With a combined 11 world championship titles, an around the world ocean race win and four French match race championship wins between them, the France SailGP Team has a wealth of experience. Led by Billy Besson, the team has fought its way through the season, and after earning a podium race result in Cowes - it’s best result to date - is ready to impress in front of a home crowd at the Marseille SailGP Season 1 Grand Final.
Besson's influence began with his grandfather and his father, who both sailed competitively and passed the passion onto him at a young age.
Besson has had a competitive spirit from the beginning. "When I was young, I always had to be first, even when sailing dinghies in camp, I had to win," said Besson.
He now has four world championship titles in the Nacra 17 on his c.v., and is pursuing a second Olympic campaign, while competing in SailGP’s inaugural season with longtime teammate Marie Riou.
"I'm proud to show off our F50 in France, the boat is amazing. Everyone has seen the videos, and I can’t wait to show off the real thing."
To supplement his training, Besson takes his children - aged three years and the youngest, just four months - biking and hiking, often with the smallest one strapped on his back. Besson is also an avid cook; his favorite recipe is his version of roti.
Marie Riou has the distinction of being the only female athlete racing in season one of SailGP, and there is no doubt she’s earned her place in the team. Riou was named the 2018 Rolex World Sailor of the Year, is a decorated catamaran sailor with four world championships in the Nacra17 alongside Besson and was the first woman to win the Volvo Ocean Race. But it wasn't always this way; Riou remembers following her brothers around at regattas before she started sailing herself.
"I started to sail when I was seven in the Opti, I had two brothers who sailed, and I was following them around at regattas and said ‘maybe I want to do that too’,” said Riou. “I then moved up to 420s and later started sailing the bigger 470s in preparation for the Athens Olympics. I have raced different classes at every Olympics. For London, I was match racing in the Elliot 6m, and then in Rio, I raced with Billy in the Nacra 17."
In addition to her successful sailing career, Riou is passionate about getting outdoors and spends her offseason skiing with her boyfriend of twelve years. She's also an avid windsurfer.
What is Riou's secret talent? Singing in her car.
Matthieu Vandame started sailing with his parents at such a young age that he can’t remember. The sport and the friends he’s made through it have been a part of his life since then, leading him to win a world championship in the F18, the Tour de France à la Voile in 2015, compete at the Olympic Games and now, SailGP.
"I started campaigning for the Olympics when I was young. I think I was 18 when I was sailing in the Tornado class,” explains Vandame. “I raced against Billy [Besson], so I've known him for 20 years. We went to Beijing in the Tornado and then raced the Formula 18 in London.”
When Vandame isn't sailing, he's spending time with his daughter and son, who are 11 and four years old. He's sharing his love for the water and outdoors with his family, who enjoy kayaking and mountain biking. Vandame admits he is not always outside; he's also talented with technology. "I am a little geeky. I like to play around with the computer."
Oliver Herledant started cruising with his dad when he was just seven years old and, as he got older, learnt to race. His passion for sailing inspired his educational path, Herledant has a PhD in fluid dynamics and an engineering degree in naval hydrodynamics. When he turned 20, he started match racing on the World Match Race Tour, earning the runner up title in 2010, and now has two America's Cup campaigns under his belt.
"It was a surprise because I didn't know that SailGP was going to happen," recalls Herledant of when he was asked to join the team. "I was very proud to get the call and be back racing with a French team. We are sailing the fastest boats in the world."
Herledant is now stepping into a new role in the sport - Opti dad. His oldest daughter started racing the small dinghies this year, and he's proud to cheer her on as she follows in his footsteps. When he's not sailing, Herledant is an avid gardener, growing fruit trees in his backyard.
Much like his teammates, Timothé Lapauw also started sailing at a young age in the junior Opti class, but his talent didn't leave him there long. A force to be reckoned with on the foiling GC32 circuit, he later represented his country as part of the French America’s Cup youth team, finishing fifth in Bermuda in 2017. He is also a two-time Extreme Sailing Series champion, and in 2018 won the prestigious Bol d’Or Mirabaud on Lake Geneva. With plenty of experience on the AC45, Lapauw was an obvious recruit for the France SailGP Team.
Owing it all to is dad who raced in the Olympic 470 class and passed his love of the sport on to Lapauw he said, "when I got the call, I was super happy to join the team and sail for my home country."
Try to take a look at Lapauw's feet during the racing; his signature is his sock collection. "I have tons of different socks, and I wear a different pair each race."
Devan Le Bihan
Devan Le Bihan started sailing at age seven, more on his own accord than influenced by anyone else in his family. "There is no sailing background in my family, I just started sailing on holidays, and kept at it," said Le Bihan.
From there, his love of the sport grew, and he pursued a career on the World Match Racing Tour and then with the French team for the 35th America's Cup. When Besson began to build his SailGP team, Le Bihan was a natural choice.
Beyond SailGP, Le Bihan is the father of a four-year-old. Of his other role he says "I love spending time with my family. For now, my son is more interested in biking and BMX, I don't push too hard for him to sail, but we do go with our family on holiday, and he enjoys it, but he is only four so we will have to see."
Le Bihan's hidden talent? He's been playing the clarinet for years.