|Francoise Gabart sailing in Les Sables d'Olonne to win the Vendee Globe|
As someone who is mesmerized by the sheer athletic ability of racing a powerful Open 60 solo, non-stop around the world in less than 80 days, I can’t help but wonder why this extraordinary accomplishment went completely unnoticed in the American press. Was it because we were waiting with bated breath for the next tidbit about Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o’s imaginary girlfriend, or were we too busy filling out office pools betting on the outcome of Sunday's big game? The answer is, sadly, yes. But despair not, it’s always been like that, it will always be like that, and no matter how much us sailors lament this simple truth, it’s never going change.
A better question would be ‘why is it so?’ To know the answer you have to know the French and you also have to have some historical perspective. In 1968 the very first solo, nonstop race around the world took place. The Sunday Times Golden Globe attracted an odd collection of sailors drawn to the challenge for their own personal reasons. British sailor Robin Knox-Johnston won the event, nutter Donald Crowhurst got the most publicity for the strange faking of his voyage, but it was Moitessier who captured the heart and soul of a nation; and he never even finished the race.
While sailing up the Atlantic toward the finish and certain fame, he made a fateful decision, one that I think changed the face of sailing for generations to come. Moitessier abandoned his race and chose to continue on sailing around the world a second time. He altered course, passed the Cape of Good Hope, sailed under Australia and finally, after 10 months at sea, dropped anchor off Tahiti. This simple gesture, one that spoke volumes about his love for the open ocean, his sense of his purpose in life and his direct snub at fame, say nothing of the race organizers who were British, won him eternal affection from the entire French nation.
Sailing, or yachting as it’s known among the yacht-club types, has long been regarded as a sport for the rich. This is especially true in the US and UK. In France it’s different. Sure they have their yacht clubs, but rather than reveling in pomp and tradition, the French revel in accomplishment. The tougher, the filthier, the more extreme the accomplishment, the more they love it. Back when I did my Whitbread races we would be well scrubbed, shaved and wearing relatively clean clothes when we crossed the finish line. The French, on the other hand, would be in the same clothes that they had worn on start day, unshaven, and even four or five days after finishing they would still be in the same clothes, hair a tangled mess, perpetual gauloises in hand, still not showered. They were French, they personified the French spirit, and the French public loved it.
What Moitessier started Eric Tabarly elevated to the level of kings. After first winning the 1964 transatlantic race and then winning again in 1976, the French public made him a national hero honoring him with a ticker-tape parade down the Champs-Élysées. It was more than just the fact he had won both races; they loved the fact that he was poking it in the eye of their northern neighbors. The Brits had ruled the waves for centuries until along came one man - alone - and beat them at their own game.
Modern day French sailors like Vendée Globe winner Francoise Gabart are, out of necessity, much more sponsor/media savvy than many of their predecessors and the tangled hair and gauloises are gone. When he crossed the finish line to smash a full six days off the record Gabart looked like he had just sailed to Catalina Island and back, not around the world. The look may have changed, but the spirit of sheer adventure and accomplishment has not and it still resonates deeply with the French public. His sponsor, MACIF, is an insurance company, an industry traditionally adverse to taking risks. Three hours behind Gabert came Armel Le Cléac’h on Banque Populaire. Yes Banque means bank, the place where we keep our money. Can you imagine an American bank staking their carefully honed brand on an adventure fraught with the possibility of it all going horribly wrong? People have died doing the Vendée yet these sponsors know that to connect to the French public, their customers, they need the conduit that comes with this kind of sailing adventure.
|Bank Populaire finishes second|
America is a different nation. Let’s not forget that most of the population lives far from the ocean. The coastline population is not much when compared to the vast hinterland and as such most people that live inland have no clue about sailing. The closest they come to the water is an episode of Jersey Shore; the French have Gabert, we have Snookie, and that’s the way we like it. Walk down the main street of a town in France and all the brands that you see sponsoring sailing are there. Brands like Foncia (realtor), Sodebo (frozen pizza), Groupama (insurance) and Group Bel (the laughing cow that sells 12 billion pieces of cheese each year). They are all there. Walk down a main street in America and the brands you see are the brands that will be advertising during the Super bowl, the brands that advertise during Jersey Shore. It’s no wonder that the sensational victory by Francoise Gabart does not make the papers over here. Outside the fanatical audience that follows sailing on Sailing Anarchy and other online outlets, no one cares and they don’t care because they can’t relate. It’s not in our DNA.
ps: If you don't believe me about DNA watch the video (to the end) - at 2:25 you will see what I mean.