High seas Vendée Globe yacht race sets sail with record 33 skippers

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The ninth Vendée Globe departed Sunday from Les Sables-d'Olonne in western France. Thirty-three skippers in their state-of-the-art monohull yachts headed off on a single-handed, non-stop, round-the-world voyage.

The 33 left Les Sables-d’Olonne at 14:20 local time, but initially didn’t make much headway because of mist.

The boats, which can be followed in real time on the internet, face a journey of 52,000 kilometers, crossing the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans and the treacherous South Atlantic again, before heading north to arrive back in Brittany sometime in late January.

The global Covid-19 pandemic has deprived this year's record entry of 33 skippers of some 350,000 visitors who, every four years, flood into the seaside resort to see the boats off.

The strict lockdown, currently in force in France, means the skippers left for the open Atlantic in relative silence.

It is estimated that around half of them will not finish the race.

Riddled with danger

The Vendée Globe grew out of the Golden Globe which began in 1968 with only nine starters – of whom only one, British sailor Robin Knox-Johnston managed to complete the race – in 313 days.

The first Vendée Globe set off on 26 November 1989. Only seven of the 13 boats completed the race with Frenchman Titouan Lamazou the first home on 15 March 1990 after 109 days at sea.

The early editions of the race were riddled with danger. In 1992, the American Mike Plant was lost at sea on his way to the start while Englishman Nigel Burgess was caught in a violent storm on the opening day of the race. Burgess activated his emergency beacon off Cape Finisterre and was found drowned in his survival suit the next day, not far from his boat.

Waves like the Alps

The next edition claimed the life of the Canadian Gerry Roufs, caught in a brutal storm in the Pacific. His last message read: "The waves are no longer waves, they are as high as the Alps."

There have also been some dramatic escapes such as that of "British Bulldog" Tony Bullimore in the 1996-97 edition: he survived for four days in an air pocket after his boat Exide Challenger capsised.

In the current race, 21 of the 33 skippers are French, including Fabrice Amadeo, Manuel Cousin and Clarisse Cremer. There are four English skippers, Pip Hare, Alex Thomson, Miranda Merron and Sam Davies, the Japanese Kojiro Shiraishi, the Swiss Alan Roura along with skippers from Finland, Germany and Spain.

No clear favourites

There is no outstanding favourite to win. Eight of the latest generation 60-footers with hydrofoils have been launched over the last two years by four different designers. 2012's winner Francois Gabart says, "There is a 95 percent chance the winner will be one of these."

Sail World reports that “hydrofoils which 'fly' the 7.5 tonne yachts have grown more than twice the size of the 'chicken wing' foils which first appeared on the 2016-17 race.”

Top speeds are up to 35 knots and daily 24 hour averages are expected to top 600 nautical miles. Estimates from the top skippers competing suggest 2016's record of 74 days 3 hours 35 minutes could be brought below 70 days, according to the online magazine.