Vendee solo sailors aim for record round-the-world time


Les Sables-d'Olonne (France) (AFP)

Contemplating record times, or just the vastness of the world's oceans, 29 skippers are assured of a noisy sendoff Sunday as they launch the latest Vendée Globe contest, an insane, non-stop, solo race around the world.

Once they leave Les Sables d'Olonne, the top athletes and adventurers from 10 countries face a hazardous future in the eighth 'Everest of the Seas' covering 21,638 nautical miles (40,073 km) through the toughest seas and the three great capes -- Good Hope, Leeuwin and the Horn.

Everything has been done to ensure the 18.5 metre (60 feet) monohulls can reach unprecedented speeds with the winner expected back on France's Atlantic coast by January 20.

Prince Albert of Monaco will launch the race at 13:02 (12:02 GMT) Sunday, with "very good conditions" forecast by race director Jacques Caraes. Hundreds of thousands are expected to pack the port and surrounding coastline.

Organisers estimate the Canary Islands off the coast of northwestern Africa will be reached in three and half days and Cape Verde in six, the fleet crossing the Equator a further two days later.

Only 71 sailors out of 138 have managed to finish the race which has taken place every four years since 1989.

A particular hazard is the traffic and fishermen in the Bay of Biscay, a passage that French challenger Sebastien Josse "fears the most".

This year up to ten competitors can challenge with their state-of-the-art boats. Others such as the four over-60s are there for the adventure.

All previous winners have been French with the closest a non-French sailor has come being Britain's Ellen MacArthur, who was runner-up in 2001.

This year's race will have no women for the first time in two decades with the average age of competitors 44 years.

The twenty French skippers are joined by nine from Britain, Hungary, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland and the United States.

- Faster than Phileas Fogg -

Despite an arduous journey with the introduction of "ice gates" and exclusion zones which prohibit competitors drifting too far south and colliding with icebergs, the Vendee Globe sailors are covering the planet at increasing speeds.

Titouan Lamazou, the first winner, finished his circumnavigation in 109 days 08 hours and 47 minutes. François Gabart, who won in 2013, took only 78 days 02 hours and 16 minutes. Faster than Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg!

The French are once again favourites including 2005 winner Vincent Riou. Foreigners hoping to challenge include Welshman Alex Thomson competing in his fourth edition.

"The route is long but you can expect a nice demonstration in speed," said 44-year-old Riou, who also finished third in 2009 but was forced to retire last time.

"We're going to go out very fast.

"This will allow everyone to get down quickly to the Equator. It is likely that the record will be beaten," said Riou, adding he had had "never been so prepared".

Recordholder Gabart will be watching as a spectator this time.

"It can be done in a week less than last time. Around 67-70 days. It's normal that it's going to be very fast," he predicted.

"There is an exceptional weather opportunity all the way down to Brazil this year."

The sleep deprivation -- four or five hours each day for about 100 days -- is an additional trap awaiting competitors.

- Japanese first -

Japan's Kojiro Shiraishi will be the first Asian competitor, the 49-year-old on board 'Spirit of Yukoh' in memory of his mentor Japanese sailor Yukoh Tada.

"There is not a single race like this in the world. It's exceptional, simply magnificent but unfortunately little known in Japan," Shiraishi said.

"I have three major goals: to be the first Japanese to participate, to contribute to the democratisation of sailing in Japan, and then I'd like to finish in the top 10."