Most Americans have never heard of the Vendée Globe and that’s a shame. Occurring only every four years, it is a solo non-stop sailboat race around the world. Take the time to unpack that sentence: solo, non-stop sailing. As I type this the winner has just been declared, Yannick Bestaven, a 48 year old French skipper, completing the race in 80 days, 3 hours, 44 minutes and 46 seconds. Though the winner is now known, the race won’t be over for weeks, with boats strewn across the Atlantic making their way to the finish line in Les Sables d’Olonne, France. What the race teaches us about the fulfillment of purpose at work and in our personal lives can be profound.
Quoting Bestaven’s winning time seems beside the point. It’d be like quoting the time to ascend Mount Everest: The accomplishment is completing the race, of course. In fact more people have summitted mount Everest than have completed an around the world solo circumnavigation. It is a physical and mental test like no other.
Above all, I think more can be learned about life in witnessing the Vendée Globe than most other sporting events or human feats of endurance. Take, for example, what happened to race participant Kevin Escoffier just a month ago. Encountering heavy seas in the southern ocean, on his carbon fiber boat designed for speed, Kevin surfed down a gigantic wave and plunged his bow in to the wave in front. The impact was too much for the hull and his boat quite literally snapped in half. By his account he had less than five minutes to deploy his life raft and message his land-based support team in France “I’m sinking, I’m not joking. MAYDAY.” In an instant he was alone, in the dark, in the southern ocean with waves the size of houses crashing around him, his sailboat halfway to the bottom of the sea.
Race organizers were quick to divert other race boats to the rescue, most notably 61 year old French legend Jean Le Cam. In the black of night Le Cam saw a distant flash of light. It was Kevin signaling from his life raft. In an incredible feat of seamanship, Jean managed to get Kevin aboard his vessel. He was rescued. It made national news in France, Jean and Kevin safely aboard. The two even received a Skype call from French President Emmanuel Macron. A week or so later, France sent a Navy vessel, La Nivose, to Jean’s boat to transfer Kevin and take him back to France, all documented dramatically on YouTube. At the conclusion of the whole affair, Jean was back alone on his boat and simply continued the race, as if nothing had happened. After Kevin had departed on December 6, Jean said “Happy alone, then happy the two of us, then alone again. That’s life.” Sartre couldn’t have said it better himself. He indeed finished in a remarkable 4th place.
It turns out Jean Le Cam was not the only philosopher-sailor in the fleet. Englishwoman Pip Hare, who put together her campaign on a shoestring budget sporting the oldest boat in the race has been incredibly open and eloquent about the challenges presented by the race. In a quote I particularly love, she wrote:
I have one job to do, day or night and my world is governed by geography rather than time. I never notice the hours going past in a day; just the jobs being ticked off, the speed of the boat, the rise and fall of the barometer, the change in direction and speed of the wind. It is a world with no frills but full of purpose. Every action I take, whether trimming a sail or taking a nap has an impact. I am only out here for one reason and I spend every hour of every day fulfilling that objective. In this way time passes quickly because I am happy and fulfilled.
Whether you’re on a boat in the southern ocean or on solid ground looking for meaning, these words ring true. In our professional and personal lives, we seek purpose and strive for greatness. Being alone on a sailboat leaves the skipper with little choice but to focus on the task at hand. In a world filled with distraction and temptation, it is left to us to make that choice, to set our own goals and find the fulfillment of purpose.