(jours in French don’t you know!)
Written By Pip Hare
The last seven days have been a crazy mix of activities, feelings, problems and triumphs that have swept me along and stolen the hours of every day.
The delivery down to Les Sables d’Olonne was a haven of normality and a chance for me to breathe out after a frenzied couple of months of preparations and training. I made the trip down with Paddy Hutchings – the young Plymouth-based mini sailor who sailed back from Brazil with me at the end of last year – and as we hurtled down the English Channel in gale force winds, surfing regularly at 22 knots, we both marvelled at how much my boat, Medallia, has changed since the last time we were offshore together.
We have to be in the race village for three weeks prior to the start, this allows for the public to see the boats, the officials to make safety inspections and normally the skippers to attend press events and official functions. While Paddy and I took the boat over, packed with all of my tools, spares and food; the rest of my small crew made their way over in vans packed with everything else we thought we might need.
We arrived at low tide and were promptly told by Joff (my technical director) to ‘go for a sail’. It was in these exact circumstances, loitering around the harbour entrance waiting for high tide that in 2008 Hugo Boss was hit by a fishing boat and dismasted.
There was eventually enough water to enter the harbour in the early hours of the morning and I was glad of the cover of night time to make my way up this iconic channel. It was a strange feeling – a bit overwhelming and a bit unreal. I sort of felt like I had stepped into someone else’s life. To be honest this whole reality of the start has not quite landed yet. But then coming face to face literally with myself on the side of the main tent and buildings in the race village brings a jolt of reality to the whole thing. Yes I am here. Yes we are going to do this!
The first job on the list was to go and get COVID tested. Every week, skippers and the technical team must have a negative test to be allowed on the pontoons and into the technical areas of the race village. Off we marched to nurse nostril who smiled with her eyes while she inserted a cotton bud so far up my nose I thought one of my eyes might pop out. I had my second test yesterday and it was just as awful. Everyone in and around the race village must wear a mask at all times; there are hand sanitiser stations at every gateway and entrance. For the official photo all skippers were spaced out 1m apart on the dock, wearing masks and after that there is no requirement for us to be together. All briefings are either individual or online, there are no official engagements, around half of the skippers have gone back to their homes and will not return until race day.
Saturday, we set up camp, unloading into our container on site, setting up shop on the pontoon, sorting out the boat post-delivery. Then Sunday it was straight out for a sail to test a software update on the hydro generators. To go sailing from the race village we must first get permission from the race committee, detailing to them, when, how long for and why we want to leave the dock. Only five boats are allowed out at any one time. We have not gone out for the rest of the week but instead have saved up our days for testing some new sails next week.
The race village is an incredible place to be. All 33 boats flank each side of a long pontoon and there is a bustle of activity during daylight hours. Flags are flying, teams are working, there are interviews, inspections, last minute jobs of all nature, people up masts, in the water, on the end of foils. We (the teams) are separated from the general public via separate areas and walkways. They worm their way through a one-way system in the centre of the dock taking photos and consulting their race guides. The volume of families and children that make their way past the boat each day is impressive. Maybe young Vendee skippers of the future, inspired to make their way in our incredible sport.
My week descended into days of back to back interviews, briefings, photographs, TV recordings, walking between buildings and appointments – winging my way through live appearances in French with diabolical grammar, signing autographs and getting used to people taking my picture as I walk past. It is genuinely surreal and a bit of a wonder that people want that from me. I am still me – the person I was last year and the ten years before that; but now I am in the centre of a small world where what I have to say is of interest to others. It certainly makes you think about what it is you have to say and the impact that might have on others (as well as the jumbling up of French tenses).
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.
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.
I will do my best to share this with you all and I want you to know that you are all very much part of this campaign, everyone who has helped me get here owns this success.