The huge legions of impassioned spectators, ashore and afloat as well as the 29 intrepid solo skippers who set off from the Les Sables d’Olonne start line at 1302hrs local time today (Sunday) were treated to perfect weather conditions for the start of the eighth edition of the Vendée Globe solo, non stop round the world race.
More than 350,000 spectators lined the legendary exit channel and the beaches to bid farewell to the skippers, 1,000 boats of all different sizes – from small inflatable RIBs to 3 masted sailing ships and small passenger ferries carrying hundreds of corporate guests – enjoyed the bright sunshine and moderate NNE’ly reaching breezes, considered to be the best start day conditions ever.
HRH Prince Albert of Monaco sent the fleet away with 20 skippers from France and nine from outside the nation which takes this legendary round the globe challenge to its heart, each and every four years. For the first time ever, entrants from New Zealand, Holland, Ireland and Japan are competing.
Farewells on the pontoons were extraordinary, immediately highlighting the delightful, diverse range of human characters who are taking on this eighth edition of the race. Even the hardest, steel tempered shells were peeled back by the outpourings of the huge crowds, the emotional farewells to families and friends. The dropping of the mooring lines cut the ties with land for upwards of 75 days.
Spain’s Didac Costa, small and dark with fiery, dancing eyes, waits nervously, almost embarrassed to be docking out first. Finally he raised his hands in salute to his passionate supporters from Barcelonaand beyond. Alex Thomson, outwardly the suave Hugo Boss rock god, dancing nervously foot to foot on his menacing IMOCA, his eyes and emotions shielded by the obligatory but necessary sunglasses. Jean-Pierre Dick stoic, solid and forced smiles on the dock before surfing the waves of goodwill during the exit from the canal on his StMichel Virbac.
Young rookie Morgan Lagravière broke hearts with his moments of uncontrolled tears, dropping to his knees and clutching the guardwires of his Safran.
Conrad Colman on Foresight Natural Energy, outwardly calm and focused, admitted he leaves land already feeling tired after his 11 month battle to be ready. Rich Wilson, 66, the doyen of the fleet first skipper to board this morning, visibly fighting to control the nerves. Arnaud Boissières goes out the channel to huge cheers, passing the family home where he grew up in La Chaume. He seeks to become the first skipper to finish three consecutive Vendée Globes.
And Enda O’Coineen, a pocket sized, silver haired, whirling Celtic dervish typically dancing a jig to his own tune in his own time, on the foredeck of Kilcullen Voyager Team Ireland, not to mention Japan’s Kojiro Shiraishi, elegant, poised but full of energy with his Samurai dress complete with sword.
Those with genuine hopes of winning? Jéremie Beyou heading out for his third Vendée Globe start, this time on the immaculate Maître CoQ, smiled wryly knowing he is tipped as a favourite but has yet to make it to the Southern Oceans after abandoning in 2008 and 2012. Armel Le Cléac’h – universally tipped in the French media as most likely to win was confident and rehearsed when he cast off with his Banque Populaire.
For all that the pre-start hyperbole has been about the six boats equipped with hydrofoiling daggerboards it was the 29 boat fleet’s only previous Vendée Globe winner, Vincent Riou, on PRB which has conventional daggerboards, who made the best start, opening out a good lead during the first 30 minutes of the course. But as if to immediately launch the real time foilers v non foiling debate, the 12-15kts winds fluctuated in the crossover zone, Riou was nearly half a mile ahead, then as the breeze built slightly Sébastien Josse on the foil assisted Edmond de Rothschild sprinted ahead, accelerating visibly. The breeze died one knot and the fully powered up PRB was quicker again, recovering ground to lead.
Briton Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss made a steady start, running a slightly smaller, conservative sail plan and was tenth during the early part of the afternoon, Conrad Coleman 17th, Kojiro Shiraishi 20th.
Blessed with a straight line course, heading directly across the Bay of Biscay towards Cape Finisterre on the NW corner of Spain, squeezing maximum speed when fast reaching will be keynote. For the core, middle order part of the fleet there is a distinct urgency to be south when the high pressure ridge spreads east from the Azores to the Portuguese coast, threatening to cut the fleet, late Monday or Tuesday. It is expected to be a classical ‘rich get richer’ picture, the faster boats escaping into the well established , strong NE’ly trade winds of 25kts.
If they can get south of Madeira as the weather models suggested today, the Doldrums and then the Equator within a week was widely predicted. The key for the first boats may be staying east, closer to Cape Finisterre where the wind pressure should be strongest. Staying west would, logically, see less wind, closer to the centre of the high. It is very important to be going fast as possible.
Cold air from the north may bring unstable, gusty winds overnight which might reach over 30kts. The foilers should have the advantage and stretch away as the winds increase.