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Vendée Globe, sailing’s ‘Everest’, gets underway

The Vendée Globe, the world’s toughest yacht race, set sail from western France on Saturday. Samantha Davies, the lone woman in the competition, has said she hopes this year’s edition wreaks less destruction than the last race.


Known as “the Everest of the seas”, Vendée Globe, a solo, non-stop, round the world yacht race may very well be one of sport’s most gruelling competitions. Founded 23 years ago in France’s western seaside town of Les Sables d’Olonne, the sometimes deadly regatta has generally been dominated by French men. Yet as the seventh edition of the race began on Saturday, eight of the contenders came from foreign countries, including Samantha Davies, a 38-year-old mother originally from Portsmouth, England.

Samantha Davies describes atmosphere at Les Sables d’Olonne

Out of the 20 participants at this year’s race, “Sam” Davies is the only woman. It is not, however, the first time a woman has sailed in the competition, nor is it even Davies’s first race. The young Brit first turned heads at her Vendée Globe debut in 2008-2009 after taking fourth place. In fact, Davies’s yacht was one of only 11 boats, out of the original 30, that actually survived the intensive 44,450-kilometre (24,000 nautical miles) race, which stretches over a three-month period.

Despite her past experience and success at the Vendée Globe, Davies, who now lives in Brittany, expressed some frustration about her preparedness before the race.

“I would have liked to have more sailing time – two more years – than what I’ve had”, she said. “Even though I’ve got the experience from the last Vendée Globe, I don’t know my boat quite as well as the last time.”

In a race as demanding as the Vendée Globe, preparedness can change everything.

Lost at sea

Meant to be the “ultimate” sailing experience, the Vendée Globe deserves its reputation as one of the most dangerous competitions in sport. Circling the globe from west to east, the course covers some treacherous waters and turbulent weather.

The competition suffered its first fatality during its second edition in 1992-1993, when British sailor Nigel Burgess was found drowned off Cape Finisterre on the west coast of Spain, most likely after being knocked out and thrown overboard.

During the same race, Frenchman Bertrand de Broc garnered headlines after having to perform the incredible feat of sewing his own tongue back on. De Broc had been adjusting a sail when a rope smacked him full on in the face, causing him to bite a piece of his tongue off. Caught in the midst of a storm, the skipper sent a distress call to the race doctor in western France, who gave De Broc step by step instructions on how to operate on himself.

Tragedy struck again during the following edition of the Vendée Globe, four years later. Sixty-six days into the competition, Canadian sailor Gerry Roufs disappeared at sea. Despite search efforts, no trace of Roufs was found until six months later, when the wreckage of his boat was discovered on the coast of Chile.

Although there have been no deaths since and event organisers have made it mandatory for skippers to undergo emergency medical and survival training, contenders are still forced to drop out of the race each year because of dangerous conditions. Sometimes it’s due to a structural problem, like a broken rudder or keel. In other instances, sailors are made to pull out because of a collision, or because their vessel has capsized. And in some cases, because of health reasons.

Davies, however, seemed confident that this year’s Vendée Globe would see fewer boat-related accidents than in the past.

“There’s quite a lot of expectation that… things [will be] breaking all over the place, but I’ve got a feeling it will be a lot less of a destruction race than last time,” she said.

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