The next generation sets off

Michel Desjoyeaux's co-skipper in the most recent edition of the Barcelona World Race is now flying solo. Following the launch of his IMOCA Open 60 Macif in August 2011, he is now preparing his first Vendée Globe.

Camille Bèze interviewed him.

Interviews MAR 13, 2012 01:00

On the 10th of November opposite the quayside at Le Sables d'Olonne, at 29 years old François will be the baby of the fleet. This winter he completed a Transat Jacques Vabre with a fourth place finish and following that he bagged a win in the Transat B to B, his first foray into the world of solo IMOCA Open 60 sailing. A young talent with his head firmly screwed on to his fit build, there can be no doubt that he is one of the champions of the future. This interview was carried out the day after François returned from paternity leave, because on the 29th of February this young sailor also became the father to a son.

How is your sporting project coming along right now?

“The boat's been in the shipyard since before Christmas, undergoing all of the jobs imaginable for a boat launched six months ago that has sailed two transats in four months. We had a few breakages during the Transat Jaques Vabre and since the launch itself we've been building up a list of jobs and ideas for improvements. The two regattas this winter really allowed us to build on that list. There are two or three key changes that aren't very obvious from the outside but that really enhance the features of the boat”.

What did you learn during your first Transat Jacques Vabre, the first race for the boat and during the Transat B to B, your first ever solo race on an IMOCA Open 60?

“The thing that was really new for me, although I'd already had some experience on an IMOCA Open 60 – the Transat Jacques Vabre with Kito de Pavant and the Barcelona World Race with Michel Desjoyeaux-, is that for the first time I was really inside the skin of a skipper, with all of the responsibility that entails. That's what I'm looking for, that's what I like. I really enjoyed the Figaro and that was also due to the fact that I had to handle my boat alone. Also, everything went well. I sailed two great races”.

Did you expect to shine so early on?

“Quite honestly, no. I really didn't expect the win in the Transat B to B. I had all of the doubts that one has on a first race. My aim was to complete the crossing and to qualify the boat for the Vendée Globe. I expected to be slower than the best and in the end I found myself in the lead. I didn't lose any ground in terms of strategy and tactics and the boat was fast, I pushed the yacht easily, without having to use force, so it was also enjoyable. It was very similar to the Transat Jacques Vabre: after a very obvious strategic error just after the Azores we found ourselves up with the frontrunners. Everything has gone very well”.

What were the first few hours at sea, alone on your boat like for you?

“It was a real gift. Really, it was something I'd waited for for so long. Experiencing it like that, with such great handling of the boat... it's what I'd been looking for: the feeling, being able to be in tune with the boat, finding my own pace. I also managed to adjust all of the equipment well and to go fast in some conditions that weren't too difficult to start with – reaching with the trade winds. Later on things got rather more complicated”...

Have you ever been overwhelmed by the elements?

“I suppose that depends on what you understand by 'overwhelmed by the elements'. I've never been in a dangerous situation. However, after crossing the finishing line for the Transat B to B I got a three day storm on the way home. On one night I had to work very hard. I was getting 45 knot winds with the sea in a state of total disarray and short, fast swell. There was a point where the breakages came in after another and I was really close to calling it a day. It was a good learning experience though as it's something I might have to go through in a Vendée Globe. I'm in no doubt whatsoever that we are the team that learned the most between mid-August and December last year”.

The start of the Vendée Globe, your first round the world race is in eight months time. What are the main unknown factors for you?

“It's to do with the race itself. It's to do with sailing seas I haven't sailed before [Note: François Gabart and Michel Desjoyeaux were forced to withdraw at Cape Town following a broken mast at the height of the Cape of Good Hope]. There's nothing dull about sailing in waters where you are far away enough that outside help isn't an option if you run into trouble. It's something that can change the way a skipper or a person sails. I'll also have to learn to manage my time. At most I've spent 18 or 19 days solo at sea during the Transat BPE in 2009... Now I'll have to multiply that by 3 or 4. However, you could say that a day in the Southern Ocean is like three in the Bay of Biscay... You're in another world, on another level and time moves on a different scale. How do I see myself in all of that? For now, it looks good!

What are your strong points?

“First of all there's my training and my great team. Beyond the team there's Mer Agitée and Michel [Note: François has launched his project from within Mer Agitée, Michel Desjoyeaux's company]. That brings trust and peace of mind with it. It's a powerful structure, one that's able to react quickly to problems. I'm also good at the met information. I love meteorology and strategy and in these big races they're both key. However, lots of my rivals are also very good at that. Most of them have also done one, two or even three Vendée Globes...”

Do you ask the “oldies” for advice?

“There's Michel, of course, who's been there since the beginning of the project. I ask him a lot of stuff related to strategy. What's a low like in the Southern Ocean? Things to look out for, the differences of a low in the North Atlantic, and differences in the accuracy of the forecasts, about the sea conditions in that area. I also ask him about how to sail the boat, what sail inventory to put together... When to attack and when there's no point... At what point to you need to gather your strength and keep and eye on the boat. We've had some very open discussions about all of these things since the project started.During the Trophée Mer et Montagne [Note: A sporting event bringing together mountaineers and sailors held each year in France], I spoke at length with Thierry Dubois, who's been on the starting line of the Vendée Globe twice; he has a very different and a very interesting perspective on it. I also spoke at length with the mountaineers. The concept of danger as it's seen in the Vendée Globe is also a significant part of mountaineering or ski-ing at high altitudes... There is lots to be learned from climbers. Mountains share similarities with the sea in that sense”.

Did they give you the answers, the formula for success?“

“There's no magic formula for success, the Vendée Globe 'alphabet' just doesn't exist... otherwise it'd be too easy! I think that it's about each person doing their own regatta, their own training. I'm in direct contact with the last winner, but I'm aware that you can't 'copy and paste' here and trying to do that with what Michel did is not enough to win. We are all different. It's right to to be inspired by the success of others, but you also have to look for useful things and find ideas and adapt them to your own style of sailing, to your own team and to your boat. It's also important from a 'human' perspective to try to sail your own race, to create your own story”.

Physically how do you prepare yourself?

“My main aim this winter has been recovery. It was essential after the last couple of jam-packed years. It was also necessary for me to build up strength for the next season. I think I've more or less achieved that. I'm in great shape to be able to attack what ever comes at me. I do a lot of sport – running, kayaking, surfing, cycling, swimming... We are sailing in boats that ask increasingly more of you physically. Being strong is a must”.

Have you paid careful attention to planning?

“It's always the same. You have to accept that you can't do everything. You have 50,000 ideas... You can spend your whole life planning a Vendéé Globe! That's something I said to myself before we started the project. Lots of people thought that taking on a Vendée Globe at 29 was too young. Maybe because of the question of maturity and experience. My own personal reflection on this was that you're never well-prepared enough for a Vendée Globe. That's what I'm seeing now, with eight months to go until the start. There are so many things I'd have loved to do, to have experienced and to have ready for the start. I won't have time for them all... It's something you have to accept, you define your priorities and go for what matters”.

Does Michel give you a hand with setting out your priorities?

“He gives me some great advice. When I have difficult choices to make and I struggle with them, I can easily consult with him. He's got the ability to be able to decide things very quickly and generally... very well”.

You are a very methodical sailor. Surely you have weaknesses – what are they?

“I have many... but I'm not about to reveal them to my rivals! I'm competitive and that's essential in what we do. That spirit of competition also has a downside. When you're dealing with a Vendée Globe, letting yourself get carried away with the racing can be a real problem. You have to bear that in mind, and I've already experienced a solo win...It wouldn't be good for me to push to hard on the Atlantic descent, to exhaust myself and to stupidly break things. In the throes of the action one can easily fall into that trap.Also paradoxically, being too methodical can be a weakness. It can hamper creativity. Out on the water, there are times during the day where your analysis if things has to be very rational, objective and without letting your sentiment get in the way. However, there are others where you must let go and let instinct take over. I think that's what I do well with in the Figaro. Perhaps it's a less natural part of me than perhaps in others, who function like that all the time”.

With all of the new met technology and the sailing aids available nowadays, is there really any room left for instinct?

“Totally. The final analysis is always human. The progress in terms of met equipment just means that the uncertainty is postponed somewhat. Right now the short term vision of things is a lot more precise than it was fifty years ago. There comes a moment that it's no longer reliable. You can have the best met models in the world, but there's a point where they are wrong and then that's where intuition comes into play, to try to feel how things will play out long term. Choosing the routing, knowing when it's the right moment for a sail change..it's all intuition. Even with all of the aids and sailing tools we have available to us now – and we all have them – for now, computers can't beat people”.

What really makes the difference between sailors today?

“I always give the same answer to this question: the person who manages the whole thing best overall. There's no one area that dominates. In ocean-going solo sailing you need to know how to do everything as best you can, with no holes. The winner of the Vendée Globe will be the person will be the one who handled all of the different parameters best. In these big regattas lasting three months, the idea of a 'global' vision is even more important”.

Does becoming a father change the way you sail?

“I took on both the Transat Jacques Vabre and the Transat B to B differently in the knowledge that in a few months' time I'd be a father. I sailed very differently. In terms of risk and safety management I'm one of the most sensible and I never do dangerous things. Of course, this will have an impact on the way I deal with this race. You don't deal with it in the same way on your own as you do when you have a little family. You apply your energies to it in a different way, life on shore is different and therefore life at sea also changes”.

Do you think about the Vendée Globe every night before you go to sleep?

“With the exception of certain moments in my personal life, I think about it all the time”.

Will we see you on the starting line of the next Barcelona World Race?

“I've been lucky enough to convince Macif to commit to many years, but for the moment we've stopped at 2014. What I can say for sure is that Macif will sail the Route du Rhum in 2014. It's an important regatta in terms of publicity for my sponsor. What will happen after that? Anything's possible. I've experienced the difficult transition from Route du Rhum to Barcelona World Race in December... but it's possible! We'll see... My experience in the last edition was something exceptional, but with that lingering frustration at not having completed the challenge...So why not go back?”