Ok, I have finally arrived at the melee that is the Race Village of the 7th edition of the Vendee Globe Race. In case you don’t know what the Vendee Globe is, it is a solo (completely on your own) non-stop (properly non stop), unaided (no outside help via any means) round the world (South about Africa, Australia and South America) race. The boats are 60’ racing stallions, capable of sustaining speeds of over 30 knots, in the right winds, and the skippers are clearly all mad. The race starts in the small French port of Les Sables d’Olonne, on the West coast of France and finishes in the same place around 84+ days and at least 25,000 nautical miles later (the record was set 4 years ago during the 6th edition, of 84 days, 3hrs & 9 mins over 28,303 nautical miles).
The excitement is palpable, as you wander around the dock, where 20 sleek boats sit quietly at peace, skippered by men and one woman from 6 nations, including 3 Brits (Mike Golding, Samantha Davies and Alex Thomson), surrounded by press and adoring public. But you just know that something amazing is going to happen during this race. In previous years skippers have drowned, been dismasted, sunk, lost keels, lost rudders and hit a variety of objects such as containers, icebergs and whales! Many heroic deeds of rescue have occurred, with potential race winners diverting to rescue a boat in trouble, only to lose the race as a result. Most memorably, in 1996 (the 3rd edition of the race) only 6 out of the 16 entrants finished the race, forcing a major change in the safety and the rules – that is why the organisers are often quick to refer to the race as the ‘Everest of the seas’, although they are doing the race a dis-service as considerably more people have climbed Everest than have sailed solo non stop around the world!
The skippers are a peculiar breed of people; athletes, adventurers, sailors of phenomenal experience and ranging in age from 24 (Ellen McArthur, the youngest ever competitor) to 64 years old. No one under the age of 30 has ever won the race, perhaps testament to age and experience over youthful energy and fitness. Certainly fitness helps when, on average, the solo skippers can expect to achieve around 3-6 hours of sleep per 24 and generally only in one hour blocks, for 80+ days…..like I said, all mad.
As I walk around and in-between the boats I get a real sense that skippers just want to go now, get on with the race and be done with the corporate schmoozing that comes with being part of a multi million euro race campaign. Very soon, they will get that chance, the start beckons, the weather looks fair here, but huge seas and terrible dangers await around the course. Who will win is important, but more important is who will finish and who will survive to join the elite band of human beings who have pushed themselves and their boats to the edge during this magnificent race. Good luck and Godspeed to them all.