The Great Escape, a 3900-mile virtual race between La Rochelle et Curaçao (Caribbean) started at 1302hrs CET on Monday 23rd March.

Four categories of boats are represented and this race launched by Virtual Regatta, which has brought together almost 130,000 competitors. In the IMOCA category, 36,000 players are taking part for the moment, including some of the professional skippers who will be competing in the 2020 Vendée Globe, who have joined in to see how they measure up against some skilled amateurs. While this is a good way to cope with the lockdown period, this virtual transatlantic race also enables people to work on certain aspects of their performance. 

"“The Great Escape” was set up just before news broke about the lockdown," explained Philippe Guigné, founder of Virtual Regatta. “It started out from a request from sailors, who for once were available to compete in a virtual race. It caught on immediately. We put all this in place in just a few days. For the skippers, it is an opportunity to get out there and meet their fans by joining in with their game. As for the amateurs, they have an opportunity to see how they do against some top class sailors. During the lockdown, digital technology is really taking off in every area, in particular in gaming. The success of The Great Escape is a good example of that.” The number competing in The Great Escape has not equalled that of the last virtual Vendée Globe, which attracted 450,000 players, but the fact that they have brought together 130,000 people in just a few days is quite an accomplishment. 

“I have received countless messages”

Among the IMOCA skippers registered, many are taking part in their first virtual transatlantic race. That is the case for Alan Roura. “People have often told me about this. I signed up on the spur of the moment five minutes before the start,” he said. “It’s nice because some of my team are playing, as well as quite a few friends. At the moment, I’m neck and neck with Eric Péron. I would like to finish in the first thousand.” The Swiss skipper is enjoying the contact with other players. “I’ve received countless messages, asking if I’m the real Alan Roura (laughs). I’ve been told it is an honour to play alongside me, which is nice,” he added. 

“I too have received hundreds of messages,” said Jérémie Beyou (the real Beyou). “To begin with, I replied to everyone, but I can’t do that anymore. I’d like to offer my apologies to all those to whom I have not replied. We can see with these messages that there are many different types of people competing. Being in contact with people from so many different backgrounds is fantastic.” Apart from Alan and Jérémie, in The Great Escape, we can also see Sam DaviesMaxime Sorel, Louis Burton, Manu Cousin and Sébastien Destremau. As for the holder of the Vendée Globe, Armel Le Cléac’h, he is competing aboard an Ultime. 

Not spending their days and nights doing that 

Unlike the keenest players, the skippers we talked to are not getting up at night to take part. Jérémie Beyou is playing “double-handed” with his son, Achille. “To begin with, we kept at it, but we have eased off a bit now. In general, we go online in the morning and evening,” explained Jérémie. “In spite of everything, we don’t have that much time. I have two children and there is all the schoolwork to see to. That is of course my main priority. In spite of the context, we must not forget that this is a Vendée Globe year and we need to work on the project. We have some big sporting events coming up and we have to plan ahead and take advantage of the time we have at the moment to work on some of these elements.” 

Jérémie Beyou has seen that the leaders of The Great Escape in the IMOCA category are giving it their all. “There are some real experts and we can see that they keep making tiny adjustments all the time. If you want to do well, you have to be at it around the clock.” We contacted one of the amateurs up at the front, who confirmed, “I go online each time the weather is updated (0500, 1100, 1700 and 2300hrs) and I change my trajectory accordingly. For me there is no difference between day and night.”

For the pleasure, but that is not all

During this lockdown period, The Great Escape is an opportunity for professional skippers to enjoy themselves while working on their weather strategy and routing. “My son sails a Nacra and has some idea about the weather. But he doesn’t know all about the patterns and constraints you face when crossing the Atlantic,” stressed Jérémie Beyou. “Thanks to this virtual race, I am able to show him how we work on our routing and the main principles behind the weather and some ideas about strategy… This is a good way to start learning.”

Not as dedicated as the Virtual Regatta experts, the IMOCA skippers are not up there at the front with just over half of the race behind them. But that is not what counts. They are enjoying racing online and talking to others, which is something positive in the testing times we are going through.

Olivier Bourbon