Alessandro di Benedetto has never raced in a major regatta. Yet, he is on the short list of competitors scheduled to take part in the Mount Everest of sailing competitions, the 2012-’13 Vendée Globe, the only singlehanded, non-stop, around-the-world race.
But in many respects, Benedetto has already accomplished something much harder than completing the Vendée Globe. In 2009-’10 he sailed a 6.5-meter boat alone around the world in 268 days and 19 hours. Doing that earned him the World Sailing Speed Record Council record as the fastest time to circumvent the globe in such a small craft. He beat the record previously held by Sir Robin Knox-Johnson who accomplished the feat in 313 days aboard the 32-foot Suhaili during the 1968-’69 Golden Globe (predecessor of both the Vendée Globe and the BOC Challenge/Velux 5 Oceans).
“Many people have told me that I already did the Everest of sailing when I went around the world on a mini-transit-sized boat,” Benedetto says. “They tell me that the Everest of sailing used to be the Vendee Globe until I did that.”
Sailing a very small craft alone around the world is obviously different than completing the course on an Open 60 monohull. But it was just those differences and challenges specific to such a large boat design that mainly drew Benedetto to the race.
“I think it will be a real pleasure to sail such a powerful and big boat while competing against the best sailors in the world,” Benedetto says. “That is the magic of the Vendée Globe and it is a dream [I have]. Yes, I already [sailed the course] with a small boat, but now I will do it with a larger boat that goes very fast in a race.”
When Benedetto sailed his small boat around the world by himself, he could take the time to fish for his dinner or even venture off course in search of more pleasant weather. But during the Vendée Globe, he will not have the time for such leisurely pursuits. After all, it is a race. “The [IMOCA 60s] are very powerful and [less forgiving] when you make a mistake with the spinnaker or the gennaker,” Benedetto says. “You can dismast very quickly, but then again, they can withstand punishment that would break the mast of a mini-Transat design.”
Besides sleeping in short bursts, living on a Spartan diet for a couple of months, and the mental and physical stresses unfathomable to most people, Benedetto gave the examples of sail changes as one of the grueling tasks he faces. “Every time you change sails and fetch the bag, we are talking about 440 pounds of weight that you have to move to the other side of the boat,” he says.
In many respects, the fact that Benedetto has been able to make the short list of competitors at all is a feat. This is thanks mostly to his sponsor, Team Plastique, a local Brittany plastics supplier. For many aspiring Vendée Globe sailors, finding the funding to do the race is the biggest hurdle to cross. This year’s Vendée Globe will not have a U.S. competitor after Rich Wilson told me by email that he could not secure the necessary financing.
Benedetto’s financial backing falls well short of the millions most of his competitors have raised. He has well under a $1.25 million of backing for the entire project and a few hundred thousand euros for the boat. This compares to total costs of over three million euros and budgets of over a million euros a year that the other competitors typically have at their disposal for the Vendée Globe alone.
To make up for his budget shortfall, Benedetto is doing himself much of the engineering, preparation, and is doing all of the electrical work himself, which is what a licensed electrician would normally do. There is something about his matter-of-fact descriptions about what he is doing that exudes not only optimism, but possibility in general, which becomes apparent while speaking with him. Things that might at first seem outlandish, suddenly seem possible and doable.
Benedetto is realistic about how his boat, which will likely be the oldest in the fleet, stacks up against the world’s foremost Open 60 monohull designs that Arnaud Boissières, Armel Le Cléac´h, Jean-Pierre Dick, Marc Guillemot, Vincent Riou, and other Vendée Globe standouts will skipper. But Benedetto is certainly not in it to win as much as he wants to live the adventure.
“The Vendee Globe is a race, of course,” he says, “but the first goal for me and everybody else is to finish.”