Photo: Vincent Curuchet/DPPI

Only woman in the 2012-3 Vendee Globe

Sam Davies updates us on her campaign with Saveol

Thursday September 27th 2012, Author: James Boyd, Location: France

Sam Davies goes into the 2012-3 Vendee Globe not only as the top placed British finisher from the last race, when she came home in an impressive fourth place sailing a 2000 generation boat, but this time round will also be the only woman taking part.

Indicative of the hard economic times we live in, Sam has had an extremely tough time putting together her latest campaign, not that this seems to have had any effect on her being her usual chirpy self. With partial backing from Saveol - a Brittany-based co-operative principally of tomato growers, who originally were her partner Romain’s Figaro sponsor – she has had to gather together her own collective of backers for this winter's solo non-stop round the world race. Needs must, and she now has 15 companies on board with her to varying degrees and she is still hoping that that elusive British company will also sign up at some point before the race to help oil the wheels (and help service the debt) of her campaign.

“It would be nice if there was a British sponsor that wants to come and give me a little bit of help,” she says. “They would always be welcome and there is still space on the boat even if they decided to do that two days before the start of the race. That Brit sponsor would get the Transat Jacques Vabre as well if he did that. And if he gave me a little bit more, Saveol will share the name of the boat next year...”

The IMOCA 60 Sam has chosen as her solo round the world steed is Roland Jourdain’s former Veolia Environnement. This was designed by Marc Lombard and suffered some substantial 'flutter' issues with her cutting edge carbon fibre keel soon after launch. These appeared to have continued when, during the 2004 Vendee Globe, Jourdain was forced to retire reporting that there were horizontal cracks developing all around the foil.

Working with designer Juan Kouyoumdjian, Jourdain had modifications made to boat prior to the 2008 Vendee Globe. However keel issues once again blighted his chances in this race. As Veolia Environnement was hold second place on the final section of the race coming back up the North Atlantic, the foil broke causing the keel to snap off and in yet another case of an IMOCA successfully making it back to port without a bulb - Jourdain was able to limp Veolia Environnement into the Azores the right way up.

Finally it was third time lucky for the boat when Boris Herrmann and Ryan Braymaier  successfully completed a lap of the planet in the Barcelona World Race, the boat rebranded as Neutrogena, finishing in fifth place. But even they suffered keel-related issues - not the foil this time, but losing pressure from the hydraulic rams used to cant the keel.

Unfortunately the keel issues have not stopped them. Prior to Sam acquiring the boat, they tested the keel as thoroughly as they could and since then they have carried out a more extensive examination of the foil... quite fortunately it seems.

“The keel was a welded fabricated one and it should have been a keel that could have gone around again, but I wanted it really tested and there was only so much we could do before we bought it,” Sam says. “After we bought the boat we took all the filler off the keel and ultrasounded it and die tested it with magnetic die testing. Normal die testing didn’t find anything, but with magnetic die testing we found some big cracks.”

As a result they were forced to replace the foil with a new one. “We did all the tests before we bought the boat, like a resonance test - there was a lot of stuff we did and the designer of the keel and everyone’s advice was that it should have been okay, but it wasn’t. But it is better to find that out then than in December...”

A new foil for an IMOCA 60 costs in the region of 100-200,000 Euros depending on its construction method, however Sam and her team managed to get a sponsorship deal from German steel giant Thyssenkrupp, who’s huge portfolio of subsidiaries includes superyacht builder Blohm + Voss and shipbuilder Nordseewerke.

“It is the first keel they have ever made,” says Sam. “I went to see Mich [Desjoyeaux] straight away and said ‘Mich, I have a problem!’ We worked with Mer Forte, the engineering company he has set up. I called Juan [Kouyoumdjian] as well as he did the modifications to this boat and he sent me all the information that he had – very kindly - and gave me a few contacts. There was a Volvo keel that might have fitted the boat that I could have bought. Bilou [Roland Jourdain] gave me a bulb as he had sold me the boat with a keel that should have worked and was like ‘anything I can do to help’.”

An additional problem was that the bulb fitted to the boat when Sam acquired it had tungsten in it. This has been outlawed by the IMOCA class but grandfathered on boats such as Saveol with it already fitted. In replacing the foil, she would also have to replace the bulb with a tungsten-free lead one and this would be heavier.

As to the replacement foil, after the boat was originally fitted with one in carbon fibre and then a fabricated steel one, the latest is the most conservative option - forged machined and solid stainless steel.

“It is the same fin more or less than Jérémie has,” says Sam referring to that of Maitre Côq, MichDes’ 2008 Vendee Globe winner, now in the hands of 2010 Solitaire du Figaro winner Jérémie Beyou. “So I have accepted a 300kg weight gain in the keel. The thing is that this boat – the races it hasn’t finished have all been because of the keel. The rest of the boat seems to be pretty solid, tried and tested. And also it is not the fastest, lightest boat in the fleet. I am more playing the ‘I have a solid tried and tested boat ‘ - that is my joker.”

So she’s hoping for a heinous Vendee Globe to be competitive? “NO! I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but at least I know that I’ll be pretty calm and happy in my boat if it is windy at the start or anywhere else along the course.”

Apart from the keel replacement, the boat hasn’t been changed that much, although they did manage to regain some of the added weight by removing the boat’s galley.

“It had a big kitchen in the middle, like an American kitchen with an island in the middle, and it was really hard to stack because you only had a gap about a metre wide,” Sam explains. “Much as girl’s like kitchens – we cut that out! Now I just have a little camping stove in between the two doors, like everyone has. I have a nice box over the engine so I can wedge my bum in and sleep sideways across the boat on my bean bag. I still have Bilou’s nice tipping chair in the middle which is pretty comfortable. There is no [chart] table, but the table and the computer tip so that you are vertical when the boat is heeled over.”

Since acquiring the boat Sam reckons she’s sailed around 5,000 miles. This included a 1,000 mile qualifier for the boat (she’s competed in the Vendee Globe before, otherwise she would have had to have sailed 5,000 miles).

“I had lots of strong wind in July when I did my qualifier, which was quite good, so I did some breaking and testing and sending it then,” she says. This was sadly not without incident. “I dislocated my rudder, so I had to make a pitstop in La Coruna. They are kick-up rudders, in ball joints, so when it dislocates you can’t get it back in again on your own. It was just because the joins are old and there was a bit more play in them and they popped out easier, so we had to change bits in the refit this summer. I didn’t have alarms on them at the time. Now I sail all the time with the alarms on so if they ever get knocked up, in seconds I will go and take it out of the way of the wave that might be able to dislocate it. So hopefully that won’t happen again.”

Aside from this incident during her qualifier she encountered three depression and on two occasions more than 40 knots. “But since then we have done a few modifications and since we relaunched we’ve only had 10 knots or less in all the training we have done and that’s the case for all the skippers...”

As usual Sam has been training out of the notorious centre in Port la Foret, along with most of the other top Vendee Globe contingent.  

“Training is great – we did a lot of training in the beginning of the year before the guys went off to do the European Tour. We had two or three sessions there. Then I had to do a lot of sponsor sailing to pay for the boat, which is kind of good because even if you go sponsor sailing, when you are on a new boat that you don’t know very well, every hour, even if you are sailing 5 knots slower than you would do or with different sails, at least you are getting automatic with it...this winch does that, getting used to the motion, etc. There was quite a lot of wind with all our sponsor sailing, so it was sporty and lots of good winching and training going on.”

The name of the game at present is to get the boat as reliable as possible prior to setting sail on the Vendee Globe. Saveol went to sea again last weekend in a substantial seaway, when, Sam says, they had another session of breaking things. “I ripped a bit of track off my mast. I did a little tear in the mast as well. That was stupid: It was a rope that protects the daggerboards so that you don’t get your sheets wrapped around them - it goes from the bottom of the board to the mast. Normally that is stuck on a padeye on the mast but someone had drilled a hole right through the mast and put a T-bone behind it, so that, with the sail pressed against it, tacking in 45 knots it unzipped the front of the mast...”

So Saveol’s mast is currently out being repair which will means that she will not be able to compete in the Azimuth Race this weekend for the IMOCA fleet out of Lorient. Ten boats are still taking part with a solo race over night on the Friday with a media man on board each boat followed by a race on Sunday around Ile de Groix fully crewed.

However IMOCA 60s are cutting edge race boats and such breakage, particularly when they are thrashed about in big conditions, is commonplace. Sam describes the typical comic scene whenever they return from training: “When you get back into Port la Foret you see the guys coming down from each team with their white suits on and the grinders and rolls of carbon or cables –i t is everyone. It is always funny to see who is the first on to the pontoon and which boat starts going ‘nnnneeeaarrrghhhh’.”

So how does she feel this time around compared to four years ago? “Pretty similar. It is quite nice to be on a boat that is not the fastest in the fleet and not have everyone going ‘you are one of the favourites’. I am just so relieved to be here, because two years without a sponsor or with people saying ‘maybe, maybe,’ was really frustrating. So it is a big treat to be on the start line. I am a bit sad for Dee [Caffari] – sad that I am the only girl. Dee should be there as well and that is frustrating. But I am in a nice position to be on my nice solid boat, maybe slightly slower with a great set of sponsors.”

The large portfolio of sponsors has been one of the significant differences between this time and her campaign four years with Roxy. “It is a heavy responsibility in terms of it taking a lot more time, so you have less time to go training. I manage to get all the training in, but it is the time to fiddle on the boat that I don’t have any more. I have a good team and they do it for me, but it is not the same when you spend days fiddling on the boat - all that helps your performance, so I know I will be doing that on the first few weeks of the race, learning my boat – but that is to be expected as well because the project only started at the beginning of this year.

“In terms of the boat being ready and me being ready - it is not going to be rushed in that respect. In terms of knowing my boat inside out, for sure I don’t know it inside out and I am on a big road of discovery right now and I hope I have discovered all the things that are going to break now. But I will be taking lots of tools and spares. And I will be taking more than 76 days of food because, like last time, even if I broke my boom or something happens, I still want to do everything I can to finish the race. I’d rather not do an Yves Parlier, but if there is some sort of compromise just to finish and be the first girl to have finished two Vendee Globes...then I will do everything I can.”

Having been training alongside the line honours contenders in Port la Foret, Sam believes that Jean-Pierre Dick and Vincent Riou are looking strongest. As to outside chances, Sam rates MACIF skipper and Vendee Globe newbie Francois Gabart. “I think his boat is quite fragile, but he is really really clever and he is one of those really annoying people at school who was good at everything – academic, music, sports - you can’t find anything wrong with him. He’s even got a really nice girlfiend and a baby. His baby is six months younger than Ruben [Sam's son] and wears all Ruben’s clothes.”

Being a relatively new mum, having a partner, being the only woman in the next Vendee Globe and having a campaign with 15 sponsors – one imagines that Sam’s time is precious, to put it mildly. Has she seen Ruben recently? “I have had 10 days on my own with him because Romain was away. He is on top form. He likes computers – which he gets from me. He also likes his cardboard house. I had to put toilet rolls door handles on it because he got stuck outside and he couldn’t open his door. He is cool.”

So it appears that superwoman – now, incidentally back to her old super-fit self - does have time to be a doting mother as well...


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