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Vincent Riou: The Complete Package

Vincent Riou: The Complete Package

Eloi Stichelbaut/PRB

Eloi Stichelbaut/PRB

If you sat down with a blank piece of paper and tried to design the perfect Vendée Globe skipper, you would almost certainly end up with a character looking very much like Vincent Riou. 

Riou is the complete solo ocean racing package. Part scientist, part engineer, part mariner and at times part action hero; it doesn’t matter what aspect you are talking about, when it comes to Vendée Globe experience, the 44-year old Frenchman has pretty much been there, seen it, done it and has a wardrobe full of t-shirts to prove it. 

Before winning the race at his first attempt in 2004-05, Riou was was responsible for preparing the winning boat for Michel Desjoyeaux in the previous edition. His own victory came after 87 days, when he finished just seven hours ahead of his nearest challenger, fellow Frenchman Jean Le Cam, after the two French skippers had fought an epic pitched battle since before rounding Cape Horn. 

Riou showed his hand as an action hero in the 2008-09 race when he bravely rescued Jean Le Cam from certain death when his rival’s yacht turned upside down in the wilds of the Southern Ocean.

He has not been immune from disaster himself: after damaging his yacht’s outrigger during Le Cam’s rescue, the pair were dismasted shortly after passing Cape Horn and had to be towed to safety by the Chilean Navy. Then, after starting the last Vendée Globe as one of the firm favourites, just 15 days into the race and while in third place, Riou smashed into a metal harbour buoy that had torn off its mooring and drifted into the mid-Atlantic. The freak collision caused major damage to the hull and outrigger forcing a devastated Riou to pull out.

Although sailing has turned him into something approaching a household name in France, if Riou competed in a mainstream sport he would undoubtedly be an international superstar by now with his own clothing range and more than likely a hit reality TV show to boot.

Now back for his fourth Vendée Globe he is the only person in with a chance of becoming the second skipper in the history of the race to win it twice.

“It’s an incredible race, because it’s hard to win,” Riou explains when asked what keeps him coming back. “The route is amazing and so are the boats. Plus, the field is tremendous; there are a lot of amazing sailors this year and it’s very inspiring to be among that group trying to win this race.”

“The Vendée Globe has brought me great happiness and great satisfaction at times. But there have also been great disappointments too, like being forced out four years ago. That was a big blow; I had worked a lot for it and I expected great things, but off the Brazilian coast in the third week, everything suddenly stopped.” 

One of only six people ever to lift the Vendee Globe trophy above their heads, Riou knows better than most what is required to take on this race and emerge victorious. 

“To win the Vendée Globe requires an exceptional performance,” he says. “You have got to put a lot of factors together: you must be skilled with your sailing; have a good, well prepared, boat, and have a lot of self will and motivation. That’s about it, but managing to get all these parameters together is the exceptional part.”

Riou will be racing the same boat as he did in the last race. However, the 2010-built yacht reportedly underwent such significant work during 2014 that she is virtually a new boat. Last year he and co-skipper Sebastien Col sailed her to a comfortable victory in the doublehanded Transat Jacques Vabre transatlantic race. 

Riou admits he is confident he has a boat capable of winning but plays down any talk of being favourite. 

“Today, yes I think I have one of the fastest boats. But in a race like this speed is not enough. You’ve got to get all the other things right too. You must get the route right, and the boat has to be reliable as well. Then you need some luck too.”

Riou maintains that what goes on before the race starts can be as important as what happens afterwards.

“Every race is different, but some Vendee Globes have been 95 per cent won before the start, because some technology or design allows one skipper to be the fastest and the most reliable out there. 

“Other times, there is a tight fight between the competitors and most of the work happens at sea. The thing is, when you take on this race, you’ve got to be good in every area, because you never know what element could win it for you and there are lots of things that could lose it for you – before or after the start.

Like most of the other top skippers Riou plans to have his yacht out of the shed in France during March and is scheduled to use The Transat and New York – Vendee races as key training runs in the lead up to the Vendee Globe start.

“We plan to relaunch the boat on March 15 and we will work on our sail development first of all,” Riou explained. “We need to try them in stormy weather and so the early part of the season offers the best chance of that, rather than in the lulls of the European summer. 

“At the end of the summer we will go back to the boatyard to check the boat and finalise the configuration. The plan is to train a bit more in the Autumn, so that we can start the race as confident as possible about the boat.

“The truth is though, no matter how hard you try, you can never be 100 per cent prepared for this race; there are just too many unknowns.”

Riou is not one of the six skippers who have opted for the new style foil-daggerboards, but that’s not to say he doesn’t see their future potential.

“Of course, I think there is a future for the foils,” he says. “It’s the future of sailing in general. The big question we’re all asking ourselves, however, is whether these foil designs have evolved enough for this Vendee Globe? 

“There are a lot of possible solutions to how to put foils on these boats and all of them haven’t been looked into yet. Right now, it is not easy to choose between foiling or not foiling. There isn’t one clear way; each has its advantages and disadvantages.”

As the one skipper in the current lineup to have won the race before, only Riou has a chance to match Michel Desjoyeaux’s achievement of winning two Vendee Globes. For now though, he says that isn’t even on his personal radar.

“I don’t really think about it to be honest,” he says dismissively. “I’m going because I want to do the race; because it’s a beautiful opportunity to live out my passion for an exceptional event. The chance for a second victory, I think about it as little as possible. We’ll see about that later. To my mind, it doesn’t even matter yet.”

[Main Image: Eloi Stichelbaut/PRB]

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