Yachts set off on Vendee Globe round-the-world race
Les Sables-d'Olonne (France) (AFP)
Twenty-nine skippers from 10 countries set off Sunday in a risky bid to complete the Vendee Globe solo round-the-world yacht race -- some aiming for a record-breaking time, most though would be happy just to finish.
Thousands of boats packed the French Atlantic port of Les Sables d'Olonne to bid the fleet farewell. More than 300,000 spectators lined the port and nearby coast to watch the boats from France, Japan, New Zealand, the United States, Britain, Ireland, Hungary, Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland.
Kojiro Shiraishi, the first Asian to take part, wore a samurai costume on his Spirit of Yukoh to pay tribute to the crowd.
Alan Roura from Switzerland, at 23 the youngest competitor, dressed up as the cartoon adventurer Corto Maltese.
At 66, American maths professor Rich Wilson is the oldest competitor and one of four who are aged over 60.
Spaniard Didac Cost turned back in his One Planet One Ocean within two hours of the start for repairs.
But once the departure festivities were over, the rival navigators, all in 18.5 metre (60 foot) monohulls, had to quickly face up to a daunting battle against the world's major oceans, a lack of sleep and loneliness.
If the previous seven races -- held every four years since 1989 -- are anything to go by about half of the field will return to Les Sables d'Olonne.
- Happy to finish -
The Vendee Globe has so far claimed three lives while only 71 out of 138 vessels entered have completed the course.
The nine genuine contenders are all aiming to beat the 78 days, two hours, 16 minutes and 40 seconds set by the 2012-13 winner, Francois Gabart.
Organisers predict the winner could complete the 'Everest of the Seas' -- 21,638 nautical miles (40,073 km) taking in the three great Capes -- Good Hope, Leeuwin and the Horn -- by about January 20.
Cost had up to 10 days to make repairs and start the race again. But any participant who puts into port or receives assistance along the way will be disqualified.
"It's a tough moment. Your stomach is in knots and the tears flow," acknowledged Yann Elies, sailing Queguiner-Leucemie Espoir, before setting off.
"It's a moment I'll not forget," added a tearful Morgan Lagraviere, sailing Safran.
On the technical side, sailing experts will be keen to see the effect this year of "Dali moustache" lifting foils which seven of the participants are using this year.
The device helps lift the boats above the water in a dragster effect, the idea being to lighten the vessel and increase speed.
Doubts have been raised about its effectiveness over such a long distance however.
The foils could come into their own during the opening days of the race as skippers handle northwesterly winds gusting at 15-20 knots (28 to 38 kph/17 to 23 mph).
Race director Jacques Caraes says the conditions are pretty much ideal for the start as the vessels set a course towards Finisterre point off northwest Spain.
Welshman Alex Thomson, taking part in his fourth Vendee Globe, indicated that "if the forecasts are correct it will be tough for the boats without foils to be in the front group."
He and his rivals then headed out into the ocean and toward the Equator, which they are slated to reach in about eight days.
Also Sunday, French navigator Thomas Coville set off from the port of Brest in a bid to break the solo non-stop round the world record in his 31-metre maxi-trimaran Sodebo Ultim'.
The 47-year-old has already failed on four occasions to beat Francis Joyon's 2008 record of 57 days 13 hours and 34 minutes.
© 2016 AFP