'Gladiator' skippers begin ultimate test in Vendee Globe

·3 min read

Britain's Alex Thomson said the 33 skippers who started the ninth edition of the Vendee Globe race on Sunday would feel like "gladiators" as they slid out of the channel at Les Sables-d'Olonne and on to the high seas. 

The approximately 24,296 nautical miles solo non-stop round-the-world race got underway an hour late when, instead of the perfect weather conditions that had been predicted, fog descended in a matter of minutes that left officials unable to see from one end to the other of the 2km long start line.

Due to the coronavirus, the start took place without the hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts who gathered waterside four years ago to see the race off in a carnival atmosphere, with the mist and silence making for an eery spectacle on the Atlantic coast.

But Thomson, who came third in 2012 and second four years ago, was excited to finally be heading out again.

"You feel like a gladiator when you go down this channel," he said. "I feel sorry for competitors who have never experienced this before," said Thomson whose 18m boat Hugo Boss is one of the pre-race favourites. 

The stress levels have been increased this year in the build-up to the start by the need for all of the skippers to take a late coronavirus test which could have seen them prevented from starting. 

Isabelle Joschke, one of six women on the start line, said it was like "the sword of Damocles". 

Thomson said he had taken around 20 tests in total.

"When we were able to sail again after confinement, we adopted a very strict policy regarding our way of operating, not just for me but for the team too," he said.

- 'Last glass of wine' - 

"It was hard for the members of the team and their families."

Fortunately all 33 skippers tested negative and were given the green light on Saturday to start the race.

However, the initial forecast that promised a start in glorious conditions fell wide of the mark for the competitors in a record field.

Race meteorologist Christian Dumard had predicted "a south-easterly wind... with 12 to 15 knots of wind more or less south-easterly." 

"The situation will get a little trickier in the evening since the first competitors will meet a depression which is off the coast of Ireland in the second part of the night," he added.

Even though this race will not end until late January, there was the same excitement and nerve-jangling for the skippers as at the start of any great sporting challenge.

"These are very intense moments, the heart rate is up, we have a lot of adrenaline," said French skipper Charlie Dalin.

"The moment when you go from being surrounded by your team to all alone on board is quite special. 

"When you see them jump into the water one by one, you feel that it becomes more and more what it is all about. Suddenly, it's silence, you can't talk to anyone anymore. 

"You just hear the sound of the sails, the sound of the wind and the countdown of the stopwatch before the start."

Britain's Samantha Davies made the most of her last few hours on shore.

"I took advantage of routine," said the 46-year-old.

"I had a last glass of wine, a last shower with hot water, and the last time I was in a bed that does not move!"

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