Courageous sailors prepare for high seas in Vendee Globe

Les Sables-d'Olonne (France) (AFP) –


For those who raise an eyebrow at the suggestion that the Vendee Globe, the ninth edition of which sets sail behind closed doors on Sunday, is the number one toughest event in the entire sporting calendar, consider for one moment a small statistic.

In the eight previous editions of the race, which takes the sailors single-handed non-stop around the globe, only 167 people have had the courage to take their boat to the starting line.

Of these, just 89 have crossed the finish line.

Compare that with, say, climbing Mount Everest. Once deemed to be impossible, around 800 climbers reach the summit each year, its lustre as an extraordinary feat tarnished in recent years.

No danger of that with the Vendee, even if today's skippers are somewhat removed from the salt-caked sea dog of the pre-internet age.

When Robin Knox-Johnston completed the first non-stop solo round-the-world voyage in 1969, it took him 313 days.

Four years ago Armel Le Cleac'h won the last Vendee in 74 days and this year, with new technological improvements, it will likely be even quicker.

In spite of that technology, which sees the skippers spend long hours staring at screens rather than horizons, this is not a race for the faint-hearted. The skippers have to deal with the wind, waves, swell and ice, not to mention loneliness and even sea-sickness.

"You have to imagine being on the highway, with the four windows open, a truck from each side, with a highway littered with potholes, where it is either zero or 40 degrees and with 100 percent humidity," jokes Charlie Dalin, 36, about life on board his yacht Apivia.

- Contenders -

The boats are all 60-footers (18.28 m), the most powerful monohulls on the planet capable of 30 knots downwind.

The biggest novelty since the recasting of the gauge by IMOCA (International Monohull Open Class Association) in 2016 has been the addition of foils which allow the hull to lift in upwind conditions, thus saving on drag.

Lining up in Les Sables-d'Olonne on Sunday will be 33 skippers of whom only half are likely to complete the return to Brittany at some point in January 2021.

Of these, perhaps as many as seven, headed by Alex Thomson, the British skipper of Hugo Boss who came second last time out, and Frenchman Jeremie Beyou whose Charal is the benchmark boat of the race, stand a chance of winning -- although that may be optimistic.

In the previous eight editions, only one woman has made it on to the podium, the estimable Ellen MacArthur who came second in 2000/01, something that is not lost on fellow Briton Samantha Davies.

"I helped Ellen in 1998 when she won the Route du Rhum for the first time (in the 50-foot category). I then brought her boat back", she told AFP.

The same year Davies joined up with another British woman, Tracy Edwards, to take on her first round the world race in the Jules Verne Trophy.

In her first Vendee in 2008 she finished fourth but withdrew after five days four years later. Last time around she played back-up to her husband Romain Attanasio -- alongside whom she will start on Sunday.

- 'We only live once' -

Davies' Initiatives-Coeur boat has some of the biggest foils in the fleet and an innovative new autopilot system which will help her stay in the game and pounce if something goes wrong for Thomson and Beyel.

Her preparation for this race, which like everyone else has been hampered by the cancellation of races because of the coronavirus, also involves plenty of pilates and self-hypnosis.

"Before I was scared in planes, now I love it! I hated oysters and now I love them! You do a session and you get something out of it for life," says the 46-year-old who is one of six women to start the race.

"Now I do self-hypnosis, just before the races because I have a lot of things to deal with and that helps me.

"I know that one day I can win (the Vendee) if I have the means and that is enough for me. We only live once. Finishing the Vendee is already enormous."

Davies is 100 percent correct. For any of these 33 skippers to make it to the start line is in itself an achievement, a mark of their dedication not just to their own talent but their ability to rustle up the finance to back them.

And beyond that, it takes immense courage to take on the might of the oceans, alone, and make it all the way to the finish. More than most of us can ever hope to understand.