Wednesday 8 February
Hungarian solo skipper Nandor Fa brought his Spirit of Hungary across the finish line of the Vendée Globe at 10 hrs 54 m 09 secs UTC this Wednesday morning to earn an excellent eighth place overall. Fa, at 63, completes this epic eighth edition of the legendary solo non stop round the world race 24 years after becoming the first ever non-French skipper to complete the Vendée Globe. His elapsed time on Spirit of Hungary, which he designed himself, is 93 days 22 hrs, 52 mins, and 9 secs. He sailed 27,850 miles at an average speed of 12.35 knots. He enjoyed an emotional reunion with his wife Iren and two daughters Lilli, 24, and Anna, 34, both of whom were tiny when their father first returned triumphant.
Fa finishes 6 days 1 hour 6 minutes and 20 seconds after seventh placed Louis Burton and has held eighth place since Christmas Day. The excellent result for the remarkable, proud Hungarian who started sailing on the lakes in his landlocked country is the product of a sharp, intelligent mind, steely resolve and determination. Fa’s story is one of the richest and most enchanting of this Vendée Globe. An incredible passion has driven him through sporting careers first in wrestling, canoeing and Olympic Finn class sailing before he took off to sail around the world for the first time in 1985-1987 in a 31 foot GRP cruiser as a silent protest at his nation’s exclusion from the 1984 Olympics because of the Russian boycott. During this passage, whilst off Cape Horn, he heard VHF radio traffic from the solo racers of the 1986-1987 BOC Challenge and there and then decided solo racing was for him.
He was one of the pioneers in the second edition of the Vendée Globe, finishing fifth in 128 days, to become the first ever non French skipper to finish the race. His 1996, second attempt ended in painful failure after crossing the start three times. The ‘Everest of the Seas’ remained unfinished business for Fa. After raising his family and building and selling his successful businesses, Nandor Fa decided to come back to solo racing with a boat he designed himself and which was built ‘hands on’ in his native Hungary. Nandor Fa pushed his Spirit of Hungary hard but always knew where the ‘red line’ was. Similarly he backed himself when it came to making strategic and tactical choices but seemed to thrive on pressing hard with the group, the peloton going down the South Atlantic and in the early miles of the Indian Ocean. But so too he was adept at the discipline of looking after himself and his boat. In fact his eighth place in the Vendée Globe is notable for the very few technical problems he had and the way he dealt with them, for his and his boat’s durability and good average speeds. He passed boats early in the race through good average speeds and strategic choices, and gained places as others had to abandon their races.
His first few days were conservative and steady. At Cape Finisterre he voiced his frustration that he felt he had let some boats slip away, passing the NW tip of Spain in 21st place. He sailed east of Madeira in 18th place and, making good speeds in the trade winds, was up to 16th by the Canary Islands. Down the South Atlantic, skirting west of the Saint Helena high, Fa sailed well, as the ‘peloton’ which became the second group of boats, compacted in the relatively slow going and light winds.
Fa was content and confident in the Southern Oceans again. The Cape of Good Hope was a really bittersweet moment. Fa was up to 12th but emotionally he was hit when Kojiro Shiraishi had to retire when Spirit of Yukoh’s mast broke. A contemporary of Shiraishi’s late friend and mentor, Yukoh, from the days of the BOC Challenge, Fa told Koji ‘The Spirit of Yukoh goes on with me.’ Thereafter he had a close race, dicing with French skipper Stéphane Le Diraison on Compagnie du Lit – Boulogne Billancourt – for much of the Indian Ocean. Compromised by the loss of his A7 gennaker, Le Diraison was quicker downwind in the strong breeze but Spirit of Hungary was faster when the wind was forward of the beam. The pair saw each other and spoke on the VHF and by email. But for the second time he lost a close running mate. He was upset when Le Diraison lost his mast on December 17th under Australia. Suddenly he was much more alone. Louis Burton 600 miles ahead on Bureau Vallée and Conrad Colman 650 miles behind. Le Diraison’s retirement to Melbourne promoted Fa to tenth. The subsequent problems of Thomas Ruyant – whose Le Souffle du Nord pour Le Projet Imagine hit a container and suffered structural damage – and then Paul Meilhat’s SMA whose keel ram cracked, elevated Spirit of Hungary to ninth and then eighth. He has held eighth place since Christmas Day.
If his Indian Ocean was relatively quick, the Pacific was slow. Spirit of Hungary spent several days struggling to break through a transition zone and later had a spell in a high pressure system with only light winds. Nandor Fa rounded Cape Horn at 0638hrs on January 9th, his fifth time of passing the legendary great cape, four days and 23 hours after Louis Burton in seventh, 16 days and 18 hours after Armel Le Cléac’h. But it was in the South Atlantic, a few days after rounding Cape Horn that he probably had his biggest storm, encountering prolonged and slightly unexpected 50kt winds with gusts and squalls blowing off the mountains of the South American continent at more than 60 knots. Fa finally profited from the high level of reliability of his boat and his equipment, the very intimate knowledge that comes from having designed and being hands-on through all the build and successive re-fitting of his boat. He sailed very many hard miles on Spirit of Hungary and his very rigorous and careful approach to regular checks and routine maintenance throughout his Vendée Globe ensured he was on very quickly aware of any small problems before they became bigger. And with a very broad based set of skills and experiences gained over 35 years of ocean racing, Fa could turn his hand to all kinds of mechanical and soft repairs. In many respects his programme was strengthened by having his problems in the two year build up before his Vendée Globe. He suffered many teething troubles with Spirit of Hungary since it was originally launched in April 2014. During an initial Transatlantic delivery to New York for the New York – Vendée race there was substantial delamination. Rather than the essential transatlantic racing miles he had to ship the boat back to Hungary where the hull had to be strengthened and re-laminated.
Because of this, the boat was only just ready for the 2015 Barcelona World Race which he sailed with Conrad Colman, a late substitute co-skipper. The race proved more of an extended shake down, but they finished seventh with a much better knowledge of the boat. During the Transat Jacques Vabre the following November, Spirit of Hungary was dismasted early in the race. The heartache and long, long hours building, refitting, refining the IMOCA he designed himself engenders a unique relationship with his beloved boat that he refers to as his ‘third daughter’. Between these more recent tough experiences and his 1996 Vendée Globe which he started no fewer than three times before being forced to give up on the dock in Les Sables d’Olonne – Fa was hit hard by the damage and empathised with the consequent abandonments of other skippers. “My heart aches for him.” He said when his Japanese friend and rival Kojiro Shiraishi, with whom he had raced many miles down the Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope, was dismasted. Under Australia he was suddenly alone when Stephane Le Diraison was also dismasted, the running mate he had sailed the Indian Ocean against, sometimes only a few miles apart. When the French skipper lost his rig he was just 70 or so miles ahead. As well as being one of the toughest, hardest and most experienced skippers out on the Vendée Globe race course, the gentleman Fa revealed his caring, human side, often the first to email a skipper or his team when they had to withdraw from the race. He enjoyed email exchanges and spoke with Kojiro, with Le Diraison and with his former co-skipper Conrad Colman.
In his first week at sea he had some small problems with his computers and charging systems. On Day 26 he had to repair and reset his autopilot which was causing him to broach out of control. In one of these incidents he lost his favoured A7 gennaker which was to compromise his speed potential downwind in the stronger breezes in the south. He had a subsequent fight to save his J3 which he fortunately won. On Day 38 he believed he hit a UFO and lost the fairing from his keel blade. On Day 45 a chinese gybe was caused by a pilot malfunction and his old reaching kite was finally despatched to the sail locker no longer usable. This was one of his worst days as the engine cooked and he had to repair it before he could finally sleep again. Ten day later he lost his GPS antenna overboard but managed to fashion a replacement.
Fa finishes satisfied with his excellent race, a fitting swansong to a remarkable sailing career which has elevated him to become universally known in his native, landlocked Hungary but which has earned him massive recognition and respect around the world for his skill, passion, humanity, humility and fair play. Fa has always fought shy of highlighting his age.
Nandor Fa was expansive, warm and happy to spend time sharing the details of his race with the public and the media, French, Anglo-Saxon and Hungarian. That he will not be back to race the Vendée Globe again, that this was the final finish line for him brought a real mix of emotions for the Hungarian skipper. The last few miles before the finish line he was already in a jubilant, boisterous mood aboard the boat he designed himself. He was on the bow punching the air, he was on the stern waving to the media and to friends and family for some 15 minutes before the line.
The weather was to order, 15kts of NW’ly breeze and some nice leftover waves. And hundreds turned out on the banks of the channel, the Hungarian national flag was stretched of the port hand entrance ‘Bravo Nándi!’ Minutes after the line he said “It is over. I have done it. It was successful according to my rules, my hopes. This is such beautiful weather to finish, the gods are with me and the people, friends, family, who have come out to greet me, it is so overwhelming. I can’t find the right words. It was 92 days of fighting. Sometimes it felt endless. It was really long, really tough, all the time it was really wet.”
Questioned on the pontoon in the Port Olona marina, he smiled broadly: “You know this last moment now is the most important, to be here now. Everything that goes before is the past. It is history. It feels much, much shorter than the last time but it still feels really, really long and sometimes there were moments which seemed endless but equally there were weeks which just flew by, they were gone. All the way was cold, rainy, wet. I enjoyed some moments, especially talking to my family and friends, sending e-mails, I received a lot of messages which encouraged me and they really encouraged me. I needed them because sometimes it was really hard.”
Mental toughness was, he said, key, but there were touching human moments too: “I must not feel. I just do. If I started to live an emotional life it is endless. This is the trouble. I wanted to just finish the trip as fast as possible. I have to tell you that the second part of the race was not racing, it was just sailing a safe line. There was nobody around me. The nearest guy behind me was far away. The nearest guy in front of me was far away. I was sailing on the safe side. The race itself finished in the middle part of the Pacific. In fact after Stéphane Le Diraison lost the mast it was no longer a race for me. It was a nice, tough, trip which I loved. Now I need days, weeks, months to work out what happened. I did not want to leave this race with a feeling that there were things I would do later or another time. That was the way I went when it was cold, when it was dangerous, when I was almost flying away. When things happened and when you are really tired, mentally, physically, that was it, you have no power, mentally, physically, it is nature.”
He confirmed that last night, appropriately, he had broken his all time speed record for the boat, hours before finishing the Vendée Globe: “Since the middle of last night it has been good. Before that, the night before and the last day, I had a lot of wind and big waves. But last night I made my speed record, 28kts, I had flat water, the big sails were up and I had 26kts of wind and I had 50kts of gusts. I bore away and took off. I started to fly and I survived. Eighth place is far beyond my dreams. At the start I did not think about placings because this fleet is so strong. The boats are so prepared and good. I thought my place with my boat, my age it might have been 15th to 20th. My performance? I just wanted to be better than 100 days. That happened. Eighth is way beyond my imagination.”
But the finish line was the final full stop as far as his participation in the Vendée Globe is concerned: “I had great motivation to sail fast. Sometimes I was frustrated I am not fast enough. My new boat would be a flying machine. She is a boat, this one. The next one is a flying machine. It will never be built for me though. The time is gone. I am sorry about that. I don’t feel any energy to do it again right now. In four years time I will be 67. I am young in the way of thinking, I am fit but now I see what kind of energy, what kind of motivation second by second, day by day, that you really need and I know my time is gone. I don’t have it any more. The future is with my family. It will be difficult to forget.”
Asked about the comparisons with his 1992-3 race when he finished fifth, the first international skipper to finish the Vendée Globe, Fa said: “It was so different from the first one. Last time I was fighting the boat and the techniques. This time I was sailing, I can tell you I loved this boat, I am proud about the boat, about the rig, about the rigging. I had a few problems, with the electrics on the digital side. But we could fix them. I could really concentrate on the sailing, on the meteo tactics and I was doing a good race tactically, controlled all the time. I was running four or five routings a day. And then finally made my own decisions. Because the routing does not see the clouds, the seas, it does not have a perspective. It is digital something. I saw the routings and made my own choices and I feel like a made a nice race. My original purpose was to sail within 100 days. That is done. Sailing a correct, meteorologically correct race is done. I could see sailors who were faster and better than me. But now I am better. I am pleased about my mast and my boat.”
And this one was tougher than he thought, or recalled. “It is winter conditions a lot of the time, cold and wet all the time, it is a winter race. Even at the end I had snow and hail showers these last few nights. I had 50kts of wind. It is a winter race with a lot of cold, a lot of frustration. You have to switch off as a human being and switch on as a machine. You have to leave behind a feeling race because sometimes it is so frightening and frustrating and you are tired and cold, if you let your feelings get to you, it is endless. In bad conditions, those that you cannot imagine, it feels endless. All together it is a very, very tough race. Sometimes I was thinking about the front runners making 30kts speeds and 22kts average and thought what is the difference between their boat and my boat, I made the same fight but I think my boat is slower.”
His one regret is that even though he loves his boat, he wishes he had designed it as a faster more aggressive machine: “I have to share with you that I was 62 when I designed this boat. By that I mean with all the people who helped when I say me, but I was thinking of a 62 year old man. I built a boat for that. I love my boat and she is fantastic. It is easily able to make less than 90 days. But I was sailing like I was 40 year old but I could not make the speeds. It was frustrating not to be able to do the speeds I wanted to do. In spite of that my speed record was 434 miles in a day. If I would do it again I would build a flying machine. I would like to do a faster boat. It is a race for machines with machines, it is not a human race. Sometimes you do switch the modes to human modes. I was in a good relationship with Kojiro (Shiraishi of Spirit of Yukoh) and when Koji lost his mast I told Koji I took the Spirit of Yukoh with me. Yukoh was a friend of mine. We had a similar personality. Koji was very important to me and so also with Stéphane Le Diraison. He was faster than me but sometimes I could get back at him by tactics and so when he lost the mast it was a bad moment for me.”
His darkest moment did not last long, his conclusion that in the end you must respect the sea an nature: “I always trusted my boat. Always. But once I lost control and was shouting, frustrated. I was out in the cockpit and screaming at God. I was shouting ‘Do What You Want, but I Will Go Home to my Family. Do What You Want….’ It was an interesting moment because one hour later I had cooled down and I thought ‘What a stupid guy I am. Why am I upset? This nature. This is what it is like here. In my mind I never once thought I would not come back. I always thought the finish line is there and I will get there. I am proud of my boat and my mast. I finished the race and I was able to concentrate on the race. I am proud of my race from a meteo point of view.”
And although he considers his Vendée Globe is over as a competitor he would still like to contribute his thoughts and experience in the future: “I spent so much time thinking about a new boat, drawings and points to memorise, and so I have a complete new boat in my head. I have a vision of how to do it and what to do. I would be very happy to build it for someone, but not for me. The Vendée Globe is forever a love for me. But the time is gone. I must be realistic. I must know the time is gone. In four years time it will not be me. I would love to sail one of these new machines like a machine. But it is not in my life now. It is not me anymore. My future is with my family and with my grandchildren. The Vendée Globe is a love. If anybody wants my help I am here. I don’t want a trophy for the oldest man in the Vendée Globe, that is not what it is about. In this Vendée Globe there were four skippers over 60. But I would say that if you are racing, not just travelling, doing the race, this is a professional race, I don’t have a place in this race anymore.”
Nandor Fa’s arrival in Les Sables d’Olonne aboard IMOCA60 Spirit of Hungary:
Source: Vendée Globe