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Solo sailors face Everest

Rob Hodgetts | 09:18 UK time, Friday, 7 November 2008

What will you be doing for the next three months?

Probably working or studying a bit, plenty of days off, a few parties, Christmas, New Year, good times with friends and family, maybe even a holiday.

There might be a hangover or two, some lie-ins, hopefully plenty of food and drink and a warm, dry house.

Well, for 30 of the world's best offshore sailors there won't be any of those luxuries. On Sunday, the Vendee Globe fleet, including seven Britons, set off from Les Sables d'Olonnes in France to race around the world - non-stop and alone.

The ethos is the purest form of ocean racing. One sailor, one boat, one goal - first one back wins. No complicated points or rhythm-breaking stopovers.

That's all alone, by the way, just to make sure you got that. For roughly 90 days. On a 60ft yacht bouncing and bucking like a raging bull. It'll be wet, cold and dangerous. But they don't want our sympathy. It's their choice. They're highly competitive, hardened ocean racers and the conditions are part of the job.

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"The best times are when you're surfing down a huge swell at 30 knots in the Southern Ocean," says British sailor Alex Thomson.

"The worst times are when you're surfing down a huge swell at 30 knots in the Southern Ocean not quite sure whether the boat will come back up after ploughing into the wave in front."

The race is often dubbed the sailor's Everest. Only 44 people have ever completed the race, compared with over 1000 who have climbed the world's highest mountain. Never has the old adage, "to finish first, first you have to finish" be more apt.

It's the race that made a name of Ellen MacArthur, but try to forget about the comic sketches of her crying in the supermarket. This is extreme sailing and it's brutal. These guys can't - make that won't - just hide in their bunk and pull the sleeping bag over their heads when things get tough. They will be racing hard all the way, and that requires monumental effort.

If something breaks at the top of the mast, there's only one person who can fix that - you, by climbing 80-odd feet into the sky while riding a rollercoaster. To keep the boat going fast - it is a race after all - they'll be constantly looking at the trim of the sails or changing sails, navigating, repairing things, eating (freeze-dried food) and sleeping - no more than about four to five hours in a 24-hour period, often in bursts of 15-20 minutes. Hampshire's Mike Golding has a car alarm to wake him up.

"I'm under no illusions," said British debutant Jonny Malbon. "It'll be extremely frightening and very lonely but I can't wait. It's the biggest challenge I think I'll ever face in my life.

"The hardest bit is knowing when to step off the throttle because there's always more horse power available. The boat will get around, the question is, will I?"

The sailors are driven, modern, professional sportsmen and women, and the boats are as high-tech and powerful as they come. Technology offers the ability for wall-to-wall media coverage and constant contact with the skippers, and phone bills will run into tens of thousands of pounds a month.

Brian Thompson on Pindar. (c): Vendee Globe
It's all a far cry from the yachtsmen of yesteryear, the bearded adventurers who would sail off into the distance and arrive back six months later without having spoken to a soul. In the very first solo around-the-world race in 1968, won eventually by Robin Knox-Johnston in 312 days, race leader, Frenchman Bernard Moitessier, opted to pass up the chance of fame and fortune and just carried on sailing around the world, Donald Crowhurst faked his position for months and then disappeared at sea, possibly after committing suicide, and Chay Blyth set off still learning how to sail. (Read "A Voyage for Madmen" - it's a cracker.)

A crowd of 300,000 turned out in Les Sables d'Olonnes for the start - this race is absolutely huge in France.

From there the fleet head south down the Atlantic, turn left at the Cape of Good Hope, scream across the Southern Ocean under Australia and New Zealand, round Cape Horn off South America and race back up to the Atlantic back to France.

Briton Dee Caffari, one of only two women in the race, said: "When it's all going well it's magical and awesome but if anything goes bad or conditions get difficult - and the boat is going so fast it's on the edge of control - that's when it really scary and a hard place to be."

So, next time you're snug and warm in bed after a tough day, spare a thought for these guys. There's no slamming the front door on the world or retreating down the pub to get over it. They're at it 24/7. But ask any of them, and they'll tell you they wouldn't have it any other way.

Here's a lowdown on the British entries:

From left to right: Jonny Malbon, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, Alex Thomson, Dee Caffari, Brian Thompson, Sam Davies, Steve White, Mike Golding

Dee Caffari, 35, - Aviva
One of only two women in the race, the former schoolteacher became the first female to sail single-handed non-stop around the world against prevailing winds and currents (ie in a westerly direction instead of an easterly one) when she took 178 days to lap the planet in 2005/2006.

Samantha Davies, 33, - Roxy
The engineering graduate, now based in France, has been solo sailing for eight years and was a member of Tracy Edwards's all-girl team for their round-the-world attempt on Maiden in 1998. Davies's boat Roxy is the winner of the past two races and the current holder of the Vendée Globe record of 87 days 10 hours and 47 minutes.

Mike Golding, 48, - Ecover
The former fireman is now one of the world's best offshore sailors and one of the favourites for race. Came seventh in the 2001 Vendee Globe and third in 2005. Plucked rival Alex Thomson from the Southern Ocean during the 2006/7 Velux Five Oceans Race but retired himself after losing his mast.

A two-time offshore sailing world champion, Golding sailed around the world five times, three times solo, and was the first person to sail single-handed around world in both directions.

Jonny Malbon, 33, - Artemis
New to single-handed racing but has an extensive sailing CV, headlined by sailing around the globe non-stop aboard the giant catamaran Doha 2006.

"I've sailed 8,000 miles on my own now and I'm confident I won't go too mad, though I've already heard some voices and told myself to shut up," he said.

Alex Thomson, 33, - Hugo Boss
Hugo Boss was holed by a fishing boat off Les Sables d'Olonne on 17 October and Thomson's team have since worked around the clock to make repairs.

"Until the incident, I felt as prepared as I have ever been for a race and I felt I had a strong chance of becoming the first British skipper to win the Vendée. Since the accident, all I have been able to think and focus on is getting Hugo Boss repaired in time," he said.

Thomson is taking part in his second Vendee globe - he retired with damage in 2004. In the 2006 Velux Five Oceans race, Thomson's Hugo Boss lost its keel in the Southern Ocean and he was rescued by rival Mike Golding.

Brian Thompson, 46, - Bahrain Team Pindar
Unsung, but one of the world's most respected offshore sailors. Was a watch leader on board Cheyenne's round-the-world record in 2004 and was a crew member on the winning Volvo Ocean Race entry ABN Amro in 2006.

Steve White, 35, - Toe in the Water
A newcomer at this level, White remortgaged his house to part-fund his entry and only secured enough financial backing a few weeks ago. Has renamed his boat Toe in the Water to publicise the Armed Services rehabilitation charity Toe in the Water.


  • Comment number 1.

    Bonkers. Will be watching with interest!

  • Comment number 2.

    Didn't realise this was on until my son came home from school and told me his class were following it. I've followed previous Vendee's avidly so it'll be great to do it with him this time.
    Huge respect to all of them!

  • Comment number 3.


  • Comment number 4.

    My little brother Jonny Malbon is off on the Vendee about Artemis today. We all wish him lots of luck. You can follow his progress on Twitter and at JonnyMalbon dot com. Go dude!

  • Comment number 5.

    Hope rescue services will be compensated for a race that is foolish and illegal according to rule 5 of the collision regulations which states that every vessel will keep a good lookout. at all times

  • Comment number 6.

    Captblyth, yes illegal re IRPCs but thats why they have lots of insurance and go around the southern ocean where chances of hitting anyone else is slim, so leave them alone. I wish them all Good luck.

  • Comment number 7.

    I watched the start on the official web site as i could not find anything live on the BBC. perhaps that was just me. out of a starting field of thirty i am pleased to see that seven of them are British. and i believe the only two women in this awesome challenge are part of our "Magnificent Seven". I will be following with avid interest their progress and wish each and every one of them the best of luck. after our sailors successes in the olympics i think the whole country should be rooting for them.

  • Comment number 8.

    Captblyth, the Vendée globe is one of the greatest sporting events on the planet. The boats are equipped with radar hooked up to alarms that will alert them to any boats in their way, and besides, the vast majority of the route is miles away from any major shipping lanes.

    I bet you're one of those people who grumble when streets are closed for marathons

  • Comment number 9.

    I'm sorry but this whole idea is so wrong in todays "PC" world. Why have Greenpeace not picked up on this? These craft are careering along as fast as possible with no-one at the wheel!! What about the poor old whales and other mammals that are being struck by the keels of these floating adverts.
    Obviously safety comes at a price and the advertisers are paying the price. Just SO WRONG, STOP IT NOW.

  • Comment number 10.

    "GoodOnYouCapBlyth" - ok, so what else should we stop - Clearly Formula 1, MotoGP and all other forms of motor sport generate greenhouse gasses, so we better stop them.
    Football - well most matches are floodlit now, so that is sucking up electricity made by fossil fuels, so maybe we ought to ban that too. Better add in rugby, american football etc, all other sports that use floodlights.
    Finally we should ban all online gaming, Greenpeace I'm sure will agree - unnecessary use of electricity created by fossil fuels, and maybe we should begin with your computer.......

    Captain Joshua Slocum once wrote - and forgive me, I do not have the exact quote to hand - know that the sea is there, and it is there to be sailed.

    CaptainBlyth, ask any serving crew of any worldwide lifesaving organisation, and you will hear very few complaints about what these people set out to do. The only complaints come from armchair critics like you. As for rule 5, in the light of what became public in a recent trial, it is clear that Rule 5 is abused by fully crewed mercant ships. I'd feel far safer with one of these yachts bearing down on me, than some of the ships even in the channel.

  • Comment number 11.

    Best of luck to all the competitors, I've done a bit of double handed racing and that is scary enough. These guys and gals have my utmost respect. As for the whingers: I can't see how green peace can complain, these guys are wind powered, plus modern developments in sailing are potentially leading to reductions in fuel usage by commercial vessels with the advent of auxillary power from kites and new vessel designs that utilise wind power in other ways. As for IRPCS rule 5; "Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means..." All these guys have radar and use it when not on deck.

  • Comment number 12.

    IRPCS 5 - I've had 30+ knot supertankers bearing down who've not answered VHF, ignored white flares and not had anyone visible.

    Also mammal strikes are extremely rare with yachts - and you'd hear about it in this race as the canting keel woud be wrecked.

  • Comment number 13.

    A very good example of top world sailors sailing around the world useing nothing morethan wind power,. we need more coverage of this the most smallest carbon footprint in what is a dieing world. Can't the media get a grip on itself and give us a regular update? i WISH ALL THE COMPETITORS WELL, ESPECIALLY THE BRITISH.

  • Comment number 14.

    The Vendee round the world yacht race is a fantastic and frightening adventure for all who take part. There are many Brits and Europeans taking part and our Media does not support them by showing regular reports of this extreme event.
    It would be fantastic to see the boats move through the ocean and understand why some boats take different courses or travel at different speeds when on the same course.

  • Comment number 15.

    Delta Lloyd just hit a whale in the Volvo Ocean Race!

    Seriously though, whales are often more than three times the weight of a Volvo 70, and draw less than most cargo ships and oil tankers. Not to mention incidental killing of many cetaceans by fishing fleets. I think 30 extra boats on the water are hardly going to make much of a difference to the whale population.

  • Comment number 16.

    Ok, I agree that the threat of a mammal being killed is low but what would be said about all this futile "seaborne advertising" if two of the contestants collide and a fatality occurred? Would the "insurance" payments that are allegedly excessive, due to the flouting of Colregs, cover the accidental death claims. I can just see the headlines now, " Vendee yachts fatal collision, no-one at the wheel, never mind say the sponsors, plenty more where they came from!"

    It could happen. These radar "alarms" are not designed to allow you to turn in while flying along at top speed.

    Let's hope I'm never proved right..............

  • Comment number 17.

    There have been fatalities in the Vendee before, although never a collision in mid-ocean

    Rule 4 of racing says that the competitor sets off at their own risk.

    The sailors know what they are getting themselves into, and they undertand there is the chance they will be killed. This is, and always has been, part of the appeal and sense of adventure of the event

  • Comment number 18.

    The daily live radio broadcast on the website is amazing !! They now have a whole session in English from 11:20 to 12:00. I listen to it quite ofen. you can really follow the race as it goes... would like to see more on TV ! They also have a huge multimedia gallery where you can watch the videos sent by the skippers and listen again to the vacs.
    Wish we had more on the bbc website !


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