Will The Jackal Have His Day?
His competitors nicknamed him ‘The Jackal’ for his unrelenting and ruthless competitive cunning on the racecourse, ashore Armel Le Cléac’h comes over as a quiet somewhat deferential individual. After finishing second in the last two Vendée Globe Race’s the 39-year-old is back and is banking on a third-time-lucky performance will finally see him get his hands on the trophy he has been after for over 10 years now.
“I can only hope this is my year,” he told me in New York before the start of the Ocean Masters transatlantic race to Les Sables D’Olonne in France at the end of May. “I have been working hard with my teams for the last three years and we have built a new boat which we believe is a good package, including foils.
In the last edition Le Cléac’h was narrowly outdone by fellow Frenchman Francois Gabart after the pair had engaged in a compelling global match race from start to finish. Le Cléac’h trailed Gabart into Les Sables D’Olonne by just three hours and 17 minutes - after 78 days of non-stop racing that’s more or less a dead heat.
Gabart will not be back to try to defend his Vendée Globe title – he has moved on to a 100-foot ‘Ultime’ trimaran for a solo round the world record attempt – making Le Cléac’h the de facto favourite this time around. The 39-year old is typically pragmatic about what cost him victory last time.
“I had a great battle with Francois and I learned a lot things during that race,” says. “I know the mistakes I made and immediately after the finish, with my team and the same sponsor, Banque Populaire, we sat down and worked out what we needed to do to be better this time.”
“Since then I have worked each day to be the best prepared at the start and yes my hope is to win. It has been ten years of my life I have spent working towards that dream. It's a quest and I will do everything I can to achieve it.”
Launched a year ago, the latest Banque Populaire is among the clutch of new IMOCA60s sporting what many believe is bleeding-edge foiling daggerboard design. Virtually all teams who have gone for the new ‘Dali-moustache’ style boards have had significant issues with their reliability over the last 12-months. Le Cléac’h has not been immune to these issues; in the 2015 doublehanded Jacques Vabre he and Erwan Tabarly trailed home in second behind Vincent Riou and Sebastien Col on the much older and non-foiling ‘PRB’.
Despite the problems Le Cléac’h remained convinced that foiling was the way to go for the Vendée Globe and after a winter in the boatshed for Banque Populaire to beef up the yacht’s internal structure around the daggerboards he claimed victory in ‘The Transat bakerly’ race
after a tempestuous crossing from the UK to New York.
“I have taken each race one at a time. The Transat was very good because I won but more importantly because I can see that the boat was very good - we had progressed a lot after last year in the Jacques Vabre. In that race we finished second but we had a lot of problems on board and we finished close to PRB, which for me was the best boat of last year.”
When I spoke to him, Le Cléac’h was keenly anticipating the return leg back to Europe against which would see all the foiling boats line up against each other for the first time.
“This is this race where I believe the best skippers are here,” he told me. “For me, I'm sure the winner of the Vendée Globe is amongst them. We will learn a lot of things and be able to draw a lot of conclusions at the end of this race. After this we have the possibility to change some little things but for me each skipper and each boat now we know the arguments of each.”
Solo ocean racing is an unpredictable game where potential disaster lurks behind every frothing wave. However, no one could have predicted carnage that took place on the first night as the fourteen boat fleet left New York. Within hours of the start at the Ambrose Light 10 miles off the US coast reports started to come back from the boats of multiple collisions with ‘unidentified floating objects’. By the following morning, five skippers were heading for
Newport after sustaining significant damage to their daggerboards.
Among them was Le Cléac’h who limped in with a foil so badly damaged that he was forced to remove it completely before setting off with a small delivery crew to get the boat back to France. Although bitterly disappointed to have to retire, the Frenchman told the media his campaign remained on track, despite the setback.
“Returning home with a short-handed crew of two people from the Banque Populaire team alongside me will enable me to work on a few of the technical points in real conditions,” he said. “This will be an enriching experience telling us about the reliability of the boat. We’ll still be within our planned schedule for the Vendée Globe when we get back to Lorient.”
From an outsider’s standpoint the new generation dagger foils seem fraught with risk. However, Le Cléac’h – like all the other foiling skippers I have spoken to – remain 100 per cent convinced that the performance advantage, particularly in the Southern Ocean is easily worth the risk. With fewer than six months to go to the Vendée Globe start, the Banque Populaire skipper says there is no turning back now.
“For me it's a good solution because the boat was built around the foil. To change back to conventional dagger boards, you would have to have some very strong arguments against the foils. We saw last year in the Jacques Vabre with not a lot of wind and a lot of upwind after the Pot Du Noir (the Doldrums) PRB was the best boat in these conditions and we finished within seven or eight hours of them at the end of the race. At that point I said, yes OK to foils.
“We learned a lot about foiling last year,” he explained. “We broke a lot of things around the foil - the structure in the boat because I think the architects/designers didn't anticipate the loads on the boat that are generated by the foils. So this winter we did lots off work on the boat to strengthen those responsible areas and systems. We added 70 or 80 kilograms of extra structure to the boat. The same work was done on many of the other new boats also.”
Le Cléac’h is yet to fully test his latest foiling boards after breaking one during testing in April. Analysis of the broken board revealed a construction issue had caused the failure. A new pair is under construction and are due to be fitted to the boat after the New York - Vendée Race.
“But before we broke the foil we saw a lot of good performance numbers,” Le Cléac’h confirmed. “Upwind it was better than last year.”
Before being forced out of the New York – Vendée Race, Le Cléac’h maintained that the chances of damage to the style foils is no greater than with the conventional straight boards, with the upside easily outweighing the risk.
“When you have something in the water I think it is unlucky to break it,” he told me then. “For me and my boat foiling is a good solution. But we have been working hard since we launched the boat one year ago to make sure all the systems are perfect. Now the time for choosing is finished.”
Although the foiling boards are capturing all the attention right now Le Cléac’h reminded me that the skippers ability to keep his boat in one piece would likely be what determined the next Vendée Globe winner.
“For all of the favourites for the Vendée Globe - those who hope to win or at least to be on the podium - the first objective is to finish. To finish you must only have minor issues and no big problems all the way around.
“What we are all striving for is to be able to use the boat 100 per cent during the Vendée Globe. You can have the best boat on the computer, but you only get to use it at 80 per cent because you have big problems along the way then you are not going to win.
Sometimes, you need to throttle back, because the waves are not good and the boat is slamming. If and when to throttle back is down to us as skippers and is what ultimately could decide the winner.”