Alan Roura: "I tell young people, don't listen to what others say, just go for it!"

The Bol d'Or Mirabaud ambassador lived on a boat in Geneva as a child. Having travelled the world's oceans with his family until the age of 18, this winter he became the youngest sailor to complete the Vendée Globe.

This year, the choice of ambassador for the Bol d'Or Mirabaud, frequently selected from a shortlist of world-class sailors, was obvious. It was while sailing down the North Atlantic when he was taking part in the Vendée Globe – the non-stop, round-the world solo yacht race – that Alan Roura received a message from the Bol d'Or Mirabaud organising committee inviting him to be the ambassador for the 79th edition. He accepted straightaway.

Alan Roura tells MirMag about his journey and the qualities that enabled him to become at the age of 23, the youngest sailor in the history of the Vendée Globe to complete the round-the-world trip, after 105 days at sea.

As someone born in Geneva, what does the Bol d'Or Mirabaud mean to you?

When I was a kid, I lived on a boat in Geneva harbour and we had front row seats at each Bol d'Or Mirabaud race.

Later, I also took part in the regatta on two occasions, on board the Surprise. In 2013, I took part with Antonio Palma (Managing Partner of Mirabaud) and Cyrus Golchan at the helm. We won. The luck was with us. We chose to sail through the middle of the lake on the return journey. We only realised that we had won when we saw the bottle of champagne on our arrival.

The Bol d'Or Mirabaud is a beautiful event, the largest inland lake regatta in the world. The sunlight reflecting on the water and the landscape also make it a magnificent regatta.

Bol d'Or Mirabaud 2013

How did your passion for sailing develop?

My family started living on a boat in 1995. I was two years old. Since then, I have never stopped living on boats. We had a yacht. It was a 40 foot Long Vent built in Grandson, in the canton of Vaud. It was a great yacht, built more for sailing at sea than on a lake.

In the beginning, my parents didn't know very much about boats. They wanted to travel the world with us, discover other countries and ways of life. My father chose a yacht, as it was the most enjoyable way to travel. When I was seven years old, he got his sailing licence and then we set off with my brother and just one of my sisters, as eldest sister was already working.

So it was the open sea that brought about your decision to become a sailor...

Our trip around the world lasted eleven years. We used to stop off at our ports of call to discover the island or country and travel around a bit. It was my mother who home schooled me. Sometimes, we also went back to Switzerland to see family. We mostly sailed on the Pacific or on the Atlantic. We used old-fashioned navigation, with a nautical chart and a small GPS.

I grew up from one port to the next. This allowed me to have a completely different schooling experience and opened up different doors for me. That round-the-world trip also helped me a lot in my solo races.

At what point did you dream of becoming a professional sailor? 

In 2001, during our round-the-world trip, we encountered the fleet from the mini transat (solo transatlantic race in a mini class vessel), which had started in Brittany and which arrived in the Canary Islands at the same time as us. I saw those boats racing solo offshore and I said to myself: "That is what I want to do later on".

After that, my mind was set on that ambition, and I trained for it. I got started in 2012. Subsequently, I did that mini transat in 2013, then the Route du Rhum in 2014, the Jacques Vabre Transat in 2015 and the Vendée Globe in 2016.

Bernard Stamm, Dominique Wavre and Steve Ravussin are Swiss solo sailors, like you. Is Lake Geneva a good training ground for future sailors? 

The lake is a good training ground for learning to sail in light wind. This is where I first learned the ropes. However, once the wind gets too strong, the boats remains berthed. In Switzerland, people mostly sail in summer, but in Brittany, people sail 12 months a year and in all weather. That is also the reason why the sailors that you mentioned have left for Brittany. 

The Swiss are travellers, so they need to be on the move. Many French-speaking Swiss sail in Brittany or on the Mediterranean, those from Ticino sail in Italy, and the German-speaking Swiss veer towards the North Sea.

Alan Roura and Nicolas Mirabaud, Member of the Executive Committee of Mirabaud & Cie SA

You have become the youngest sailor to have sailed the Vendée Globe from start to finish. How did you succeed in that undertaking?

Setting off on the Vendée Globe from Les Sables d'Olonne was in itself a victory. To take part in an open sea race, you need a boat, money, free time and courage. Getting all that together at the same time was very complicated.

A year before the start date I had no boat. But one day, an Estonian friend called me and said: "Alan, I know you don't have the budget, but I am going to let you have my boat to take part in the Vendée Globe. I just ask you to bring it back safely". 

After I got the boat – an Imoca class vessel that had never completed the Vendée Globe – I still did not have the necessary funds. As one thing led to another, I found some support and the project began. At 23 years of age, I found myself managing a small team. Then we found a sponsor with La Fabrique. I ate pasta and rice for several months and I tightened my belt. In eleven months, four of us did the work that other teams take at least two years to do.

I knew that if I managed to start the race, nothing could stop me from finishing it. That is the magic behind the Vendée Globe story. Even though I was young and did not have much experience of open sea racing, I knew I could manage it.

The Vendée Globe is nicknamed the Everest of the oceans. What are the essential qualities needed to succeed in that race?

You need perseverance, as well as to be a dreamer and a handyman. You need to be able to think before taking action, and to be a seaman whilst being able to visualise the boat and the ocean at all times.

You must be physically, and above all, mentally fit. You can have great physical fitness but abandon the race just after two weeks if you are not mentally strong. On the other hand, you may not be as physically fit, but if you have unshakable morale then suddenly the Vendée Globe becomes almost easy. When I started the race, I was not in great physical condition, as I had been working on the boat day and night. I returned in better shape than when I left.

Although many different qualities are needed, you must also have some faults. You have to be a bit crazy, as the Vendée Globe is tough and long. There is a lot of time to ask yourself questions. You have to be selfish, as when you set off you leave everyone on land behind you. You don't know if you are going to come back. In a solo race, selfishness becomes an asset. You must also be secretive. On water, I never talked about what was going on, either with competitors or with my team to not worry them.

Another piece of advice, the maintenance of the vessel is very important. I used to check all around the boat two or three times a day to make sure everything was in order. That was how I discovered, in the south Pacific, that I had a rudder coming loose. I was able to repair it in time.

The boat has its own story and its own soul. If you treat it badly, you will push it to breaking point. If you do not take care about it, sooner or later, that neglect will come back to haunt you. You have to treat it with love.

What were your most unforgettable moments during the solo round-the-world race?

The round-the-world race consists of a departure, an arrival and three headlands to navigate. These times are emotionally very powerful and intense. At the Cape of Good Hope, you enter the South seas; at Cape Leeuwin, you are halfway through the journey and at Cape Horn, you are on your way home. The journey around Cape Horn was a really wonderful moment. I slowed down and sailed near to it and even if I lost an hour, I wanted to see it up close.

I experienced other magical moments, for instance, when I surfed on waves more than ten metres high with the boat. I crossed paths with albatrosses and dolphins. Then there were the fantastic skies. The Vendée Globe is a solo race, but in the South Seas, I sailed in view of another competitor, Eric Bellion. We sailed close to each other for three days. We spoke to each other boat to boat. Then, from one day to the next, we lost sight of each other. It was hard to find myself alone again.

Once you arrive on land, all the bad moments become good.

© Christophe Breschi

What lessons have you taken from that adventure?

That human beings are extremely strong. We manage to beat the odds. In a single day, you experience every kind of emotion from laughter to tears. Even in solitude, you express yourself. You cry and laugh alone; you speak to your boat. On land, when things don't go well you call your loved ones. You get help. On the water, there is nobody.

I went out there with my old boat, and I completed my Vendée. I am very happy and I hope that has been an eye-opener for young people.

You were 23 at the start of the race. Did your relationship with the sailors develop on account of your achievement?

At the beginning, I was not very well regarded. Most of them thought that I would fail. Perhaps they were not wrong to think that considering how we looked from their point of views.

The difficult part was on the pontoons. Before the start of the race, some sailors would not even say hello to me. I said to them: "Guys, I don't have the same boat or the same budget as you, but we are all going on the same race. And, who knows, I may have to turn back to help you. So you could at least say hello! ”

I have always had more contact with the older sailors, like Alex Thomson (completed the 2nd Vendée Globe), who was 100% with me in the project and who encouraged me. Or Jean Le Cam and Bernard Stamm, with whom I had a good relationship.

Some great seamen were there on my arrival and they said to me: "Respect. You did it!". Now, the doors are open and that is cool. I had to prove myself.

What advice would you give to young people who are hesitant about taking the plunge?

Young people today do not want a hard graft or else they expect opportunities to fall into their lap. They have sort of forgotten that you don't need to have a winning boat to take part in ocean racing. Some young people say: I am going out there to win. But in order to win, even with a new boat, you need to go for it.

A few years ago, on the occasion of a sailing competition, I met a young man from Geneva who was a little older than me. He explained to me that people around him told him that to get involved in sailing, you will need to be part of a winning project and that it was not the right moment for him. In 2014, while I was getting ready to set off on the Route du Rhum, I received an e-mail from him. He wrote: "Alan, don't listen to what people say, just go for it. I have listened too much to others, now I am going to go for it." 

Currently, he has already won some races and will take part in the mini-transat in October.

If I can serve as an example to young people, so much the better. Go for it!

Track record

Vendée Globe - 12th

Transat Jacques Vabre - 10th

Participation in the Route du Rhum

Bol d'Or Mirabaud - winner of the "Surprise" category