German skipper Boris Herrmann is in a perfect position when it comes to his plans for the 2020 Vendée Globe. He may not be set to start his first attempt at the non-stop solo round the world race armed with a brand new, latest generation boat, but his goal is to be on the start with the most reliable boat. He will have sailed more miles on his boat than most of the other skippers will have managed on theirs.
And Herrmann, now 37 years old, has amassed a substantial amount of varied oceanic experience; from racing circumnavigations in Class 40 when he won the two handed Global Ocean Race at the age of 20 to the double handed Barcelona World Race on the IMOCA Neutrogena. He has broken records with Giovanni Soldini and challenged for the Trophee Jules Verne with Frances Joyon.
Backed by the Yacht Club of Monaco, he has had the VPLP-Verdier design Malizia since the end of the last Vendée Globe and has worked hard at building his miles and experience on the boat.
After an excellent fifth in the record sized IMOCA class on the Route du Rhum, the boat undergoing a major refit in Lorient right now prior to a full IMOCA Globe Series season which will peak with the Transat Jacques Vabre which he will sail with Monaco’s Pierre Casiraghi, co founder of the Malizia team.
Boris, you have not done the Vendée Globe yet but you’ve written your autobiography?
It is not my autobiography! (smiles) It is a selection of ten stories of my sailing experiences, through the Arctic, around America with Giovanni Soldini, sailing with Pierre and so on. We have sold 2000 copies already since it was launched. It is going well. It is a cool book and I enjoyed writing the stories. I enjoy writing to communicate. I am quite a shy person and so I prefer writing. I am still happy to get up a few times a year and do big presentations in front of hundreds or thousands of people. I find it quite stressful, uncomfortable until you get going but people are always interested and so that makes it very rewarding.
You had a great Route du Rhum with a fifth placed finish. What did you learn from your first solo transatlantic race on your IMOCA?
I was super happy because we ticked all the boxes we wanted to. We got a reliable boat. The team was in a good mood throughout. We got to the start without stress and I made the perfect start, first across the start line, we were relaxed and I was at the right end of the line. Then I could not unhook my runner deflector and had trouble getting through the first ridge, a light air patch. Suddenly I was two miles away from Paul Meilhat and these guys and they were too my south, then they got the breeze first and they were soon four miles ahead and that was it, they were speeding away for three or four hours when I was sitting still and then they are 70 miles ahead. That is what decided I had to go a different route. Four miles. I don’t say it was bad luck, that was Paul picking the right side and sailing well.
And you improved reliability, what did you learn about making the boat go fast?
I learned that my A2 spinnaker was not a good, useful sail in the gusty, lumpy tradewinds. I went faster with the A3. We had three or four little issues which I resolved but are areas where I make the boat more reliable now. The J3 tack broke. The mast rotation sensor failed. A gennaker sheet rubbed through on the side of the hull when I was not using it. These are little things which I resolved but you learn from them. We are looking at the last two per cent to make the boat 100% reliable. That is good feeling now for the Vendée Globe and we want to capitalise on that. I don’t have the newest boat but I want to have the most reliable boat.
What’s happening with the boat this winter in the yard?
The boat has been taken apart completely in Lorient. It is in the hands of four people there. I have a new boat captain in Stu McLachlan (NZL) and he is giving a new drive and direction to the technical side. We are doing a four and a half month refit. Everything is taken apart. Everything is ultrasounded, the keel bulb and the fin are unattached and X-Rayed. The rudders are scanned. We have new rigging and make a refresh. Everything is painted, the hull, deck and bottom of the boat. It all takes a lot of time. We have some modifications within the class rules. We are changing the centre of gravity to bring the weight aft more. We have improved the ergonomy by repositioning the skippers seat. And we have a new solar power installation. We are looking at the cable-less sails technology. We have changed the bowsprit so it is like Alex Thomson’s with an aft tack so we can have the big and the small gennakers hoisted in line and just furl and unfurl in unstable conditions.
You have a growing educational programme and collect data for analysis for environmental scientists?
We have the Ocean Lab on the boat which can measure all the different kinds of parameters of the sea. And we can measure the CO2 in the sea which is quite complicated. We took that on board last summer and we use it in our Ocean Challenge project. We have a very big kids education programme about climate change. That is an important part of our project. We have created a charity around that and we get donations and have other foundations work with us. We meet kids in a lot of different places and help teach them. In Kiel we had a kids university with 1400 young people there. The programme ran last year in more than six countries, Germany, Monaco, France, UK, the USA, South Africa, New Zealand and we hosted kids in Guadeloupe. We have a full time teacher working with us. It is a very cool activity and I enjoy it. If we only live in our geek sailing world then sometimes you feel ridiculous and out of touch. My father and my girlfriend were teachers and I learn from them. It is an issue that is important and it keeps me grounded. It is interesting and I look at how I can deal with the contradictions. I am someone who is flying often, almost every week. And that is not a sustainable lifestyle. I meet the scientists we give the data to and learn from them where we are at and how they are understanding the carbon cycle in the ocean better.
What are your objectives this year?
I will do all the IMOCA races this year. Right now I am fourth in the championship. With a good result in the Bermudes 1000 race in May, 2000 miles from Douarnenez solo around the Azores, the Fastnet Race and back. If there are not that many of the new boats and very strong competitors there then maybe I will have the opportunity to score well there and move up in the rankings. If I was first I would be first in the IMOCA rankings. I think Samantha Davies will be there and she will be a very strong favourite, but I think it will be a challenge to have her boat ready with the foils and everything. But I am looking to a solid season with much more double handed sailing with Pierre Casiraghi who created our team with me in the beginning. He will be back on board and so we are going back to the origins and it will be great to sail with him again. So this year is not just about the purely ‘solo boris’. In the second half of the year we will be back at the Pole Finistere at Port La Foret and that is a great opportunity to be with some of the best sailors, learning what the others do, how fast we are and what we can do better.
As a German skipper, albeit one who speaks fluent Spanish, French, Italian and English, how are you received at Port la Foret?
They are very open minded. The attitude is very self confident. And they are so for a reason because they have won all of the recent Vendée Globes and of course the last two Volvo Ocean Races. They select their group and say we share among our group because it is likely the winner and the podium will come from among us. It is unique in offshore sailing that everyone works together so collaboratively. I was interested to see how they would treat us. But they were totally open, how they sailed their boat, how much foil, how much ballast, all these important things when we sailed next to each other, in smooth and rough water. And then we all debrief openly and learn.
What do you want to improve on most, to strengthen your game?
I want to keep learning on the weather strategy. I worked with Marcel van Trieste on the Route du Rhum and so I will continue working with him. We worked with him on the Trophee Jules Verne with Frances Joyon and it really is a privilege to work with him. I think where we have to be very strong in the Vendée Globe is in having a very reliable boat and do a solid race. That is what we focus on. Again this year will do 18,000 miles. Last year we did 25,000 miles. We know the boat very well. And the objective all the time is to get better with the technical team, to drill down to the small details. I am learning to push in the right moments too. I am a conservative sailor but I am learning to push more at the right time.
As we move ever closer to the race start, day by day, does the pressure rise slowly?
I feel like pressure decreases. I put a lot of pressure on myself in 2017 and 2018 and now I am looking to reduce the pressure on myself as we get nearer the Vendée Globe. I would rather do my homework early on and then be relaxed as we get near the start. That is the whole point of having the boat early. The big disadvantage of having the boat early is that it is very costly. We ran the campaign over four and a half years and not two years and don’t have a brand new boat. But we got a lot of things done in 2017 and 2018 and this winter. Now we are ready. We could start tomorrow.
In fact Boris at the start you will have had your boat longest and may well have sailed more miles than other skippers with their boats, that is your strategy?
I think that is the case. There is Louis Burton but we will have sailed more than him. Alex Thomson and I are good friends. We made a bit of a joke that in the last year together we will have sailed more miles than the rest of the French boats combined. We did 25,000 miles including four Transats and he sailed to Lake Michigan, through the USA and down to South America where he is now. The French are focused on Route du Rhum, on a cargo ship and back. We are twice back and forwards from Monaco, we went to Bermuda, to Hamburg, Kiel. It is all a bit excessive but miles are miles.
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