“She embodies the spirit of the Vendée Globe!” Not a bad accolade from the great Isabelle Autissier, but that is her respectful and admiring assessment of British sailor Pip Hare, as the Medallia skipper becomes the second woman to finish this remarkable 2020-21 Vendée Globe.

“She has done great,”added Autissier, 64, who has been following the race intently from on shore. “She is just so happy and she is doing the best she can. And she did very well when she had big problems (with a broken rudder stock), but she made the repairs perfectly and has been pushing herself all the way to the finish.”

We asked Autissier, who sailed in the 1996-‘97 Vendée Globe and became the first woman to sail solo around the world when completing the BOC Challenge in 1990-91, for her thoughts on this year’s race. She was keen to share her enthusiasm for what she said has been the greatest race since the first epic in 1989.

“It has been an incredible race,”she told the IMOCA Class. “I would say maybe the best one, except the first one of course which was something new. I have never seen a regatta like this; until the end we did not know who the winner was and even then, the winner was not the first one on the course.”

“All of that makes it a very special Vendée, very interesting and very high level,”added Autissier who is the president for France of the World Wildlife Fund. “What I feel has been interesting is there have been very few retirements compared to normal which means the boats have been well-prepared and the skippers are well prepared too, which is a very good point.”

She was delighted to see Yannick Bestaven, an old friend from her hometown of La Rochelle, take the win on Maître-CoQ IV after the most exciting finish in the race’s history.

“I know him quite well,” she said. “When I saw him in the race my first thought was he could do something well, but I was never thinking of him as the winner. So I was very impressed by what he did. He was always in the right place at the right moment with the weather and recovered very quickly after searching for Kevin Escoffier.”

Autissier knows how mentally exhausting and distracting it can be to try to look for a missing colleague – she had to do that when helping to search for the Canadian sailor Gerry Roufs, who was lost overboard in the southern ocean in the 1996 race – and she knows how hard it must have been for Bestaven to get back into the swing of the race afterwards.

“You have to come back into the race and you are not in the mood to do that,” she said. “It is quite stressful being involved in an event like that, but Yannick did that – he came back very quickly into the race.”

© All rights reserved - Editorial only - Image by Martin Keruzoré / Team Malizia

Autissier was also impressed with the German skipper Boris Herrmann and the way he shared his experiences with those following on shore so effectively through his video and audio reports. “Most of the people following the race don’t know anything about racing and competition at sea, they are just interested in stories and what they can see – the moods of the sailors and the way they are fighting. In Boris we discovered someone who communicated all of that and with him it was very interesting,” she said of the new IMOCA Globe Series champion.

Another on Autissier’s list is Jean Le Cam whom she remembers spending time with in Puerto Williams in southern Chile after he had been rescued by Vincent Riou from his upturned boat off Cape Horn in the 2008-’09 race. She was down there sailing her own boat for fun and got to know him away from the pressures of the race. She likes Le Cam’s honesty, something that came across throughout his fifth Vendée Globe. “He is very frank, very direct, he says what he thinks,” she said.

Pip Hare apart, Autissier was delighted for Clarisse Crémer. “She was wonderful – you never had the feeling that she was a poor little girl lost on the ocean,”she said of the Banque Populaire X skipper. “She was happy and she was fighting and doing the best she could and the best race she could, so I am really happy for her.”

Autissier knows as much as anyone about bad luck when sailing solo, having had to abandon two round-the-world races with damage to her boat, one of which sank. Not surprisingly she has particular sympathy for Sam Davies and Isabelle Joschke, both of whom have had to stop for repairs before continuing their circumnavigations, just as Autissier herself did.

She revealed that when Davies got into Cape Town, after having to divert when her boat suffered keel damage in a collision in the south ocean, she sent her a message of support. “I said to her that I understood what she must be feeling because I had exactly the same feeling when I had to stop my Vendée Globe,” Autissier said. “Sam had already said that she would go on and I told her that it would be a perfect life – I told her it would be wonderful for her to keep, and honour, the promise that she made; you promised to go round the world, I told her, so just do it.”

© Sam Davies / Initiatives-coeur

Autissier is a great admirer of the work Davies does for the children’s charity behind her Initiatives-Coeur sailing campaign and she is hoping to be at Les Sables d’Olonne to welcome the British skipper home in a few week’s time. “I don’t know if I can be at Les Sables when she arrives, but I would like that,” she said.

An agronomist with a degree in nautical engineering, Autissier is well known for her commitment to the environment and for her work with the WWF, of which she has been French president since 2009. She said she is pleased to see several of the Vendée Globe skippers helping with weather and water quality research by deploying buoys during their voyages, but she thinks the race can go further to help protect the environment on which it is set.

© Isabelle Autissier lors du Vendée Globe 1996-97 ©️ Bernadette Monthembault / DPPI

She argues that each Vendée campaign should be required to measure and then publish its carbon footprint, so that everyone can see how well it has adhered to clean environmental credentials. “The skippers are sharing wonderful stories, but part of the story is your footprint,”she said. “And I would like to have the possibility to know that and maybe to have a limit. You have a limit on the size of the boats and a lot of things on board and you could have a maximum carbon footprint for the project too – why not?”

Ed Gorman