October 18 - Steve White arrives at Les Sables d’Olonne uncertain if he has the funds to compete in the Vendee Globe.
Courtesy The Sunday Times, November 2, 2008
STEVE WHITE already has a vague idea of how he might feel if he were to win the Vendee Globe. By reaching the port of Les Sables d’Olonne with boat intact and a last-minute sponsor confirmed, the 35-year-old British privateer has completed a journey every bit as gruelling and emotional as the 27,000 miles of the Vendee itself.
For reasons he cannot quite explain, White wanted to take his boat, the Spirit of Weymouth, into the harbour of the French port on his own. There was some logic to it; he will be leaving on his own when the race starts next Sunday. But it was more than that. This was a moment that he wanted all to himself.
“I suppose big tough solo sailors aren’t supposed to cry,” he says. “But I have done, twice in the past couple of years. The first time was when we got a backer so that I could buy the boat and the second time was driving the boat through the harbour entrance.
“I knew I could turn around outside the harbour and quietly head home if we didn’t have the money. But I couldn’t deal with going into the race village and then having to withdraw. So when I knew we had the last bit of money in place to do the race, I was in bits.”
White has been enjoying his celebrity status as one of the 30 Vendee skippers, the most exclusive sailing community in the world. He had never signed autographs before or been recognised as he walked down the street. The local patisserie has baked a Steve White cake. But these are the least of the rewards due the spiritual keeper of this Vendee.
White’s Toe in the Water is older and will be slower — upwind at least — than the sleek new generation of Open 60s moored alongside, his coffers might not be quite as full as the multimillion-pound campaigns of the pre-race favourites, but in turning himself from novice to Vendee competitor in the space of 10 years, in remortgaging his house three times and recruiting wife, Kim, and their four children to the cause, he has more than earned his place in the fleet for the most prestigious of solo round-the-world races.
This was how the Vendee once was, a last-minute scramble for fixtures and fittings, for somebody who might give a hopeless dreamer credit for a few months.
There is a logic to White’s story, somewhere, lost in the twists and turns: from a degree in engineering gained at Bristol University to jobs in construction, vintage car restoration and roofing. The list does not explain a boyhood desire to become a jump jockey — courtesy of an aunt who had point-to-point horses — or a stint working as a stable lad for a couple of West Country trainers. Neither does his family history include any mariners, as far as he is aware.
One moment he was helping a friend tow his boat down to Weymouth, the next he was out on the water and not long after that he was announcing to his employer and to Kim that he was going to become a professional sailor. At the time he was making good money restoring Rolls-Royces, Ferraris and Bentleys.
“I went home, spent a sleepless night thinking about it and in the morning packed in my job and went to work at a boatyard in Weymouth,” he explains. “I had two children and the third was on the way. Nobody takes you seriously, so you feel like an idiot. Kim still thinks I am an idiot.”
Further experience as a mate on Pete Goss’s Aqua Corum and with Chay Blyth’s Challenge Business gave White enough knowledge and confidence to start sailing alone. In 2005, he won the 50ft class in the Ostar, a race across the Atlantic.
Competing in a Vendee, the ultimate ambition, was still a big step up but the purchase of Josh Hall’s original Gartmore, which had made three circumnavigations, gave the project legs. If the skipper had not yet sailed round the world, at least his boat would know the way. “It’s a kind boat, pretty robust,” he says. “We can get round and maybe surprise a few people.” He has already surprised himself. A private donor had agreed to put up half the money for the race if a sponsor could be found to fund the other half of the £200,000 campaign. When, at the last minute, the sponsor pulled out, White firmly believed the donor would pull out, too. He didn’t. Instead, he said: “Keep going.” Only in the final few hours before he docked in Les Sables did news come through that all the funding had been secured.
“It was 2am and Kim was screaming down the phone at me, ‘We’ve got the money, we’ve got the money’,” White says. “After 10 years of struggle and grief, I just couldn’t believe it. Now there will be 29 top skippers in the world on this Vendee and some bloke from Dorset who used to mend cars.”