Back With a Splash: Seb Josse Returns to the Vendée Globe
When it comes to ocean racing pedigrees, there aren’t many more impressive than that of Sébastien Josse. The 40-year old Frenchman is a veteran of all three of professional sailing’s benchmark around the world races – the Jules Verne Trophy, the Volvo Ocean Race and the Vendée Globe.
He learned to sail at an early age on the Josse family yacht and crossed the Atlantic for the first time with his father when he was just 18. Josse cut his offshore racing teeth in the Figaro Class which is where he established his now longstanding reputation as one of France’s most talented offshore sailors.
In 2002 Bruno Peyron invited Josse to join the crew of his maxi-catamaran ‘Orange’ for an attempt at the Jules Verne Trophy record. Josse’s first lap of planet was completed in record time with the Orange crew circling the globe in a little over 64 days, smashing the previous record by a week.
This achievement teed him up nicely for his first Vendée Globe attempt in 2004. Despite having to deal with lots of issues along the way, Josse finished the race in fifth place. Later, in the same year that he completed the Vendée, he set off on the 2005-06 Volvo Ocean Race as skipper of a young crew on Dutch entry ABN AMRO TWO.
Josse’s men set a new monohull speed world record on the second leg, covering 562.96 nm in a 24-hour period between Cape Town and Melbourne. However, the ABN AMRO TWO campaign was marred by the loss of Hans Horrevoets who died after being swept overboard in the Atlantic on the penultimate leg of the race. Shortly afterwards and with Horrevoets body on board Josse led the rescue of the crew of fellow VOR competitor Movistar whose yacht was sinking beneath them.
Joss returned to the Vendée Globe in 2008 and was leading the race at Christmas time when an enormous Southern Ocean wave laid his yacht flat and wreaked unrepairable damage on it’s steering system, forcing him out of the race.
Now Josse is back for his third Vendée campaign. This time he is skipper of the well funded and highly organised Gitana Team and racing aboard a latest generation IMOCA 60 called Edmund de Rothschild.
The Gitana Team’s yacht racing pedigree is also impressive. Synonymous with the Swiss banking family Rothschild, the Gitana marque in yacht racing dates back to the early 1960s.
Josse’s entry in the Vendée Globe is Gitana’s first attempt since 2008 when Gitana Eighty skippered by Loïck Peyron was dismasted after leading the race for 16 days.
“In 2008 with a good lead in the Pacific Ocean, I had to stop racing because of a big problem on board,” Josse recalls. “I was very unhappy to have to pull out because it was a lot of work for the everyone, the whole team, to get to that point.
Josse feels the fact that he and the team backing him are jointly returning to the race for the first time since 2008 adds an extra poignancy to the campaign.
“We both have the same story because they had to stop the race with Loïck Peyron,” he explains. “I think that is partly why Ariane and Benjamin de Rothschild chose me; because they know I’m highly motivated to do this race again and to try to win it.
The new Gitana IMOCA 60 launched last summer was among a clutch of six new boats, all jointly designed by Van Peteghem Lauriot-Prévost (VPLP) and Guillaume Verdier [Ed. designers of the top two boats in the last Vendée Globe] and all sporting radical new foil-daggerboards.
Although Josse’s boat was one of the last to be splashed, it proved to be fast and stable on its foils almost straight out of the box; a bonus Josse puts down to the Gitana design team’s skill and experience in large foiling multihulls.
Things didn’t go so well on the boat’s first racing engagement, however when Josse and co-skipper Charles Caudrelier had to retire soon after the start of the double-handed 2015 Transat Jacques Vabre transatlantic race.
Josse describes this as ‘disappointing’ but says discretion proved to be the better part of valour given the horrific weather forecast for the following day.
“We started the TJV and were leading when we began to encounter several small problems with the boat,” he said. “We knew the weather was going to get a lot worse over the next 24-hours, so I decided we would go back home, rather than risk destroying the yacht.
“We took the boat to our team base and we reinforced it by adding more structure,” Josse explained. “Then we delivered it to the Caribbean for the return transatlantic race from St. Barths to Port La Forêt.”
This turned out to be a stormy affair that wreaked havoc with many of the other IMOCA yachts taking part. The Gitana yacht came through with flying colours, however, taking it’s first race victory – and by a considerable margin.
The Gitana yacht is now back in the shed for more work and not expected out until the end of March. Josse rates his level of preparedness for the Vendée Globe Race as being on track but only at 50 or 60 per cent.
“We have built a new boat, with new foils and now we have to sail a lot before the start to make sure the boat is safe and strong enough to do a lap of the world,” he said.
“We will do the Transat Race [Ed. Plymouth to New York, starting May 2] and the one to come back – New York to Les Sables D’Olonne [Ed. starting May 29]. After that, by August or September we will be able to say we are 95 per cent ready.
“The immediate goal is to feel confident in the boat’s strength and its performance. This is a long process because we are involved in a lot of changes to the boat. That means we have to test it again and then try to find out where we are against the two teams that we are closest to; that’s Banque Populaire and Safran.”
After the boat goes back in the water at the end of March in Lorient Josse says he hopes to be able cram in around 45 days of sailing before the Vendée Globe starts. As much as possible of this will be solo sailing, but the process of working up a boat like this doesn’t always allow for that.
“When you have to work on testing the sails or the electronics, then you need to have other people there. But, to fully understand and appreciate how hard it is to tack or gybe or make a sail change, you need to have repeated those manoeuvres lots of times on your own; so having someone there to help you is counterproductive.
“The more hours I can sail singlehanded the better, so that I can make the boat my own.”
Josse said his windy transatlantic race back from the Caribbean had helped significantly with that bonding process.
“I spent 12 days on board alone and we had really tough conditions,” he said. “I know it is not perfect for me yet, but it is already ‘my boat’. It was designed for me from the start so now I just have fine tuning to do.”
The biggest performance gains are likely to be made by whoever finds the sweetspot configuration for the new generation foils and that is where the top teams are investing time and energy. According to Josse, everyone is staying tight lipped about what strides they are making min this area.
“When it comes to development around the new foils, everything is new. How to sail the boat, how to trim the foils, what speeds we can expect – none of this is really known at this point.
“What is important is the engineering and the hours spent on the water – you can make big improvements by focusing in both those areas. All the teams are making modifications and the changes are kept absolutely top secret.”
Despite reports of structural issues across most, if not all, of the new batch of foiling designs, such are the expected performance gains that Josse remains completely committed to the new technology for the upcoming edition of the Vendée Globe and beyond.
“Two hundred per cent,” he says. “There is no way to go back. There is also no way that in the future new IMOCA boats will be designed and built without these foils.
“Right now, we are on version two of the foil designs and when you consider how the performance has increased I am sure that when we get to version four or five, the boats will be much faster downwind and have much improved up wind performance too.”
In the last race the titanic oceanic match race between the eventual top two, Francois Gabart and Armel Le Cléac'h, saw the pair finish their lap of the world just a few hours apart. Could we perhaps see the same sort of nip and tuck racing this time, maybe with more than two boats involved?
Josse isn’t sure this is how it is going to play out, however.
“It’s hard to write that story again,” he said. “Because, Armel and Francois were really sailing identical boats and they each had the same type of problems slowing them down during the race; they both lost sails, they both had engine problems.
“It will depend on the problems that everyone encounters, but yes, on paper at least, you can see four or five boats that will be close to each other, because they have the same designer, same sails, and nominally the same level of skipper.”
In those sorts of relentless boat-on-boat battles, Josse says that mental fortitude as much as physical stamina of the individual skippers comes into play.
“When it gets that close it’s not all about muscle and boat technology; it’s about what goes on in your head, where you want to put the limits, and how much you want to beat the other guy. At that point it’s about how much you are willing to sacrifice to touch your dream.”
Josse says he eschews weightlifting and traditional gym work in favour of outdoor training – preferably when he is fully exposed to the elements.
“For sure, you have to prepare your body to sail these boats; your body needs to be strong to help protect you from injury,” he said. “I know fitness training in the gym is good when you are inside with a big machine - but I’m not really a fan of that. I think it only let’s you prepare one group of muscles really well.
“I’m a bit like Rocky Balboa, I prefer to prepare to train outside in the cold unpleasant weather. I like to run when it is raining or windy and cold – that’s my training regime for the Vendée Globe.”
Josse also discounts the value of any sort of pre-race sleep deprivation training or acclimation. “You have to know your own body and know what you can do when you are in the ‘red zone’ – in other words, when you are at your limit. The only way to reach that point is to be racing and trying to recreate or simulate that without the mental challenge of the race itself is not possible.”
Asked what he thinks it will take to win the Vendée Globe this time around, Josse implied that, in a way, the race had already begun.
“The first goal is to get to the start of the race with the boat in good shape and sailing fast. Then, if you are confident in the boat, you can entertain hopes of winning. But, to do that, you need to finish the race and avoid any bad luck on the way around. You can spend lots of money and have the boat perfectly prepared at the start, but if you hit something then the race is immediately over.
“It’s the same for all the teams trying to win this race – if something goes wrong and you have damage then it is bad for you and good for all your competitors. The truth is that everyone in this race – even the guys with the old boats – can finish this race; and if the circumstances are right then anyone can win the Vendée Globe.
“Ultimately, it’s not just about technology and the foils or the sails, it’s about having the boat as close to 100 per cent as possible all the way around."