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 the sails. By regulation we had the limit of 11 sails for sloops and 13 for ketches that we could embark for the circumnavigation. I had brought 10 sails and if I did it again I would leave a spinnaker ashore to replace it with another genoa.

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

I have not broken any sails: I have only fixed a seam of the genoa and a small tear on a spinnaker made through my fault. I believe that the preparation and a good knowledge of the boat are the key elements for the victory; explains Jean-Luc Van Den Heede.

What is the great magic of the three great capes and what distinguishes them?

(Cape Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin and Cape Horn)

The first difference is that Cape Horn is at a very low latitude, 55° 58 ‘south, so in the screaming Fifties. The others, on the other hand, are much further north and are therefore less difficult to round. In addition, the Andes mountain range creates the conditions for the convergence of the wind which strengthens right in the Cape Horn area. The legend was also created for the boats that came down from the United States East Coast and tried in the opposite direction to round the cape.

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

It was an almost impossible undertaking: in the past the sailing ships did not sail close to the wind upwind and were not prepared to face the huge waves in front of them. So Cape Horn is the legendary cape that makes all navigators and sailors dream. Personally I passed Horn in both directions: from west to east and the other way round. During the Vendée Globe I found the passage fun and exciting because the boat glides over the waves, there is a pleasant sensation of acceleration.

In the other direction you go 90% against wind and sea, you advance slowly and the very variable conditions force you to change the sails often. In circumnavigations to the west, one always navigates in the opposite direction of the meteorological systems that naturally move to the east, therefore against depressions. Facing all the systems from the ahead there are greater variations in wind and sea intensity and frequesnt sail changes to suit the conditions; explains Jean-Luc Van Den Heede

Surfing down the waves according to Jean Luc Van Den Heede

Psychologically it is more comforting the sensation of speed surfing down the waves, rather than fighting against the sea and wind and moving slowly. For example, the record in the normal sense is by the Frenchman Armel Le Cléac’h. With his Imoca at the Vendée Globe 2017 he took 74 days, 3h and 35m. While in 2004 I completed the reverse circumnavigation in 122 days, 14h and 3m and my record with a monohull is still unbeaten.

Jean Luc Van Den Heede - Record holder for his circumnavigation westabout
Jean Luc Van Den Heede – Record holder for his circumnavigation westabout

For Cape of Good Hope (34° 21 ‘S) the same thing: when you do it in the sense of the Vendée Globe it is the beginning of the Roaring Forties. While in the opposite direction it is a relief because you are about to go up towards higher latitudes and milder climates and conditions. In reality we talk about the Cape of Good Hope, but the point that separates the Atlantic and the Indian is Cape Agulhas.

As for Cape Leeuwin, it is not a relevant step except because we know that we have practically reached the middle of the circumnavigation.

What can never miss on your boat during a circumnavigation?

My children gave me for my first circumnavigation a teddy bear that I took with me in all the circumnavigations. A piece of family is always sailing with me and reminds me of the affection and warmth of home.

Jean-Luc Van Den Heede Cape Horn Passage
Jean-Luc Van Den Heede Cape Horn Passage – @Christophe Favreau/GGR/PPL courtesy of Jean-Luc Van Den Heede

What did he eat while sailing and how do you prepare the provisions?

(More than six months without going ashore)

I like to eat so I didn’t plan on depriving myself of nice food for 8 months. After my first Vendée Globe in which I ate little and badly, I realized the importance of a well balanced diet. I have consulted a dietician and we have carefully examined the food I usually eat to create a race appropriate regimen. In my provisions there is a fair distribution between canned food and freeze-dried dishes, all accompanied by a glass of red wine.

Of course I drink a lot of water which I carry in bottles, but as soon as it rains, I also collect rainwater with my sails. Sometimes I also bake fresh bread and smell an irresistible scent in the cabin while cooking in the onboard oven. For the race, I calculated the meals for 240/250 days: in metal cans or plastic trays and some freeze-dried bags. So I brought: 480 main courses / 480 vegetable dishes / 480 desserts. Plus, 120 canned camembert / 240 servings of Petit Lu biscuits for breakfast.

I never had more than 10 identical dishes, so once a month I ate the same course: it is important to vary and make meals enjoyable. I also supplemented everything with a vitamin and mineral tablets as my doctor advised me. I loaded 250 liters of water into the tank of the boat, 50 bottles of sparkling water, 60 liters of wine (one glass per meal); explains Jean-Luc Van Den Heede

The dishes for special occasions by Jean-Luc Van Den Heede

To take a whim, I added several dishes from Comtesse Du Barry for special occasions and excellent pheasant terrines prepared by my mother-in-law! Regarding the weight I loaded, I know how to quantify it very well because the race committee weighed on us at the start and finish. I left with about 1300 kg of food, water, equipment and on my return I had accumulated 80 kg of garbage: I didn’t throw anything into the sea. By regulation all waste, such as cans or bags of food, but also a consumed line, had to be placed in garbage bags, controlled by the committee.

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

How did you sleep during the race and how do you organize your sleep in your solo voyages?

My sleep cycles are broken down into one and a half hour sections, which correspond to my natural sleep cycle. I had studied my circadian rhythms at Nantes University Hospital upon my return from the first Vendée Globe to improve my performance. I have no recovery problems when I keep track of my sleep cycles. Of course, in more difficult places (Doldrums, Cape Horn or near the coast), sleep can be reduced to 10 minutes or even zero. But you shouldn’t overstretch for more than two days, rest is important during such long races.

What was the most difficult and the most joyful moment?

The most difficult moment was when the boat did a 360°, and the mast came out in a bad way. I was afraid of having to retire and I had already called ashore to warn but then I tried to repair the mast and the nicest moment came. I convinced myself to continue as long as possible, with doubts but despite the accident I managed to finish the race and be first. In fact, the most joyful moment was the arrival when I realized I had made it and had won.

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

Amusing episodes that happened to you at sea during the race?

I always see sea animals: during the race I saw fewer sea birds than I did at the Vendée Globe. Maybe it depends on the season, we left much earlier, but I saw a whale that followed me for a few hours. I had some nice encounters with other boats: by race regulations we were obliged to go through gates placed close to the land. Both in the Canaries and in Australia the route took us close to the coast, which does not happen at the Vendée Globe.

It’s always nice to get close to the coast even if you can’t stop and see other people greeting and encouraging you as spectators. Even in Australia during the day there were many boats that approached and raced with me. They were curious to find out how fast I was going and if they could overtake me – it was fun to have some company.

A memory or thought of your first 1977 Mini Transat and his first 1990 Vendée Globe.

On both occasions they were the first edition of the race and the public thought we were a bit crazy. The Mini Transat is an amazing competition, everyone has an opportunity because the boats are small and cheap – I love the spirit of this race. Above all, I remember the camaraderie that was established among the participants, we were a very close-knit group, there was an extraordinary understanding.

Jean-Luc Van Den Heede - With the scale model of 36.15
Jean-Luc Van Den Heede – With the scale model of 36.15

While from the first Vendée Globe I remember that we all felt we were leaving for the unknown, it was a great test and a great challenge for everyone. Before us, only Robin Knox-Johnston had managed in 1969 to complete the solo round the world without a stop.

What prompted you in 2004 to attempt the circumnavigation record in reverse?

After four rounds of the world from east to west, two Vendée Globes and two Boc Challenges, I wondered what it would be like to do it in reverse? Few were able to do it and the challenge fascinated me. It was a tough test: I tried four times and spent 7 years of my life to reach that milestone. The first time I had equipment failure, the second the keel was cracked and started to move, the third I dismasted. At the fourth attempt I succeeded and when you succeed at the fourth attempt the victory is even more beautiful.

Jean-Luc Van Den Heede - Record of the round the world in reverse - will succeed only on the fourth attempt
Jean-Luc Van Den Heede – Record of the round the world in reverse – will succeed only on the fourth attempt

What does your wife think, how do you reconcile offshore sailing and family?

My wife and children have always supported me and my wife knew me as a sailor and accepted me like that. They were happy and proud when I arrived and we were all happy to see each other and hug again. My wife has also participated in races with me on certain occasions. My son is in the Marine National and my daughter has a cruise boat which she sails with her husband.

Jean-Luc Van Den Heede with his wife
Jean-Luc Van Den Heede with his wife

You were also a professor of mathematics until 1989, how important is mathematics on a sailing boat?

Manipulating numbers and understanding mathematical systems is an advantage. When you go around the world, you always have to solve problems and the logical mindset of the mathematician is important.

What is Jean-Luc Van Den Heede’s next project?

I always have plans in mind, that’s how I am, now I dream of going on a cruise and I am preparing my boat to have fun. It will be my twentieth boat and my wife will accompany me on this journey, I still don’t know for sure the destination.

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

What would you recommend to young people who want to approach offshore sailing and solo crossings?

Today we cannot discover something truly new on the planet, all corners of the Earth are known but there are always passions to cultivate. What I recommend to young people is to have a passion, there is nothing more terrible than not having desires. The problem when desires are easily realized they deprive you of desire, of the desire to achieve, to obtain a result.

I find that having a passion in life is important. The second piece of advice I take the liberty of giving is to try to keep optimism: we are in a world where pessimism and negativity are cultivated. As we forget the positive things, we forget that we can already be happy with the gift of life.

Chapeau Monsieur Jean-Luc Van Den Heede et Merci!