Interview with Around the World Racer Charlie Dalin

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edited July 20 in Hobbies Pastimes
Charlie Dalin celebrates his Vendée Globe finish. A relentless push in the final 24 hours wasn’t enough to claim the race’s overall win. photo:
Charlie Dalin celebrates his Vendée Globe finish. A relentless push in the final 24 hours wasn’t enough to claim the race’s overall win.
photo: (Yvan Zedda/alea/)

The final results of the 2020‑21 Vendée Globe will forever have Yannick Bestaven as champion of the most competitive singlehanded round-the-world race—ever. One position below Bestaven in the rankings sits 36-year-old Charlie Dalin, the first of 33 starters to cross the finish line in Les Sables-d’Olonne, France. He could have won. He should have won. But he didn’t. It was one cruel and unexpected windshift—mere miles from the finish line in Les Sables-d’Olonne—that denied him his holy grail of solo sailing.

Dalin’s ascent to the top ranks is an amazing example of the opportunities available to France’s elite singlehanded sailors. Dalin, as a young and eager sailor long ago, once helped me prepare for my Mini Transat ­campaign in 2003. I had no idea then that he would someday race an IMOCA 60—on foils even—in the Vendée Globe. We hadn’t spoken since the Transat, but when connected by Zoom a few weeks after the finish, he was rested and eager to share his story.

Q: How did this Vendée Globe opportunity come your way?

A: I had been working really hard for some years and having some success. I was involved with Ericsson, the winning Volvo Ocean Race team [in 2009], and that was a really great experience. Then I was in Australia helping to build a 100-foot ­racing trimaran. I raced primarily the Figaro from 2011 to 2018. I got pretty good at that game, and when Apivia decided to mount a Vendée Globe ­campaign, they chose me to skipper.

Q: What an incredible opportunity.

A: Yes, nobody would ever pass up that. They chose me even though I had never been on an IMOCA before last year. They let me be really involved in the design and development of the boat, and they had a lot of faith in me from the very beginning.

Q: I would say their faith was well-justified. I imagine your being a naval architect allowed you to influence and be involved in the design process?

A: I was quite involved in the design of almost every detail of Apivia. With Guillaume Verdier as lead architect, we were one of the first designs of the new-generation larger-foil IMOCAs. It was really exciting, with a lot of unknowns. There were so many decisions to make. Sometimes the VPP would say one thing, but we did not always trust that to be 100 percent true. For example, at the last possible moment, we decided to move the foils farther forward. It turned out to be good, but at the time, we did not know. I was really involved in the cockpit but also the deck plan, the sail plan, and really, everything.

Q: Right out of the box, the boat performed well, and you won the Transat Jacque Vabre.

A: The boat had only been in the water less than three months, so it was a very busy time. I sailed as much as I could, but we also needed some time for the team to really finish the boat. I would sail on the weekend, so the shore team could rest, then turn the boat over. Sometimes I would sail at night so they could work on the boat during the day. But everything went really well. What is the opposite of a viscous cycle?

Q: A virtuous cycle?

A: Yes, that’s it. We never had any major breakages, so we could keep on sailing and improving the boat. We still had a few issues in the TJV, but we had a kind doldrums passage and managed to win the race.

Q: There were two major storms that knocked out a lot of the newer boats early in the race.

A: Yes, it all happened quickly. I had a few issues but nothing major. By the time we got to the equator, there were only three new-generation boats near the top: Hugo Boss, LinkedOut and Apivia. Soon after Seb Simon and Alex Thomson were out, it was Thomas Ruyant and me. I was first into the Indian Ocean, and I started to go into more of a preservation mode, especially after Thomas had a problem with his port foil. Normally it is a big advantage to be first here.

Q: Not this year.

A: No, it was never good to be leading this race.

Q: Where were you when you heard about Kevin Escoffier sinking?

A: I was just about to go on video chat to celebrate being first into the Indian Ocean. Then we heard about Kevin, and nobody wanted to talk about that anymore. I was 350 miles downwind, so I was not in a position to help. But it was a super-stressful time, and finally we got news that Kevin had been rescued from his raft. But that incident really shocked me. I think it shocked the whole fleet.

Q: What an incredible rescue, so well-managed by the race officials and sailors standing by, and especially the actual ­rescue by Jean Le Cam.

A: Yes. Everyone did their job well. It took me a couple of days to really get back to full racing mode after that.

Q: And then disaster struck you.

A: Yes, it did. I started noticing some water leaking into my line tunnel, then I noticed it was coming from where the port foil bearing should be. It was gone. I sent a message to my shore team (legal under race rules for technical issues), and they got to work coming up with possible solutions. I had to slow the boat right down.

Q: Could you have sunk?

A: Yes, that was a possibility, but most likely I was out of the race. It was really devastating. But then my shore team came back with these intricate instructions, like a hundred steps, for a possible repair. I got to work and started building parts. I had to laminate a new bearing, using bits of foam, epoxy and carbon flat stock. I had to cut it with a crappy cordless grinder. It took forever. And I had to custom-fit each piece. When I had the parts made, I tacked onto port (away from the finish), heeled the boat over, and went over the side using a halyard. I had to fit all the parts pretty precisely. I was getting hammered by the waves. I nearly gave up. Finally, just as it was getting dark, I hammered in the last piece. Then I tacked back and rejoined the race.

Q: At this point, you are now behind Bestaven on Maitre Coq and Ruyant on LinkedOut, and your port foil is compromised.

Yes, but I was still racing, and there was 15,000 miles to go. I was not sure if the repair was strong enough, so we tested it hard that next day, and it seemed to hold.

Q: That is an unbelievable bit of seamanship.

A: It took every bit I had. I slept pretty hard for a couple of hours afterward.

Q: What is life like on board Apivia?

A: The biggest challenge when it is windy, or a challenging sea state, is to know how hard to push the boat. There is this constant desire to push harder, to go faster, to put up more sail. But if you break your boat, it is all in vain. So I am constantly asking if I am pushing too hard or too close to the limit. You have to be really disciplined because one mistake can be really costly. The motion of a semifoiling IMOCA 60 is also really hard at times. Because of the foil, the boat does not behave as you are used to with a normal boat. The timing of the hard crashes is really hard to predict, so you are always hanging onto something. Otherwise, you can get hurt really easily. The only safe place is in the bunk.

Q: Tell me about your routing? It looked like you were trying hard to minimize distance and tactical risk.

A: Yes, I spend hours in front of the computer—eight hours a day—running different routes, looking at different weather models, and evaluating the options. I mostly tried to sail my own race and not worry too much about the other boats. I started using a lot of ensemble routing so I could graphically see the range of options and assess the ­probabilities. I really got into it.

Q: What was it like to essentially restart the race with 4,000 miles remaining?

A: The race up the Atlantic had some very unsettled weather. After Cape Horn, Maitre Coq escaped with good wind and built a 450-mile lead off the coast of Brazil. But then he got trapped in light wind, and I was able to catch right up. However, six other boats did the same, so off Cabo Frio there were eight boats very close to each other. It was like a Figaro race. So I told myself to just sail it like a coastal race, and keep on pushing and make the right moves.

Unfortunately, my port foil was not fully working, so I was a lot slower on starboard tack than I should have been. And we had 14 days of starboard up the Atlantic. I had to find a whole new way to sail the boat. I figured out I could sail with a lot more heel, and change the stacking ballast completely. So I was able to find a way to go pretty fast, but I still gave up about 400 miles because of my limitation on starboard. It was frustrating, but I kept telling myself, All the boats have issues. Just keep going as fast as you can.

I had a good doldrums passage and got into the northeast trades, essentially even with Louis Burton on Bureau Vallee. He could not use full main, so he ended up farther north, which turned out to be OK. But I also had five boats right behind me and pushing hard.

Q: What was it like getting past Cape Finisterre?

A: That was probably the most intense 24 hours of sailing I have ever done. I decided on a routing that took me very close to the northeast corner of Spain. As I got closer to the coast, there was a lot of ship traffic and unlit fishing boats. The Bay of Biscay felt really small. My ­collision-avoidance system was not working, and my radar was also down, so I had to be very alert. I had to perform a series of jibes to take advantage of the wind bending around the coast. Each jibe takes about 40 minutes and uses a lot of energy, so I was getting pretty tired. Of course, I was passing through the most crowded part of the course at night. Then it started to get foggy, so that was really stressful as well. I did not sleep at all for 36 hours. I knew if I did this well, I could still win the race.

Once I got onto port tack and I was headed right for the finish at 20 knots, things were looking good, and I thought for few hours that I would win. But partway across Biscay, the wind shifted 10 degrees left, which favored the boats to the north, and meant I would still have to jibe for the finish. That wind shift cost me the race.

Q: How was it to cross the line first, but not win?

A: I said before the start that my goal was to cross the line first, and I achieved that. I know I sailed a good race. But Yannick Bestaven on Maitre Coq also sailed very well, and with the 10-hour time allowance he got for helping to save Kevin Escoffier, he beat me by two and a half hours…after 80 days.

Q: After he got ashore, Yannick came to you, and you had a long embrace. He said, “This year there are two winners of the Vendée Globe.”

A: Yes, those were kind words from him. I know we put together a very good campaign, and I sailed my boat as well as I could. I am happy with my race. But now I really want to go back in four years and win!

Q: And what’s until then?

A: It is a very exciting time to be a sailor. There are so many cool things going on that I really want to be a part of. My focus will continue to be the IMOCA for the next few years. I want to win the Route du Rhum. And I want to build a new IMOCA and come back and win the Vendée in 2024. After that, maybe multi­hulls. But who knows? I am very lucky to have these opportunities. I still love sailing as much as ever.

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