Conrad Colman: “The Vendée Globe is the race that changed my life”
After losing his mast when he was in 10th place and some 750 miles from the finish line of the Vendée Globe Conrad Colman‘s epic 14 day struggle to complete his race highlights his remarkable grit and determination and remains one of the outstanding stories in the recent history of the race. The Brittany based native of New Zealand, 36 next month, confirmed recently that he will take part in the next race after having agreed a charter of the 2004 Marc Lombard design Vivo A Beira which started life as Roland Jourdain’s Sill 2/Veolia and which Sam Davies raced as Saveol. Work starts almost immediately on the boat while Colman confirms he is still looking for a title co-sponsor to complete the budget he wants. Tip & Shaft caught up with Colman
So, Conrad you have got yourself a boat and an entry?
It looks that way!
How hard has that been?
It has been very tough, I had many, many challenges getting to the start line last time. Then I had multiple challenges getting to the finish line last time. Even so, I was always dreaming about doing the 2020 race even while I was doing everything I could to make it through the 2016 one. But I have been pretty much working full time since I finished the last race to make sure I would have a competitive entry in the next race. Yes, I went to work for the Volvo Ocean Race but I also did a whole bunch of other stuff outside of your typical route to get back to the Vendée Globe. But I was always dreaming about getting back into the Vendée. This is the race that changed my life, that brought me to Europe, that made me learn French, that made me learn how to solo sail, and everything has built up to this.
So, when you finished last time, in your head there was never a chance that you wouldn’t be going this time?
In my mind, for sure, absolutely. It can be quite challenging, but it was very clear in my mind that I wanted to start again. The last race was very tough and I was happy to have the break but supposing the Vendée Globe was in 2018 I would have been happy to go again.
You say it’s been a full-time occupation since then, how close have you been to getting other boats and other sponsors?
I’ve had some close calls on sponsorships, and a few close calls on boats as well. I won my first race around the world and then I had a new boat that allowed me to do it (to that level). All those races that I have done, I have had a boat that has allowed me to compete. My Barcelona World Race boat in 2014 with Nandor (Fa) wasn’t very fast or reliable and likewise in the Vendée. I found myself most notably with the CEO and founder of Ethical Power, my sponsors for the Figaro. He is a deeply competitive guy as well and we both wanted to go a lot faster this time around, but we missed the opportunity to get a boat which would allow us to play at the front. So, the goal is to build on the experience from last time, continue to go zero emissions. On a technical side the goal is to go faster that last time, prove that renewable energy is the way forward, both in sailing and in the wider world and use this one to build up to new campaign for 2024.
Tell us a little bit about the boat, what’s the potential of it?
That’s tricky because I am ready to refit a boat which I have never sailed, but that is a bit of a legend in IMOCA. In 2004 it was one of the first boats to have chines and a central tunnel for the halyards which inspired in many ways the generation of 2008. And remember it was in second place in 2008 with Bilou when the keel failed. But I think it’s a boat that will allow me to play within the generation. It has rich history since it has done two Vendées and a Barcelona World Race (as Neutrogena), and the 2012 Vendée. It wasn’t there in 2016. So in many ways the boat is relatively unknown to the IMOCA fleet in recent terms because it hasn’t really been racing in the IMOCA world. I’m very aware of the fact that all the boats of that 2008 generation have continued to advance and be optimised. So we are launched into a big winter refit which hopefully allow us to continue to play with its ‘camarades du jour‘ of the 2008 generation.
What do you need to do in the refit?
We are going to modify the ballast, we are going to completely rebuild of the ballast system to bring it up to spec and to hopefully gain some weight advantage. I plan on changing the rig, also with the goal of making the boat lighter. Then we are going to strip out the engine and battery system and replace it with a more advanced version of what I had last time. So I plan on going with an electric motor and zero emissions. My sponsor Ethical Power is working on developing some custom solar panels for the boat that will use new technology to allow me to benefit from their experience as a solar installer. Generally, we will focus on lightness and reliability.
Will you do the main races next year?
Yes, the season next year I’ll be putting the boat back in the water in spring, hopefully doing my qualifying voyage immediately (Ed note, Colman is pre qualified as a finisher in the last race but needs the 2000 mile qualifier passage) followed by a crewed Transatlantic to the States followed by the race back (New York Vendée), and then PR and validations as well.
What is your budget?
Still a work in progress, we’ve got the boat, but we still don’t have everything we need yet so we’re still looking at it.
What do you need?
I don’t know, I honestly don’t know.
What’s available in terms of sponsorship? Are Ethical Power your main sponsor?
No, they are a supporting partner. Ethical Power will not be the primary sponsor, we have a co-title sponsor which we will announce shortly and the option of being a co-title sponsor is still available.
Would you put a number on that?
There is an opportunity to be a 50% partner in the project is open and if anyone would like that exposure, I would be delighted to talk to them.
This project falls short of what you were aiming for…
Yes, we were aiming to have a faster boat and be back on the water earlier.
So presumably it’s frustrating to not to be able to go out and to prove your ability racing with the very top level.
For sure, I feel like I outperformed the potential of the boat I had last time, which was an indication of the fact that I am a fast sailor. I’ll just have to try to do the same this time around. I have the experience to be really fast offshore.
Tell me some practical things, that you learned from the last Vendée, that you are taking forward in terms of your outlook.
My career has been very challenging. I thought that I had a pretty good sense of what I was capable of doing when I set off and I came to understand that I wanted to do so much more than I had ever imagined. I was physically and mentally pushed way beyond where I could have been in the last race and still managed to come back fighting in the last race and when the rig came down, with less than a thousand miles to go, I was a hairsbreadth away from chucking it all in because I thought that I had given all that I could give. Anyway, it was a revelation to see just how much we can put up with and still come back and finish. For me that was really the big lesson from the race and for now I have proven that I can make it round the Vendée course. There’s no questions about the sailor, in terms of whether I can manage it, whether I can go fast, whether I can deal with these complicated boats and keep them alive for most of the race, then now I am excited to see what I can do with more support. Last time we had one of the smallest budgets in the fleet, this time it looks to be better. I’m excited to see what we can do.
How do you see the competition shaping up amongst your generation of boats, compared to where you were in the last race? There is much more strength in depth, it is a more competitive group isn’t it?
Yes, I think so. In this Vendée Globe the quality runs a lot deeper, a lot further down the last time I think it was pretty even split between foilers and non-foilers. We are going to have to fight all the way through from ‘go’ to ‘whoa’. I think we saw that at different stages in the TJV. I think upwind, downwind and VMG a well-prepared daggerboard boat can stick with the foilers . Even more so in solo than in doubles where the skipper rather than the boat is more important. So, for me I was very excited to see Banque Populaire and Apicil and other well sailed daggerboard boats right up there to the Doldrums. It demonstrates that you can get up there and into the race and really be in the thick of it. And you can take an older boat and an experienced skipper and punch above your weight at least in a certain part of the race and even when straight board boats are left behind by the other (foiling) boats on a reach, I think there is enough of that that there will always be something to fight for. You can give the fans of the race a really good show all the way through.
What is your view on the state of Imoca, and the pressure on entries for the whole race and in terms of the span of technology, are you happy with the way the class has gone and the developments that have happened?
Yes, I am. I think that the Imoca fleet is unique not only in sailing but unique in sport in that you can have a boat like the one we have chartered that is 16 years old that you can still bring out of the stable, dust it off and give it a fresh lick of paint and have it look spectacular on the pontoon in Les Sables d’Olonne and then still be able to put on a race within a race when out at sea. In every other mechanised sport for example Formula 1 where you build several iterations of the car each year, I find it really satisfying that I’m in a sport that gives long term value to these boats. That being said, I do think we need to keep on moving forward and it’s really exciting to have the latest tech and see the speeds the boats are achieving. I obviously aspire to get to the front of the fleet myself with a new boat in the next edition, but I think we’ve found a really good balance between hyper-fast boats and the old legends of the fleet that many people remember and recognise, a race like the Vendée Globe has both of those and I think a lot of the flavour and value would be lost if it was to become just the new boats. You can get a different profile or project, a different profile of skipper and a different profile of boat. Those that have a machine to fight at the front have less time to tell the story and bring people along and those in the fight of our own in the middle of the fleet have more capacity to tell their story it is important to have both.
Tell me about your following in New Zealand? Is that ongoing, did it tail off after the Vendée? What is your profile like there?
It is still very much still a work in progress, I was the first Kiwi to ever compete in the Vendée Globe and remain, less so now, one of the few truly bilingual skippers on the circuit. So for me, I find it very important to be able to give back to the French public. France, is obviously my country of adoption, it’s home to me now but equally I find it a personal mission to act as an open door, an entry point, into a quite poorly understood and selective world. I was the first New Zealander to do the Vendée Globe, the first to do the Figaro, the first to do the Route de Rhum, which speaks to the fact that there is a whole world of sailors and sailing fans that have never had anyone to root for or have someone explain it to them and I’m definitely trying to do my best.
Have any young sailors come forward from New Zealand talking about doing what you have done or emulating your feats.
Yes a bunch of people have reached out to me, who would like to start and would be interested in joining a campaign, to join the team and so as I go foward I shall certainly reach out to some of those young sailors from New Zealand.
So, do you have aspirations to do the Ocean Race beyond this?
Working on the Volvo Ocean Race now The Ocean Race was a fantastic experience to go through the media role, for me. I learned a lot and finally had the opportunity to do a lot of the antics and the explanations of offshore sailing that I wanted to do for a long time but have never had the team, the time and the budget behind me to pull off. That was really cool, I enjoyed taking the wheels off my bike and explaining the Doldrums! It was a really rich thing, however it was tough because I was working in a media team, surrounded by photographers, videographers and editors who would look at the footage every day and say they never want to be in that situation in the Southern Ocean that looks crazy. And I am sitting there in the studio and every time the waves broke over boat I’m thinking “put me out there, boss,” but we will see. The reality of it is that it has taken all of my time and effort getting into this Vendée Globe and maybe now it would be best to say that we are still looking for partners to secure the entry and the project. And as far as The Ocean Race goes I would love to go and join somebody else’s team and maybe do a couple of legs, but the likelihood of me doing my own team is probably limited.
Photo : Christophe Breschi/Foresight Natural Energy
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