Francois Gabart Wins 2012-2013 Vendée Globe Race

A young sailor becomes a Vendée Globe star.

Vendee Globe- Francois Gabart winner

Francois Gabart crosses the finish line of the 2012-2013 Vendee Globe aboard MACIF after 78 days, 02 hours, 16 minutes, and 40 seconds.OLIVIER BLANCHET / DPPI / VENDEE GLOBE

The 100,000 spectators who converged on the otherwise quiet resort town of Les Sables d'Olonne Sunday for the finish of the Vendée Globe had a lot to be excited about: Francois Gabart (aboard MACIF) became the youngest sailor to win the around-the-world solo race, completing the 28,647 mile-long trek in a record time of 78 days and two hours.

After Gabart tied up his boat and came onshore, the spectators continued to stand and wait in the damp winter weather along the port canal and dock to witness the arrival of Armel Le Cléac’h (Banque Populaire). They didn’t have to wait nearly as long to greet the second place winner compared to past races because Le Cléac’h completed the race just three hours and seven minutes after Gabart did, which was the shortest time ever between the first- and second-place finishers.

The spectators greeted Gabart with loud cheers and blasts of fog horns as Gabart waved from his boat as it motored down the canal and to the dock where thousands more spectators squeezed behind a fence to greet him.

The best the vast majority of the spectators could hope for was to just get a brief glimpse of Gabart as he went past them through the canal or when he reached the dock, which was more than 100 yards from the crowd. The first sailor to arrive after completing the race has also drawn thousands of spectators to Les Sables d’Olonne every four years since the first Vendée Globe in 1989-1990.

After leaving her house at 6:30 am Sunday to drive over three hours to Les Sables d’Olonne with her niece, Michelle Lebure Oriolo, who is in her sixties, said that her “strong connection to the sea” explained much of her passion for the race.

“Everything about this race is interesting,” she said. “It is as thrilling when they leave the dock for their great adventure as it is when they arrive. I also love hearing and reading about the problems and perils they face when at sea.”

After spending over 78 days alone living on what largely amounts to a 60-foot drum with a mast and sail that is as comfortable and sparse as a jail cell, Gabart told me by phone the other day that he was a bit apprehensive about returning home where he would be greeted as a national hero if he were to win the race.

Just a few weeks ago, Gabart was just another name people who followed the Vendée circuit heard of or read about. Those who followed the yacht racing circuit in France would likely only know that Gabart came in second in Le Figaro race in 2010. But suddenly, Gabart has become a national celebrity in France.

However, Gabart seemed relaxed and smiled often when he first tied up to the dock where hundreds of reporters crowded him, many holding microphones and cameras a few inches from his face. He kept up his cheerful demeanor while managing to hold at least three press conferences almost immediately following his arrival. He didn’t even look haggard after sleeping in cycles of two hours per 24 hours during the past 78 days while undergoing extreme physical and mental stress that goes with completing a Vendée Globe, often called the Everest of offshore sailing.

But despite Gabart’s cheerful demeanor, he had just experienced many hardships and struggles just to complete the Vendée, likening the race to running in a marathon that lasts for months. During my conversation with Gabart not long after he passed Cape Horn, he said he had suffered “many, many” breakages and spent a substantial amount of time just fixing things.

The worst is when everything goes wrong at once, Gabart said during the press conference Sunday. “Tough nights are among the most difficult moments, especially when you know it’s just the beginning of the race,” Gabart said. “My priority was to do my best to make sure each problem was taken care of, so I don’t have too many at the same time. I look back at my race and wonder how I was able to handle all those issues and twists of fate, either at the same time or one after the other.”

As for the crowd, Gabart said that he was still taken aback somewhat, even though he knew what it would be like because he was at the dock to greet Michel Desjoyeaux in 2009, when he won the Vendée Globe for second time.

“You’re never prepared for such a thing. You just don’t realize how many people you affect when participating in such a race,” Gabart said. “It’s great, because if there wasn’t that, we’d just be crazy people competing in a pointless crazy race.”