On April 20, Vendee Globe skippers and their teams were invited to a reception with President Francois Hollande ad the Elysée Palace. This was the first time such a reception had been offered since the first Vendee Globe edition. For our team, Jonathan Green (prospective VG2020 skipper) and Lauren Zike (sitesALIVE program manager) and I came from the US. Our English contingent was Joff Brown (GA4 boat captain), Rob Sleep (GA4 systems), and Ollie Young (GA4 rigger). Our French contingent was Flo Riousse (France logistics) and Fabienne Molle (US Embassy, Paris).
The skippers occupied the front few rows in the Grande Salle. After President Hollande made some remarks about races and voyages around the world, he awarded the Chevalier de Legion d’Honneur to Thomas Coville (solo, RTW, record in 100′ trimaran Sodebo, 49 days) and to Armel Le Cleac’h (VG2016-17, winner).
Then the skippers ascended the stage, single file, and having the opportunity to shake President Hollande’s hand. Two loose lines were formed for photos. I ended up about 2/3 of the way down in the front row. After he had finished shaking hands with all the skippers, President Hollande walked to the front and inserted himself to my right between me and Nandor Fa! And on my left was Prince Albert of Monaco, who had fired the starting gun way back on November 6, 2016.
The Grande Salle was filled with about 500 people, many photographers, and they started taking pictures. I couldn’t believe that President Hollande had stood next to me, but I was ready, having discussed with Fabienne, our diplomatic protocol expert, whether I should take the chance – if it arose – to give President Hollande one of our GA4 Daily Flags. I had it in my suit jacket pocket. After a few minutes of photos, I pulled it out and turned to President Hollande and said, in my best French, “I am the American skipper Rich Wilson. We have a tradition on our voyages of flying a new US flag each day at sea. I would like to give you this small gift, a living souvenir of our Vendee Globe, to show the friendship between our two countries. This flag was flown on our final approach to the finish line in France on February 15.” He said “Merci”, looked at the flag with a smile, and I could see Enda O’Coineen seeing what was going on and pulling out his phone to take a photo, so we both turned toward Enda for a moment and he got the good photo. President Hollande then folded the flag and put it in his jacket pocket. Students started filing up in rows in front of us, and after a few more minutes, the stage gathering dissolved into the larger reception. What a nice moment!
After the reception, we went to Eric Bellion’s Comme Un Seul Homme offices for a party. The shared adventure created lifelong friendships.
For a few extra photos, see our Facebook album of this event entitled Reception at the Elysee Palace .