skippers are out in force in the village, meeting their fans in careful ways, although other sources say half have left to quarantine at home.

“I do enjoy this pre-start phase,” says Sam Davies. “It is kind of like the first real feeling of accomplishment to be here on the start line with your project ready, and there is always a special atmosphere with the skippers here. I am relieved to be here. It is maybe a little more subdued but that is to be expected.”

But Alex Thomson has returned to the UK to self-isolate with his family as they will not be at the start with him. He’ll return on the October 31st, to start the final isolation before starting all parts of the team’s cover policy’s plans and processes, says Ross Daniel, technical director of Alex Thomson Racing Team.

“Alex sailed the boat for the last time before he went home to England after the last mandatory checks,” Daniel says. “We had a few sails come back and checked them. We have just a few final detail jobs to do. So, the boat is ready to do the Vendée Globe and that is the position we wanted to be in and are in. We were a bit concerned how productive this period would be with the restrictions here and in fact we have got more done. We are in good shape.”

“Overall, apart from a few small teams that still have some odds and ends to complete, the boats are very much ready,” says Jacques Caraës, race director.

Medallia is in great shape, we are finessing the systems on board, we passed our safety inspection with flying colours (except for the landfall charts I forgot to bring with me on the day), and everyone who knows the boat comments on how great it looks,” says Pip Hare.

“I am alternately calm and then stressed. There are still many small details I do not feel I have covered off. I am trying to keep a tight focus but struggling to stop my mind from doing somersaults, I’ve found that exercise has become hugely important in reducing my stress levels and getting some clarity back in my mind.

“There is a general sadness for me that so many people will not be able to see all of this and experience the atmosphere. So many of my friends, family and supporters cannot make the journey to France and it feels like a cruel blow, because this was to be their moment of joy as well. When I imagined the start of this race it was being surrounded by all of the people who have helped me get here at every level, but the reality is we will be a very small group. I hope my Mum and Dad will be among them, some close friends have been able to juggle lives to accommodate quarantine, but the vast majority of people are not able to come.”

Video courtesy of Sailing Video Award

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