FRENCH FLAIR ON PUMA
Sidney Gavignet is one of just two French sailors competing in the Volvo Ocean Race this time around; a somewhat surprising statistic given the depth of talent in the French offshore sailing community.
Sidney himself is an example of that. He had a first taste of the race aboard La Poste in 1993-94 and then finished second in the 2001-02 edition of the race on board Assa Abloy, before winning the last race as a member of the ABN AMRO ONE team.
Before that, he cut his teeth on the traditional French proving grounds - the Tour de France a la Voile and La Solitaire du Figaro. Now, he's a vital member of the PUMA Ocean Racing team, currently lying in second place.
While French sailing is increasingly focussed on short-handed, offshore races, Gavignet has bucked the trend and worked to forge his career in the Anglo-Saxon world. Something that's not always easy when you're the only Latin on the boat.
"It's not easy because I have to play against my own nature, to be some sort of a Latin integrated into the Anglo-Saxon world," he says, looking relaxed after a few days of rest following Leg 5. "I've pushed myself a lot to integrate. But the Anglo-Saxons are not really working on that point as well."
Perhaps that's only to be expected on a boat filled with English speakers, but it's another element to deal with on what is already perhaps the toughest edition of the race in history. This second iteration of the Volvo Open 70 class is more powerful than that used in the last race, meaning they're punishing even more punishing on the crews..
"The boats are wild," he says. "They are getting more powerful and that means everything is harder, everything you try to do. Just a little bit more power means it's so much harder.
"There is physical stress. For weeks you can be under cold water, but you also have the mental stress. For 15 months you spend all your time very close to the same people in a competitive environment, which makes for some interesting situations....where you can't believe how people react sometimes, but it's just because they're tired and under so much pressure."
For Sidney, the safety valve for that pressure comes during the stopovers, where the sailors get a short break. Having his wife and two daughters on hand provides a much-needed escape.
"For me it is impossible to do this race if you don't have your family with you. You would lose yourself," he admits. "That's hard to understand for people outside to see how intense this race is. It's very hard to explain. It's very tough on people in general and on families in particular."
The positive side of the ledger is filled with the special moments at sea and with time spent with some of his younger crew mates. As one of the veterans on board, the 40-year old is expected to teach and to lead.
"The young guys on board are fantastic. I see them learning every leg and they have a real commitment. They are easy people, always smiling and they enjoy it. It's really refreshing to deal with those guys.
"Even if it was very hard, it has been a fantastic leg as well. We left from China, and sailed through the Japanese islands...We go through Fiji, and it looks like heaven on Earth. Then we went close to New Zealand. Then of course Cape Horn, the Falkland Islands and we end up in Brazil. What a journey! Just going through it is a massive achievement for the team...It was big."
As for his countrymen, he says he could certainly see a French team involved in the next edition of the race. Certainly the talent is there. And so is the history - the 1973 race, for example, featured several French teams, including Pen Duick VI skippered by the legendary Eric Tabarly.
"I don't think it could be only a French team. They would need some experience, some people who had done it before," he says, perhaps not realising how well he fits that description. "But otherwise, why not? In many ways, French sailing is leading international sailing forward (through multihulls and short-handed sailing). I think you could do something very interesting with a French team in the Volvo Ocean Race."
And then perhaps he'll finally be able to sail around the world speaking in his native tongue.