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Can a top athlete combine a brilliant career in the dangerous, competitive sport of freeride skiing with the challenges of ocean sailing? The answer is - yes!
Chamonix-born Aurélien Ducroz, 35, manages to achieve records in both of these intensely competitive and demanding disciplines. Not content with his success on skis, the 2009 and 2011 World Freeride Champion has become an expert solo yachtsman with string of great results in world-class races to his credit. “I compete as a skier in the winter, travelling to seven competition sites around the world. Then, in summer, I swap my skis for my boat,” Aurélien told us.
At the end of the sailing season, he skis on-piste, often here in the Grand Massif, for a few days before switching to off-piste training for the freeride world circuit. It sounds like a difficult transition between the two sports – but Aurélien believes that, in many ways, mountains and sea are similar. “To survive in either environment you must be able to focus totally, appreciate the dangers and, most importantly, to understand nature” he says. “You must do your homework and have the right mind set. I'm now on course for Brazil, competing in La Transat Jacques Vabre, a double handed race between Le Havre and Salvador de Bahia. Afterwards I will come back to France to train for the ski season, so you may see me skiing in Samoëns or Morillon”.
Aurélien’s deep understanding of, and respect for, the natural world – its geography, changing weather patterns and seasons - stems from his upbringing here in the French Alps. “It is a pretty cool place to be born” he says. “I was skiing before I was walking – my mum was a ski instructor so I suppose it was in my DNA. At nine years old, I competed in slaloms, then at 14, I switched to ski jumping. I was 1.40m tall and weighed 30k, a young, skinny version of Eddie the Eagle!” Aged just 15 ½, he qualified for the French national ski team. “In 2000, freeriding started to become a competitive sport. I was a passionate off-piste skier and loved this idea. So, I trained for amateur competitions and went onto the world circuit in 2007. In 2009, I won my first title”.
His second career kicked off when a skiing fan asked him to be “godfather” of his boat. “I thought it might be a good idea to sail it,” he says. “The 6 1/2m boat was pretty old and had no radio, but I took part in my first race from France to Brazil with 80 other crazy competitors. Somehow, I managed to finish in 6th place. One competitor lost his mast but fixed it back on in the middle of the ocean. When I heard about his exploits I thought “What the x@#$ am I doing here? This is dangerous stuff”.
After his most successful ski season, winning the championship on the world tour for the second time, Aurélien decided he could combine the two sports but needed to improve his sailing skills:
“I drove up to Brittany. My ski partners thought I was completely mad, he says, laughing. “I was a ski champ, but no-one among the sailing fraternity had ever heard of me and I scarcely knew how to tack and jibe. I learned a lot!” He qualified for a prestigious race: France to Madeira and back, a 28-day trip. “It was a thrill. The French expression <partir au large>, sums up my feelings as I set sail: I was heading towards freedom, space, and to embrace the power of the ocean”, he says.
Aurélien had hoped to come in the top fifty, but finished 13th. “Considering the age of my boat, this was very good”, he says, understating the achievement (he is a modest man!). Success on the sea convinced Aurélien that he should continue his double career: “The techniques are similar,” he says. “For skiing competitions, I do my homework, check the weather, terrain and snow conditions. If I have to jump over a 10 or 15m cliff, I judge the snow as I approach, look down at the space, find my line and decide how much speed I will need at the landing. I banish any fears, one by one, and push forwards. “If I tense up I will fall. The rule is: either you assume it or resist it. So, you say OK and assume it…oooooh x#@$, and go! It’s the same with sailing: before the start, I check meteorological information, boat and navigational equipment but when I’m at sea, my decisions have to be precise and rapid. If I try to think about my family, or chew over personal and business worries, it all becomes too hard so I focus on the essentials. My top concerns are sleep (20 minutes five or six times in each period of 24 hours), ocean traffic (a 350-ton cargo ship can make a big hole in my boat!), and my auto pilot. “I have learned patience, to trust myself and to be bold. I have a tracker with red, orange and green lights. If a cargo ship captain spots the red light I am in trouble, probably tired and crying! Luckily, that hasn’t happened so far!”
In 2015, Aurélien was asked to skipper the crew of the Les Hotels d’en Haut (the French Luxury hotel group) yacht for the Tour de la France à la Voile: “It was a new experience and, again, there were similarities with skiing – coastal in-port sailing is like a slalom ski race, long cruise sailing in mid-ocean is freeride!” The hotel group’s founder and proprietor, Valery Grégo, has since become Aurélien’s sponsor. “We’re both free spirits, and love nature, so I am proud to be the group’s ambassador.”
Aurélien rates the French Alps as his favourite place to ski. His home is still in Chamonix, where he lives (in a house he built himself!), with his wife Maxine and young children, Victoire, 5, and 9-year-old Marius. “In this area we have a wonderful combination of everything: top resorts, beautiful chalets, awesome runs and off-piste challenges, great lifts, atmosphere, cuisine - and, of course, Mont Blanc! There is a lot more danger here in the mountains than at sea, but if you treat the Alps with respect, this is heaven”.
“When skiers arrive at a French Alpine resort, they usually take a deep breath of our fantastic air and feel they can fly,” he says. “That is not a good idea! Preparation is everything”.
1. “Get fit before the trip. I have a routine of upper body exercises for sailing. Leg exercises, including daily cycling, prepare me for skiing. A few hours at the gym is not enough. Eat quality food, not rubbish”.
2. “Learn how to use your equipment. I have seen skiers scrambling about off-piste without the slightest idea of basic rescue techniques. The ski school will organise lessons for you. An airbag and custom-built wide skis won’t save your life in a dangerous situation.”
3. “If you are planning to ski off-piste, spend time on-piste beforehand. Even with my experience, I have to do this. Familiarise yourself with the terrain, look at the weather reports, read everything you can, take advice from local skiers”.
4. “When you book a mountain guide, explain what you want to do. Too many skiers breeze up at the lift then change their plans. Even the most experienced guide needs to do his or her homework, and will also want to see clients in action on-piste to be sure they can cope. If you bulls@~x, you will come unstuck!”
5. “Check that your insurance policy offers proper coverage including rescue by helicopter. Having said that, no insurance company will touch me so I have to be excellent at what I do and take very good care of myself!”
Alps Accommodation wishes Aurélien good luck and bon voyage!