Interview with Sam Davies

Sam Davies and Paul Meilhat.
pic by © Initiatives Coeur

“In the Vendée Globe, You Have to Have A Double Philosophy on How to Race”

In the last eighteen months Sam Davies has established herself as a podium contender for the next Vendée Globe. On the water she has proven competitive across the wind range on her ‘Initiatives Coeur’ which has been substantially turbo’d up with a massive set of new foils. Her programme, a highly optimised 10 year old boat which was second in 2012 as ‘Banque Populaire’ and third in 2016 as ‘Maitre CoQ’, brings massive advantages in terms of building reliability and a perfect knowledge of the boat, building tens of thousands of sea miles. This week Davies and her Transat Jacques Vabre co-skipper Paul Meilhat have been training with ‘Charal’, still the only new generation IMOCA on the water. Next week they will take part in the Fastnet Race alongside 20 IMOCAs. As a raft of new launches start to hit the water, Davies says her envy for the new boats is limited and she is happy with her course towards the 2020 Vendée Globe.

Tip & Shaft caught up with Sam before she went training this week……

So what is the schedule this week, what can you learn two boat testing with the much newer ‘Charal’?
We’ve done a couple of sessions with Jeremie. ‘Charal’ is the only other top level boat that’s sailing right now, it’s better to train with another boat rather than just yourself and we’re neighbours on the dock so it’s quite easy to organise. Until now it has been mainly light wind. That is not what we are looking for now. This next session should be interesting as it should be 25 knots for a few hours, so we should get some good learning.

Overall do you feel you are where you want to be in terms of you short, medium and long term goals for the Vendée Globe, and your chosen schedule to fit new gen foils when you did?
I’m feeling good as I’ve been sailing this boat for two years, and that has given me a really good base before the Vendée Globe. I delaminated the hull in the Route du Rhum which was good in a way because we realised there were some structural changes that needed to be made to the boat. It’s frustrating to abandon a race, but I’m glad that we discovered that early. It was good to be able to change the foils as soon as possible. It is hard to find the right moment because things are changing so quickly. To do it too early you don’t get the advantage of seeing what does not work for other people. But then if you do it too late then we have made a big, big change to the way the boat sails and how we are going to sail the boat, and sail design, there is a while heap of stuff there, and it is useful to have done this early to react and be able to learn it all before the Vendée Globe. Right now we are learning a lot for the Transat Jacques Vabre which is cool. And we have been sailing together since the Sardinia Cup. I’m sad for Paul because I’d rather have him as a competitor than a co-skipper. He’s putting his Volvo campaign together and doesn’t have any other sailing apart from sailing with me and he’s been 100% with the project ever since we launched the boat and that’s an advantage for the TJV for us as a duo. Even though we have done a lot of sailing it still doesn’t feel like we’ve done enough sailing to have covered the whole range of wind angles and boat speeds for our new foils to totally understand them yet.

And why Paul Meilhat, what does he bring in particular that other co-skippers might not?
I wanted someone who has a lot of experience in the IMOCA class, Paul is natural sailor and has instinct and feeling for the boat and the trim. He has experience of the IMOCA class at top level and I enjoy sailing with people who have the same passion and enthusiasm for sailing, just loving going sailing, not just to earn money for a job. He has a feeling I can trust as well. His old boat is the sistership to my boat. He managed to sail ‘SMA’ with no foils faster than I sailed my boat with foils apart from one race. He brings expertise and excellence. He’s a good team player and he loves the technical side. So the days where we have to work on shore, Paul is there 100% too and enjoys that technical challenge as well. He understands the difficulties for the shore team to make the boat do all the things we write on the job lists.

And right now we are seeing all the new boats start to be launched, are you envious, jealous, or are there big advantages to your trajectory?
It will be very interesting. We are impatient to see them on the water. But it will be hard for them all as they really are launching late. It’s going to be a rush for them to prepare for the TJV. No one has really found the perfect answer for what foils work best on an offshore monohull. It will be great now to see all the different shapes of hulls and foils and to see how they compare with our 2019 foils. We can see how a new generation boat is an advantage for the Vendée Globe because you can adapt the boat to the skipper, but I’m not really envious as I’m much happier in a boat that I know and I’m going to concentrate on learning how my boat works best and getting 100% confident before the start of the Vendée. I want to leave the start line in Les Sables d’Olonne with a serene confidence knowing that I have done everything I possibly could have done with complete confidence in myself and the boat. I am jealous in a way, but not in another. I am very happy with my boat and my schedule.

What further optimizing do you have planned?
We are stopping now. We’ve had two years of optimization and that was always the time line of the project. Last year we changed the ballast configuration and I developed a new autopilot and quite radically changed the sail plan. I can because I have a grandfather rule and this year we developed the new foils. That is the big development area. That was always going to be the time to put the full stop on the development area and now the next twelve months of the project we focus on reliability. The only thing we will do is change the rig as this mast has done two vendee Globes now, and because Tanguy broke his mast in the last Vendée it’s a sensitive subject in our team and our sponsors as well. We put in our budget and time frame for a new mast at the beginning of this year as we don’t want any question marks or doubts in this area. I can use the grandfather rule in the rig so we can have even more reliability and strength for the Vendee Globe.

And how is the sail programme changing as the boats go faster and faster?
The sail programme we’re working on is a new sail with All Purpose Sails. It’s interesting because the flexibility you need offshore when foiling in transitional moments when you have everything in the water, and then with the foil taking off, then we’re at high speeds. We are limited to eight sails in the Vendee Globe so it’s a big question. We’re trying things with the sails with All Purpose, we’ve changed the sail plan to optimize the overlap between each sail and the way I change my sails. I don’t have a J1 anymore and my J2 is much bigger than anyone else’s. So now it’s working out what sail is on the bowsprit, and the sail design shape will be changing, but that will come as we get more used to sailing with our new foils and making them work to best effect for the Vendee. You have to decide which eight to take because when we are foiling we go faster and our apparent wind angles are tighter and tighter, so for example there’s a big question do we take a spinnaker or not? Right now we’re still running a spinnaker. In the Bermudes 1000 Race there were foiling boats that didn’t have spinnakers. If you have a spinnaker it limits your other sail choices, if you don’t have one then you need a gennicker instead in terms of surface area. And of course you want to minimise sail changes because now they cost a lot of time and distance because we’re going so fast, so we don’t want to do to change too often.

What do you think this Vendée Globe will look like, how will it unfold with a whole fleet of new foiling boats? Will the attrition rate be inherently higher as boats go faster and the foils remain relatively unproven?
There aren’t many people that enter the Vendée Globe just to win. It’s such an amazing race and an adventure that half the people going out there to win really want to finish as well. So you have to have a double philosophy on how to race, because yes you want to win, but you want to finish as well and the two are not always compatible! In terms of attrition rate, in the Vendee Globe you have to keep your mechanical machine moving for two and a half months. It’s a long time so the wear and tear is always a challenge. The boats are going faster so if you hit something the damage tends to be worse, but the faster you go the less time you’re out there! I don’t think the attrition rate will be any higher because there are more foiling boats. But in saying that maybe this time there will be only two or three boats that manage to keep themselves totally 100% working, but there are so many shitfights out there that you’re not always going to be at 100% and that is what defines the race, not whether you go 1% faster than the boat next to you. The only time I think we ever saw that was in 2012 when Armel and François were head to head, neither of them hardly had any downtime so the two boats stayed so close. The compact racing like you see in the Volvo where everybody can see each other and everybody has shitfights to deal with and you’re trying to minimise the downtime does not really happen on the Vendée Globe.

Have you ever encountered any direct or indirect criticism for leaving Ruben your son for long periods as you race round the world? It seems like you and Roman turn it to a very positive asset in his upbringing and he is your biggest fan….
I don’t think I’ve had any direct criticism for leaving Ruben, it happens in sailing and in many jobs, the military etc. The job requires that we go away, but we manage it well. It’s an important part of my project and my shore team understand that I have to spend time planning how he’s going to be looked after and sorting out his nanny, mum, dad and grandparents depending on who is looking after him. That is all part of my work, to enable me to perform when I’m offshore. It takes a lot of time, but we make sure we get the life balance and family balance right and we incorporate that into our calendar. At the moment Ruben thinks it’s cool and he thinks he’s going to do this when he’s older, but we don’t push it. He loves coming to the start and finishes of the races. He encourages us all the time and is one of our biggest fans. It is a pleasure to have to manage that. Leaving and being away is hard, making sure you get the family balance right for the one who has just come back takes a lot of effort. He knows the good bits make up for the hard bits, he thinks it’s a cool life, he gets to travel, he speaks two languages and nearly three. When we are racing we get to go to places that you perhaps wouldn’t normally go to on a family holiday, so he gets to see different parts of the world. It is a cool upbringing.

Tell us about your work with Musto, what are you developing and how do you work with them?
We are working and learning with Musto all the time. Because on these boats you cannot stand up you move around all the time on your knees, so I send back my Musto HPX trousers every two months because the knees get a lot of abrasion. So Musto see the wear and tear and are keen to help to develop performance clothing. Like with other things we’re all learning things together from the Americas Cup. We are learning from the inshore requirements for protection, we need bump protection. It is really interesting to work with them, it is a challenge for us both, but there has to be a balance as what we do is quite extreme so there are not many things the will be able to sell to everybody.

Reproduced from Tip & Shaft Sail Racing HERE