The ninth edition of the Vendee Globe starts in Les Sables-d'Olonne on Sunday. The 33 skippers in their state-of-the-art monohulls will head off on a single-handed non-stop round-the-world voyage.
They will need to cover around 52,000 kilometres (28,000 miles), crossing the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the treacherous South Atlantic before the winner heads north and arrives back in Britanny around January 22.
Around half of them will not finish the race.
AFP Sport looks at seven facts for seven seas about the Vendee Globe:
- Beginnings -
The Vendee Globe grew out of the Golden Globe which began in 1968 and saw British sailor Robin Knox-Johnston as the only finisher of nine starters -- it took him 313 days. The first Vendee Globe set off on November 26, 1989. Only seven of the 13 boats completed the race with Frenchman Titouan Lamazou the first home on March 15, 1990 after 109 days at sea.
- Record -
Knox-Johnston was rightly feted for his achievement in the 32-foot (9.8 metre) Suhaili but the skippers in this year's Vendee will be looking to finish the race in a quarter of the time.
Armel LeCleac'h, who won the eighth edition in 2017, came home in a new record of 74 days 3hr 35min 16sec and with technological advances, notably to the fins that almost make the boats fly across the water, that time is tipped to come down again this time. LeCleac'h ensured that all eight races to date have been won by French sailors.
- The course -
In simple terms all the skippers have to do is sail down the Atlantic, cross the Indian and Pacific oceans, and sail back up the Atlantic, starting and finishing in the Breton town of Les Sables-d'Olonne.
It is, of course, more difficult than that with the skippers having to deal with frequent changes in climatic conditions, constantly monitoring weather patterns to check for anticyclones and depressions. The skipper doesn't want to head into the teeth of a storm but nor does he/she want to end up in the Doldrums.
- Non-stop -
When the organisers say 'non-stop' they mean it, just as 'single-handed' means absolutely no outside help. At least, almost. The only pit stop that a competitor can make is a return to Les Sables-d'Olonne, within 10 days of the start. That is what Michel Desjoyeaux did in 2008 -- he set off a second time 40 hours after the start and went on to win.
The skippers are allowed to stop, by dropping anchor in a creek for example so they can do repairs, but are not allowed to step ashore beyond the high tide mark.
- Stitch-up -
Medical help must also be self-administered. In 1993 Bertrand de Broc bit through his own tongue and had to reattach it himself. So sewing skills are also a prerequisite.
- The danger -
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.
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 who survived for four days in an air pocket after his boat Exide Challenger capsized.
- The women -
No woman has yet won the Vendee Globe. British skipper Ellen MacArthur came closest when she finished in second place in 2001, coming in 24 hours behind Desjoyeaux -- who is incidentally the only skipper to win the race twice.
MacArthur remains the only woman to have reached the podium but that could well change this year as six women line up at the start.
Two of them, Samantha Davies in Initiatives-Coeur and Clarisse Cremer who helms Banque Populaire X, hold genuine hopes of a top-three finish.
For the other four -- Alexia Barrier, Pip Hare, Isabelle Joschke and Miranda Merron -- the principal goal is to complete the course and return to Britanny safely early next year.