As if the new PRB IMOCA 60 were not eye-catching enough, the story behind it is truly remarkable. The reason…
Kevin Escoffier: Tough guy of the sea
Kevin Escoffier may be famous for his dramatic Vendée Globe rescue, but there is much more to his story, as he tells Helen Fretter
We all know how French solo skippers get so darn good. They move from youth sailing to Mini Transat and Figaro classes, where they drill for years. Then the lucky few step up into IMOCA 60 and test themselves against each other at training camps like Port la Foret, refining their single-handed skills further and further. It’s a production line of talent that no other nation can compete with.
But it’s not the only way – even in France. Kevin Escoffier took another route, and the career he has built is all the more impressive for it.
Escoffier, now 42, is full throttle on his second Vendée Globe campaign for the 2024 race, but he only did his first solo IMOCA race in July 2020, racing in the Vendée Arctique. Four months later he set off on the pinnacle of single-handed competition, around the world non-stop.
Escoffier’s talents were well proven, but he honed his craft as an engineer and his reputation as one of the best ocean racing crew in the world before taking on the challenge of racing solo at the age of 40.
That the young Kevin Escoffier did not leap straight into the world of short-handed racing is even more surprising given he was immersed in it from a childhood in Brittany. His father Franck-Yves was passionate about sailing, and moved the family from Paris to St Malo when Kevin and his two brothers were boys in order to be by the sea. Kevin quickly fell in love with the sport (along with rugby, an enduring passion), though even then he opted to crew rather than race solo in classes like the Optimist.
Family holidays were spent cruising, and his father went on to compete in the Figaro and short-handed races like the Route du Rhum, teenage Kevin and his brothers earning pocket money by diving to scrub hulls before the start.
After school, Escoffier studied engineering for three years in Paris, then Montreal for another two and finished his studies in Maryland, USA, specialising in composite structures. The extended studies reflect an intellectual rigour which has been a career constant.
Back in France, he took an internship with Michel Desjoyeaux at Mer Agitée. It was a dream opportunity – working on Orma 60s and the build of two boats in particular that would go on to play a huge role in his career: the Multi 50 Crêpes Whaou II and Vincent Riou’s IMOCA PRB.
While in his sailing Escoffier seems fearless, his decision to build a solid engineering career reflects a degree of cautious realism. He explains: “I’m quite a safe guy, it meant that it was also a job. If you study engineering, you can do whatever you want after. I knew that I wanted to sail, and I knew that if I was an engineer, I wanted to apply that on sailing boats.
“You can see plenty of people who are very good at sailing but at 35, 40 are not lucky enough to have a sponsor. It’s not like soccer, it’s not a sport where you can earn enough money from 20 to 35 to then say, ‘I’m done.’ You have to think about the long term.”
That balance of passion and pragmatism was learnt from his father, who built a fishing business in order to be able to go racing. “For my father the start is a love of the sea. He also loves competition, for sure, but his way of thinking was how to earn a living built around the sea.”
In 2005 Kevin and his father raced Crêpes Whaou II in the double-handed Transat Jacques Vabre to Brazil, and won. Shortly after, aged just 26, he was offered a role as head of the design office for Banque Populaire on one of the most ambitious builds ever: the 130ft (40m) VPLP-designed maxi trimaran Banque Populaire V.
“They told me, ‘you won’t be sailing’. And I didn’t care. I would be doing one of the best boats ever built. But since I was physically strong, and I knew the boat perfectly from the daggerboard to the top of the mast, they said, ‘Okay, come on the boat just to double check some things’.
“From then on I was pushing, pushing, and pushing. I’d done all the sailing days – every single day that boat was on the water I’d been on board. So that’s how I did the Jules Verne. I was the youngest on board, I was 30 years old sailing around the world.”
Escoffier was part of the 14-strong team led by Loïck Peyron which smashed the fully crewed round the world record in 2011/12, taking nearly three days off the previous time. From beginning his career with Michel Desjoyeaux to racing with the legendary Peyron, Escoffier learnt from the best.
“I’ve been very lucky. Every time I’ve been sailing, I was sailing on top sailing boats with top people, on top budget projects. For me it was my goal – to be part of very interesting projects that are competitive,” he says.
Next, he joined the Dongfeng Volvo Ocean Race team, sailing with Charles Caudrelier in two editions of the fully crewed round the world race.
I went aboard the Dongfeng V065 before the first race, and the striking thing about Kevin was that you never quite knew where to look for him. One minute he would be on the bow, the next tending to the keel, another beside the helmsman. By all accounts, he kept that up for two round the world races, often going up the mast, over the side to clean the rudders, or into the bowels of the boat to make repairs. He is also a strong trimmer and driver.
“I love doing the Volvo,” he says. “Especially fully crewed – for me, the new Ocean Race is not quite the same because there are less people, so you’re using autopilot.
“I love to be at the helm of the boat; some of my best souvenirs are the North Atlantic record, which we still hold on Banque Populaire, 3d 15h, and the 24 hours record we set of 908 miles in the south. On the Volvo, when you’re getting smashed by the waves, you can see the squall to windward, the tension of being at the helm, to feel everything and trim the boat as you want, I love it.”
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It was only after the second, victorious Volvo Ocean Race that Escoffier considered going solo. “After having gone around the world on a multihull, and round the world with the Volvo monohull fully crewed at 38 years old, I asked myself: ‘Okay, today am I able to do single-handed?’ And just when I had this question in my head, Vincent Riou phoned me.”
The reasons Escoffier had not considered single-handed racing before are various. Partly, he was just too busy, working back-to-back on overlapping projects as his career went stellar. It’s also easy to see why his personality makes him such a great asset in a full crew; he’s warm, convivial, attentive to those around him, and excellent company – not traits universally shared by solo sailors.
His engineering side enjoys the challenge of pushing a tool to its limits. “What I like in full crew sailing is to be able to use the boat to 100% of its capacity. For me single-handed racing was not the same,” he explains.
“There’s another thing; sometimes single-handed racing is part of a big ego. I don’t care at all about that. If I could, I’d be sailing without talking about me and PRB.”
Most tellingly however, he adds: “Maybe I did not trust myself enough at the beginning.”
But when Vincent Riou offered Escoffier the keys to the PRB campaign, there was no question of turning it down. That PRB was a 2010 Verdier-VPLP designed IMOCA, with foils retrofitted. Escoffier poured all his engineering knowledge into rigorously preparing a boat that, for the first time, he would skipper around the world, and alone.
“I knew this boat,” he recalls, “I knew it was light. I knew what I needed to work on. It was a very good boat for me to start single-handed racing in, with a lot of performance but easy, since light is easy. I put 200 kilos of carbon in the boat to be sure not to break anything. That was my job. The first thing I designed when I took on this project was a new keel ram structure. I designed it on the computer, I sent the drawing to the machine guy. At no time had I made a choice between performance and reliability. I always chose reliability.”
But on Monday 30 November, 2020, three weeks into Escoffier’s Vendée Globe, the boat suddenly and catastrophically broke up. He had time only to send a three line Whatsapp message:
“I AM SINKING. THIS IS NOT A JOKE. MAYDAY”
What followed is one of the most remarkable tales of survival the Vendée Globe has ever witnessed. The bow of PRB ripped off. “The stern of the boat was underwater and the bow was pointing skyward. You’ve seen images of shipwrecks? It was like that, but worse,” he recalled.
He had time only to don a survival suit, snatch a single grab bag and launch the liferaft as PRB sank beneath him. It was the start of an ordeal which saw him drifting in a raft, without even a handheld VHF, for over 11 hours.
Four skippers were diverted to search for him, frantically criss-crossing the south Atlantic through the night in 22-25 knot winds. Finally Jean Le Cam, who had himself been rescued by Vincent Riou after capsizing in the 2008 Vendée, found Escoffier’s liferaft and plucked him from the sea.
PRB sank without trace, leaving Escoffier with no answers as to why it had failed so dramatically. The fact that he’d prepared the boat so thoroughly, he says, made it easier to come to terms with its loss – and to contemplate entering the Vendée again.
“Since I think I had done everything right, I’m not the reason why it broke, so there is no reason why to stop. My wife would say that I don’t usually think like everybody else, but for me, knowing that helped me to recover.
“While I was with Jean, I had already recovered from the danger. For my family; my wife, my brothers, my father, my mother, my kids, they experienced trauma. I hadn’t because when you are in this situation, you need and must imagine the best [outcome] so that you’re able to give all your energy to get it. When you’re on land, you are a spectator, you think the worst. My wife was already thinking how to tell the kids that I will not come back. That is a trauma, but [it was] not for me.
“I was very lucky as well that I was with Jean, and we discussed it because he has been in the same situation. After 36 hours of being on the boat with Jean, I was already thinking how to design my next boat.”
Escoffier is not, however, going back to the Vendée with his brand new PRB IMOCA 60 to lay old demons to rest. He wants to race, to win. When PRB broke up he was lying 3rd, a point he is justly proud of. “I want to show that I will fight competitively again. I’m not coming only to finish.
“Obviously I want to finish, but not at all costs. I won’t slow down just to finish. If you want to sail around the world alone, you can do that cruising.”
Similarly, he rejected well-meaning suggestions he race double-handed with Jean Le Cam. “He’s a great guy, a great sailor, but you don’t want to repeat the story.”
For Escoffier, every sailor he sails with has something new he can absorb. “I’ve been sailing with Pascal Bidegorry, Loïck Peyron, Vincent Riou, Michel Desjoyeaux. That’s the top of the top. And I’ve learnt they are definitely not all sailing in the same way. Pascal is always – vroom! – a very flat sail, trying to go fast. Loïck Peyron sails very twisted and smooth. Armel le Cléac’h, I love the way he is sailing. Always the average speed, never the fastest, never the slowest.
“In sailing you’re able to get to the same place in lots of different ways.”
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