Due to a number of technical Skipper Sebastien Destremau has retired from the 2020/2021 Vendée Globe, the most arduous solo sailing race in the world. He was last at sea and 7,940 miles behind the leader, but to the Frenchman, the Vendée Globe is just one big adventure and being competitive has never been his goal.

Steve Chalmers

The Vendée Globe, the world’s most grueling solo sailing race is over. Thirty-three boats embarked on the epic round-the-world trip of almost 45,000kms, setting off from Les Sables d’Olonne in France. The ninth edition of the race saw a record number of yachts taking part, sailed by 27 men and six women who attempted to sail solo around the globe.

The route took the fleet from the east coast of France, round the southern tip of Africa, passing underneath Australia and then up the east coast of South America and back to France. Taking place every four years, the race is nicknamed the ‘Everest of sailing.’

One of the brave sailors was Sebastien Destremau on a boat named Merci. The 56-year-old previously took part in the 2016 race, finishing last and encountering many problems in his 124-day trial. He eventually finished 50 days after the winner crossed the line, 9,000 miles behind.

“In the Vendée Globe you have to sail solo, you cannot stop, you cannot step off the boat or go on land, nobody is allowed to come on board, no assistance,” explains Destremau, who represented France at the 1992 Olympics and has competed in four America’s Cups. “You must deal with everything nature can throw at you. But the difficulty of the event is the beauty of it.”

On November 8 this year, just before setting sail in his 18-metre Imoca Monohull craft, he said, “There will be some great stories and we’re going to experience it in a super intense way.”

Destremau looked back on his race debut in 2016 with Yachts and recalled the moment that set him on his nautical quest. He also spoke about what happens when you break your ribs alone on a boat, and the crucial piece of kit he forgot to take on board.

When did you decide to take part in your first Vendée Globe?

I was commentating on the race for TV in 2012. The day before the start of the race was dark, windy, rainy and cold but the emotion on the pontoon of people going out to sea overwhelmed me. I told my friend Gregoire, ‘In four years you will cut the last rope of my boat, I am going to take part in the Vendée Globe.’ It was the biggest decision of my life.

How did you prepare for the race?

For two years I worked hard to raise money with sponsors. I sold my house in Australia and my car that I bought in my mid-life crisis. I bought a very old, beautiful boat in Cape Town and sailed it back to France one year before the start of the race.

What was the atmosphere like at the start of the race?

It’s a crazy event with thousands of people. Gregoire took his knife to cut the last rope of my boat at 10.38am, November 6, 2016. People were shouting, screaming and cheering, my family and friends were watching. Off we go!

Did you feel nervous?

I had a team of 25 people to help me get to the start line. Ten minutes before the start, everyone leaves the boat and you are alone. I thought to myself, ‘I am going into the unknown. I’m scared of the deep, dark ocean, the abyss. I’ve never sailed around the world, I’ve never sailed solo.’ It’s really overwhelming. But the cannon fires and we start the race with 28 other skippers. Only 18 made it to the finish line.

Did you start well?

A couple of hours after the start I went inside the boat to get dry. I looked everywhere for my inside shoes but I couldn’t find them – I forgot them! I’m going to sail the Vendée Globe in flip-flops – not funny and not a good start.

What was the most frightening region to sail?

The first part is easy, sailing towards the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The deep south past Brazil and Uruguay is called the territory of the shadows; it’s always grey, always cold, you never see the sun. You have huge storms, waves as tall as small buildings, wind at 70 knots, winds called the Roaring Forties. They say that in the Roaring Forties there’s no hope and no laws. It’s a very scary, miserable place. It’s the territory of the albatross. When you see an albatross it’s a bit like seeing an A380! They just glide around and look at you, they play with the waves, touching the water with their wings.

How frightening are those big waves?

Waves 12 metres tall when you are alone are scary! If there were two of you on the boat it would be completely different. Being alone is a weird thing…

Was that the toughest part of the trip?

Being alone was the hardest thing for sure. I’m not someone who likes being alone. I never really wanted to do any solo sailing. When I sailed my boat for 43 days with a friend I never felt any fear, I never felt unsafe. Sailing alone is a completely different mindset.

How much are you able to sleep?

The last two days I didn’t sleep one minute. On average I slept five hours per day, but not five hours together, it’s a 15-minute nap here, 30 minutes there. But I wasn’t sleep-deprived.

Did you suffer any injuries?

During a bad storm, I fell off my bed and broke two ribs. I was crawling around on all fours, I couldn’t stand, I was on my knees. What do I do? Do I give up? I carried on. I’d broken ribs before so I knew what had happened. I got back up. Broken ribs hurt, but you don’t have any choice. You can’t go to the hospital.

What creature comforts did you take with you?

I didn’t take any videos, books, music – nothing. It’s more mental than physical. I’m lucky, I have a good body. Mentally, you need to have the will and the engine to do it.

What did you eat?

Freeze-dried food. There are no shops, you can’t have meat, fruit or vegetables. Before the race began, I ate a little of the freeze-dried food to prepare my system for it. It doesn’t taste great, it’s not a gourmet treat. I burned 2,500 calories per day in the Atlantic part of the race and 5,000 calories per day in the deep south because I was burning energy in fighting the cold.

Can you take time off to relax?

There’s never a time on board when there’s nothing to do. When you’re not sailing, you’re doing weather analysis, checking the route, looking after the boat. The boat needs a lot of maintenance, something breaks or gets damaged every day, which can take hours to fix it. Then you rest as much as you can and eat.

Did you see beautiful things?

The ocean is very nice and clean, there’s no trash, it’s beautiful. I didn’t hit anything, it’s very rare to have a collision with an object. But you might hit a sleeping whale, they sleep upright in the ocean. I only passed two objects the whole trip.

Do you receive communications during the race?

Race Directors are watching you around the clock. When something happened in the Pacific, 10 minutes later the phone was ringing. I had an e-mail saying, ‘We’re not worried but can you confirm that everything is fine?’ They deserve to be applauded because when you think you’re alone in the Pacific, they’re there.

Did you feel satisfied you achieved your goal when you finished the race?

With the Vendée Globe, everyone has different goals. Personally, I didn’t care if I finished 10th or 5th. I didn’t have the means or the will to win it but I didn’t care, it didn’t matter, that wasn’t my goal. My goal was to see if I was capable of doing it and sharing my story. It’s a miracle that I finished the Vendée Globe – for me, finishing was a victory.