A race doctor's view of the Vendee Globe


By Dr Jean-Yves Chauve (the Official Race Doctor for the Vendee Globe)

It was on 9th November (start of the race). That morning, they took their time to say their goodbyes, as if a few precious minutes would make up for these months of absence. They hugged each other and whispered some final words to each other staring into each other’s eyes. Then, shortly afterwards, the boat disappeared into the mists.

After that, you imagine what it is like from ashore. It feels like you’re there at times, concentrating on the weather, the sea conditions and the worries they talked about in his last call. You live on edge waiting for the phone to ring. «The battery is still OK, but the reception isn’t very clear? ». You want to be sure you answer the call, even it rings in the middle of the night. That’s why the telephone has such a strident ring.

This evening, it is cold and the wind is bitter. It’s not easy to fall asleep in this bed, which seems huge. You think of the waves breaking over the cockpit, of your loved one working on deck and if the solitude, rationalizing the danger, telling yourself he is careful professional, at home on the boat, knows every inch of it, and is doing what he or she loves. But it is the dangers which worry you most.

For the partners of the men and women taking part in this extraordinary adventure, the emotional ties need to be loosened at times in order for you to drift off to sleep.
And life has to go on. The ordinary daily routine of life. To be able to stand the absence and apprehension, you get involved in the humdrum elements of everyday life, work, friends and the pleasure that goes with all that. Some may feel guilty about what they are doing during the separation. Yet, that is the best way to deal with your partner’s solo voyage around the world, as you have no influence over it.

There are then the inevitable questions, which have to be answered. When they are the same as you ask yourself, you put on a happy face, and try to look confident, even if deep down, there is a web of fears, Yann’s accident and the difficulties of all the others. So you reassure them and in so doing reassure yourself, pretending everything is fine. There is the strange feeling that you are seen as someone benefiting from from a special view of what is happening and one that others would like to experience. It is difficult to explain that beyond your devotion, you exist too with your own inner torments.

As in this project that you built together, there is the hero and the other person, with an obscure and thankless role, who is enabling this dream race around the world to come true.

Occasionally, the questions are more insistent, and you want answers. Insidious questions about the rankings or the boat’s slow speed. So you try to explain, to justify as some sort of protective figure to answer those in their armchairs, who seem to think that it is easy to do so much better.

For those that have children, it is not easy calming their fears, especially when on board the boat the situation is rather complicated. Tears, mood swings, nightmares, stomach aches, bad marks at school are all signs that you need to know how to interpret to deal with and allay. The school and the clumsy, ill-considered reflections from other children are not going to help.

During the end of year celebrations, particularly at Christmas, the absence is all the more noticeable, even if thanks to satellite links, they can see their Dad disguised as Father Christmas opening the present specially prepared for him before the start. You would so like to kiss him! The separation is at that moment all the more difficult for both of you, even if in these moments alone, the telephone has changed everything. It’s so easy to talk. But that instantaneous nature of the phonecall requires you to be available and be able to reply immediately. You need to understand what is being said between the lines to know what is really going on aboard the boat.

On this long and difficult stage towards Cape Horn, the constraints and conditions are such that physical and mental tiredness can gradually be felt. The fact that food is being eaten at random times and that sleep is grabbed whenever possible, that there is a feeling of being resigned to something or that the answers cannot be found are all signs of exhaustion and a negative spiral that needs to be recognised and pointed out.

To escape that, without talking of getting some more rest, the sailors need to take some time to look after themselves. In this forced solitude, meal times should become a special moment. If the food tastes good, that is a real reward. Tastes and smells are great ways of finding extra resources within you. All of a sudden, you can imagine that you are in the middle of a family meal, with a steaming dish in the middle of the table. For a few moments, you forget the boat and plunge into your memories of people you love or have loved. This way of distancing yourself from reality is a necessary step when tension is too strong. All of the survival manuals teach you that. You can then deal better with the causes of the stress, if you have the intellectual ability to escape it.

Very often she will have chosen the menus for these 90 days at sea. She chose the dishes he likes, drew up the meals, put the weekly bags together. She will have added a few words, something sweet. She knows that he will be living out his passion without being able to share it with him, so does all she can to make it as pleasant as possible for him. This Vendée Globe is also written ashore with friends and family, whose love and devotion allow the sailor to go all the way, so this is also their story.

Photo of Jonny Malbon by Mark Lloyd / DPPI / Vendée Globe.
‘Saying goodbye to Blandine (my girlfriend) was soooo hard; she was very, very strong considering how public our final few words were,’ said Jonny.