Sam Davies will soon be sailing solo around the planet in her second Vendee Globe. But this time she has an extra special reason to be thinking of home. The super sailor tells RACHEL JONES about combining motherhood with one of sailing’s most extreme races.
Ask Sam Davies about her young son Ruben and she can’t wait to chatter proudly about his minor and major triumphs – and of course the fact that he’s pretty exhausting.
‘He’s a little monster. He’s full of energy, bright and breezy and very funny,’ she says about her adventurous one-year-old, who appears to be showing signs of being as intrepid as his sailor mum.
‘He’s trying to walk and is into everything, but it’s good because he wears himself out and is sleeping quite a lot. He hasn’t made that step for mankind yet but he isn’t far off.’
But soon Sam will be relying on the pictures and home videos that will become her world.
Whether she’s battling eight-metre waves, getting to grips with being alone in vast swathes of treacherous ocean or feeling icy winds chill her bones, those reminders of her family will be a comfort and inspiration.
Sam has signed up to take on her second Vendee Globe – one of the world’s toughest offshore races which has been dubbed the ‘Everest of the Seas.’
In this most demanding and dangerous of contests, competitors sail around the world single-handed, non-stop and do battle with some of the most violent weather the planet can throw at them.
Four years ago the sailor from Hayling Island became the media darling of the race. Sam conjured her top yachting skills and brute mental strength to sweep into fourth place in a contest where some of the world’s top sailors don’t make it to the finish line.
But not content with having successfully rounded South America’s notorious Cape Horn or taken on the vast and vicious Southern Ocean, where rescue is almost impossible at some points, she was determined to do it again.
Of course in this round-the-world odyssey Sam will want to get back to her partner, sailor Romain Attanasio, and their boy Ruben safely and as quickly as possible.
‘We can’t do Skype every day, but I know Romain and my parents and his nanny will send me photos and take videos, there’s so much communication,’ says the 38-year-old.
‘I think as long as he is happy, with all the other people who love him around him, and not sick, I’ll be fine too. Of course I’m going to miss him so much and there will be times when I want nothing more than to be at home.
‘But maybe it will give me energy and strength, maybe it will make me go faster to get home.’
Home is now in Brittany, France with Romain and Ruben. And there’s no prizes for guessing the type of holiday the family take.
‘We went cruising this summer, up and down the Brittany coast, around all the nice bays and inlets. It’s what I used to do as a kid, I was brought up cruising Brittany,’ says Sam.
‘Ruben loves it, he has all his toys on there. And we’ve found out it’s a great way of having a holiday with kids. They can have their afternoon nap in the same place as the cocktails!’
Now it’s back to business and three months of separation as Sam embarks on her awe-inspiring adventure – something she never had to think too hard about. Child care on the other hand has been at the forefront of her mind. After all, she’s not just talking about office hours at the nursery.
‘I’ve never imagined not doing it, even before he was born,’ she explains. ‘I know lots of mums who can’t imagine being able to do that. But it’s part of my life. I was born into a sailing family and my dad worked abroad a lot so it seems normal.’
Ruben will be with his dad, nanny, friends and Sam’s parents, who live on a yacht and will be moored nearby for the duration of the race.
‘I think kids deal with life as it comes, as long as they’re loved and happy, that’s what matters, ‘ she says, adding. ‘As for me, I’ll let you know when I come back if I’m thinking ‘‘never again’’.’
But Sam’s confidence and positivity shines through every sentence and it’s this, along with decades of sailing expertise and the sort of competitive nature and amazing focus required for extreme sailing, that allow her to step into the vast unknown.
For most people Vendee Globe is an unimaginable feat – three months alone, sometimes with the yacht racing on the very edge of control and precious sleep only taken in very short naps.
And at certain points sailors must keep watch for the beautiful but ruthless glint of yacht-ravaging icebergs.
People have died in past races and each year many experienced sailors have to pull out.
But participants say the experience can be as glorious as it can be terrifying and quieter moments of sunshine and the right wind can be exquisite.
In the last event Sam certainly seemed to take solitude in her stride, posting a video of herself dancing wildly to Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and amusing the world with entertaining stories about an imaginary sock thief on board.
But there were plenty of hair-raising ordeals. At one point Sam suffered a blackout after a nasty fall, and she famously rushed to the aid of French skipper Yann Eliès, who broke a leg in the Southern Ocean and was unable to move.
And she has admitted to feeling terrified after shutting herself inside her yacht as a 50-knot squall knocked it about while rounding Cape Horn.
But she still displays the confidence of a supreme yachtswoman.
‘There are those moments when it’s really hard, when you really want to be somewhere else, but I remind myself of all the hard work we’ve had even getting to the start line, the team that have worked so hard to get me there and all the sponsors behind me.’
Finding a budget in these recession-hit times has been tough and other competitors, including Titchfield’s Dee Caffari – a friend of Sam’s – haven’t been able to secure sponsorship this time round. Two of this area’s other sailors – Mike Golding and Alex Thomson – will be racing.
But that leaves Sam the only woman on the start line among a field of 20.
‘I’m really sad for Dee and I also think it’s a great shame that I’m the only woman. There’s absolutely no reason why there should be only one’ she says.
‘There really is no division in long-distance sailing. Of course you need to be strong but it’s about endurance far more than physical strength.’
Her main sponsor is French tomato producer Savéol and that’s the name of her Open 60 monohull.
Just like last time, she has one of the oldest boats in the competition and she isn’t one of the favourites, but her former yacht Roxy served her well and this time she’s hoping to do even better.
‘It’s quite nice to not have the pressures of being one of the favourites. And while she’s not the latest generation and certainly isn’t the fastest, she’s a bit larger and sometimes that means less fragile. She’s also been around the world several times and problems have been ironed out. That’s what I’m falling back on anyway.’
And then there are the months and months of hard work and preparation, with Sam sharing some of her training with an elite squad of eight skippers.
‘It’s nice to work with the others. It’s a reminder that you’re not the only one out there doing this. It makes it seem more normal.’
Other than that , she’ll be relying on that mental strength and expertise.
And of course, thoughts of Romain and Ruben.
Covering about 26,000 miles, the awe-inspiring Vendee Globe requires competitors to tackle violent storms, wind-limited periods where it’s tough to make progress, technical difficulties and about three months of solitude.
Sailors have died trying to complete the race and every year many have to pull out due to injury or technical problems.
Created by sailor Philippe Jeantot in 1989, it has been staged every four years since 1992. Vendee Globe has grown into a huge international event, pushing up to 30 of the world’s top sailors to their limits.
For non-sailors in this country the race was made famous when it turned Dame Ellen MacArthur into a household name. She finished second in 2001 when she was just 24.
In 1997 French skipper Catherine Chabaud became the first woman to complete the race.
In the 1992/93 race, tragedy struck as British sailor Nigel Burgess was found drowned off Cape Finisterre, probably after being knocked out and thrown overboard. Four years later there was more bad news when race HQ in Paris realised that Canadian Gerry Roufs was no longer answering. Four of his competitors searched for him but the wreck of his yacht was only found six months later off the coast of Chile.
Although danger and risk can never be eliminated, previous tragic events led to designers and sailors going back to the drawing board and improving the stability of monohulls.
Competitors travel west to east, rounding the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin and the notorious Cape Horn, on a route that has proved to be beautiful, exhilarating and terrifying.