The wrong way done right

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“Words cannot express how I feel,” said Jean-Luc Van Den Heede after breaking by a whopping 29-plus days the world single-handed monohull record for circumnavigating “the wrong way around” — east to west.

Van Den Heede’s feat is a triumph of perseverance. The 58-year-old Frenchman had attempted it four times before. In 1999 he turned back with a leaky hull after hitting jetsam. Two years later, he abandoned an east-to-west record attempt with a broken keelboard, and in 2003 a broken mast shut him down halfway around the globe.

Van Den Heede’s 58-foot cutter Adrien crossed the finish off the Ushant in Brittany, France, early March 9 in a time of 122 days, 14 hours, 3 minutes, 49 seconds. That is 29d, 5h, 50m, 47s faster than the old record, set by Phillippe Monnet in 2000.

Van Den Heede said sailing around the world “the wrong way,” against prevailing currents and winds, is a lot more punishing than west to east.

“In the Vendée Globe, you are pushed along by the wind,” he said. “Here you have everything head-on. It’s the same difference between a cyclist going up a hill and one going down. It’s the toughest thing a yachtsman can do in a single-handed event.”

Adrien is about 10 percent faster than Monnet’s yacht. Factoring in that and some problems Monnet had under way that slowed him down, Van Den Heede figured to beat the old record by 20 days at most.

“I thought I could get up to 20 days better,” he said. “Twenty-five just seemed out of the question. I really treated it as a competition against a virtual enemy. Every four or five hours I checked out where he was [at the same elapsed time in his record attempt].”

Van Den Heede credited his success to beefing up the boat for the punishing upwind work much of the way. “There were very few examples of racing boats racing around the world in that direction,” he said. “The forces on the boat were not very well known. The stresses and strains sailing upwind — when the boat slams down into the waves — are completely different than those experienced during the Vendée Globe. I therefore experienced a few failures. This time when I arrived in the south I was more confident. We had really taken care of the solidity of the boat.”

Van Den Heede is a seasoned solo circumnavigator. He finished second in 1986 and third in 1995 in the BOC Challenge, and third in 1990 and 1993 in the Vendee Globe — both around-the-world races.