Jean-Luc Van Den Heede: interview with the last seadog

@Christophe Favreau/GGR/PPL courtesy of Jean-Luc Van Den Heede

A long interview with Jean-Luc Van Den Heede, the last seadog, the man of records and the “long route” who talks to us about the mother of all non-stop solo circumnavigations. An in-depth analysis of solo sailing and of the problems to be faced such as food and sleep. The final message to be grasped is the importance of having a passion in life and always maintaining optimism.

Jean Luc Van Den Heede near Brazil
Jean Luc Van Den Heede near Brazil – @GGR/PPL courtesy of Jean-Luc Van Den Heede

Jean-Luc Van Den Heede and the Golden Globe Race

A special voice speaks to us of the mother race of all solo and non-stop sailing circumnavigations. The voice of he who was a spectator in the first edition of 1968 because he was still young and became a protagonists in the 2018 replica, winning it at the age of 73. The voice of the “Last seawolf” as Jean-Luc Van Den Heede defines himself in the latest book.

The voice of Jean-Luc Van Den Heede, two blue eyes full of sky and a face marked by all the waves he has ridden. In France he needs no introduction but perhaps not everyone around the world knows him. Born in Amiens on June 8, 1945, he was raised in the first years of his life by his grandparents in Berk. Vand Den Heede, as they have nicknamed him, is “the navigator of the first times”: in fact he participated in the first edition of the Mini Transat and in the first Vendée Globe.

Jean Luc Van Den Heede - Iceberg at his first Vendée Globe
Jean Luc Van Den Heede – Iceberg at his first Vendée Globe

He has rounded Cape Horn twelve times, completed six solo circumnavigations including one circumnavigation in the opposite direction setting an unbeaten record. At 73, he never ceases to amaze completing a circumnavigation on a sailing boat, without stopovers and assistance. The Golden Globe Race consecrated sailors such as Robin Knox-Johnston and Bernard Moitessier 50 years ago, today it rewards Jean-Luc Van Den Heede.

Palmares of Jean-Luc Van Den Heede

1977: 2nd at the first edition of the Mini Transat
1979: 2nd in the Mini Transat
1986: 2nd in the BOC Challenge on Let’s Go
1990: 3rd place at the Vendée Globe on 3615 MET
1993: 2nd place at the Vendée Globe on Sofap Helvim
1993: 4th at the Transat Jacques Vabre
1995: 3rd at the BOC Challenge on Vendée Entreprises
1998: 2nd IMOCA class at the Route du Rhum on Algimouss
2004: Record circumnavigation from west to east in 122 days 14h 3min 49s
2019: Golden Globe Race 2018 winner in 211 days

The interview – All the races Jean-Luc Van Den Heede took part in

In a long interview Monsieur Jean-Luc Van Den Heede reveals himself with a deep voice, sincere laughter and the simplicity of the great men who made history.

Jean Luc Van Den Heede at the arrival of GGR2018
Jean Luc Van Den Heede at the arrival of GGR2018 – @Christophe Favreau/GGR/PPL courtesy of Jean-Luc Van Den Heede

How was your passion for the sea born?

Like many children I went to the sea, to Berk sur mer, in the north of France, where my grandparents who raised me were originally from. The first game I remember was a small boat that I put in the water and imagined it was riding the waves. Later the books led me to love the sea: as a child I found the book by Alain Gerbault by chance. He was a tennis player, passionate about the sea who bought a boat and crossed the Atlantic alone and then continued towards the Pacific.

I liked them and surely they marked me his very fictional adventures, full of storms and torn sails. I also enjoyed Marcel Bardiaux, a kayak champion who built a boat out of stainless steel and sailed around the world. After these first ones, I got other books on the same genre as a gift: so I think it was precisely those readings that created my passion. Jean Luc Van Den Heede tells us.

What prompted you to participate in 2018?

I was 23 at the time of the first Golden Globe Race in 1968, I was already sailing. I was a Glenans sailing instructor and had my own boat, a Corsaire but I was too young, a penniless student with little experience to participate. I followed the race for what was possible: at that time there was no internet or social media. In France the race created a sensation: two Frenchmen took part, Moitessier whose books I had read and Loic Fougeron who I knew personally.

Bernard Moitessier - In navigation
Bernard Moitessier – In navigation

So I necessarily followed the race with interest and the challenge of the nine pioneers made me dream. When they organized the rerun of the race after 50 years, even though I was thinking of retiring from racing, I said to myself “I have to try to do it” recalls Jean Luc Van Den Heede.

What are the differences between sailing in the past and in the present, even if the racing rules are similar?

The first big difference is that in 1968 [the first Golgen Globe Race] there had never been a single-handed non-stop race by the three great capes. No one had ever faced such a challenge, we were leaving for the unknown. Francis Chichester a few years earlier had completed a circumnavigation with a stopover in Sydney on Gipsy Moth IV and had opened the way. When the nine pioneers left in the first edition, making it around non-stop seemed like a fantastic undertaking.

Francis Chichester - Gipsy Moth IV
Francis Chichester – Gipsy Moth IV

Now there are already about sixty people who have managed to complete the Vendée Globe. We know that it is possible, we know better those seas, the weather conditions. You have the experience that Robin Knox Johnston [winner of the first Golden Globe] that the others did not have.

Two years ago when I did the race the rules were to keep the spirit and technology of the first edition [of the Golden Globe Race]. The boats did not have computers, GPS, satellite, on board I only had the radio. For meteorology we had little information from the outside, local forecasts or information provided by radio amateurs who often read texts they didn’t even understand. They just gave us a point of longitude and latitude to locate a depression then we had to create our forecast ourselves; explains Jean-Luc Van Den Heede

Do people dream more with a race like this?

At the start they gave us the NOAA forecasts for the first two days, just to know the position of the depressions and the anticyclone at that time. But people dream more with a race like the GGR than with the Vendée Globe or others. The reason is that ours are normal boats, while almost none or a select few sail on boats like those of the Vendée Globe.

Jean-Luc Van Den Heede - Rustler 36
Jean-Luc Van Den Heede – Rustler 36 – @Christophe Favreau/GGR/PPL courtesy of Jean-Luc Van Den Heede

They are foil boats, very expensive, very fast and not for everyone, while our boats are accessible to everyone. For example, I sailed around the world on a Rustler 36, anyone could buy a similar boat. In the imagination and in reality it becomes an adventure possible for everyone, unlike the Vendée Globe. This makes people identify with each other and makes them dream of one day doing a similar feat: this is the reason for the success of the race; explains Jean-Luc Van Den Heede.

What do you think of the 1968 edition and its protagonists?

Robin Knox-Johnston (the winner), Moitessier (the hero) and Donald Crowhurst (the tragedy).

I do not completely agree on the three definitions and I would not restrict the field to just three protagonists, there were nine and each had its own particularity. My favorite was Alex Carozzo, the Italian: from my point of view he had the best and fastest boat for this race. Two years ago, Carozzo was also at the start of the rerun of the race and we bonded a lot. It is a pity that due to an ulcer he did not continue racing, his boat was much faster than Knox-Johnston’s.

In my opinion he would have been one of the favorites and could have won. Furthermore, for me the real drama is not that of Crowhurst, the English electronic technician but that of Nigel Tetley, captain of the British Navy. Both were sailing on multihulls, Tetley had nearly completed the circumnavigation but pushed the boat over to the limit due to Crowhurst’s lies. A thousand miles from his arrival his trimaran was wrecked and although he was recognized as the record for circumnavigation on a multihull, he committed suicide two years later.

So for me his story is the real drama: he was a very good sailor and he almost won. When he saw the honors with which Knox-Johnston was invested and thinking that he could have been in his place, he could not stand the defeat; explains Jean-Luc Van Den Heede.

The other participants of 1968

Regarding the other participants, Loic Fougeron was also very competent but unfortunately he had a breakdown, moreover his boat could not have won. Moitessier is well known, he was a dreamer, an excellent writer, more of a philosopher than a sportsman but his boat was not very competitive. At the start, like everyone else, he was excited and motivated: he wanted to be the first to make a solo and non-stop circumnavigation.

Bernard Moitessier - Repair of a sail
Bernard Moitessier – Repair of a sail

In fact, the Golden Globe Race was born from this idea: some young navigators after Chichester’s feat were preparing to attempt a non-stop circumnavigation. Many announced their intention and the Sunday Times took the opportunity and organized a race with open and free rules. Everyone was allowed to register for the race, with an independent start between 1 June and 31 October.

The Sunday Times was a big sponsor and had a very big prize of £ 5,000 up for grabs. Even two years ago the prize was the same, it is a pity that the value of the pound is very different today than in 1968. Another curiosity is that when Knox-Johnston learned that Crowhurst was missing, he gave his prize to his wife and children; says Jean-Luc Van Den Heede.

The Crowhurst Mystery

Of course at first it was not known that Crowhurst had cheated, they found the boat adrift and assumed he had fallen overboard. A freighter took her to the USA and inspecting the boat they noticed the inconsistencies, the two logbooks and discovered the navigator’s lies. In the end, the evidence revealed the truth that would have emerge anyway because the case had caused a lot of hype.

Golden Globe Race 1968 - Donal Crowhurst
Golden Globe Race 1968 – Donal Crowhurst

Personally, I don’t think he was crazy or crazy, he certainly got into debt to participate and felt the pressure to win. He realized that his calculations were wrong due to lack of experience and practice and that he had not really circumnavigated around the world. Like other participants, Ridgway or Blyth, he had sailed little and had already given optimistic positions during the first days.

Then he realized he had traveled fewer miles, so he froze in his lie and the only way out he saw was to commit suicide. I did not see him as a deranged who started at sea, he was certainly crushed by his own project that was too ambitious compared to the real experience; reflects Jean-Luc Van Den Heede.

How do you technically prepare for a circumnavigation?

I have completed many circumnavigations and participated in the first edition of several races such as the Mini Transat and the Vendée Globe. I love the first few times of a competition because you to discovery the unknown in all aspects. We do not know which tactic to follow, nor which boat is most suitable, we do not know how far we can go. Today, when we talk about Mini Transat or Vendée Globe, we know very well what to expect and what boat to build: all boats look alike.

Preparing a boat for a circumnavigation is very long and complicated, I dedicate a lot of time to this goal. For example, for this race it took me about two years to better prepare the equipment, the mast and th