Vendée Globe delays start in thick mists

Sea mist shrouding the start zone off Les Sables d’Olonne held up the start of the ninth edition of the Vendée Globe, the solo non-stop round the world race, for nearly one hour and 20 minutes.

But the record-sized 33 boat fleet was rewarded by late autumn sunshine, a near perfect 10-12 knots south easterly breezes and flat seas when the start gun finally sounded at 1420hrs French time, sending the lone 27 men and six women skippers off on their 24,296 nautical miles round the world challenge.

Eighteen of the skippers are competing for the first time, and in the ultimate sailing WhatsApp group, all skippers carry a laminated list of each other’s numbers for security if they need to help each other.

The race start was broadcast live via twelve cameras on the pontoon, three helicopters, one drone, and three following boats.

It was very different from previous iterations, with no public lining the channel and no leisure or passenger boats allowed due to Covid-19. The organisers say they also imposed secure conditions because of the number of foilers.

All those involved in getting the fleet to the start were tested for Covid-19 on 6 November. The organisers say that 330 tests were done in one day, including skippers, people close to them, sub-skippers, and crew members.

If a skipper develops Covid-19 they will be re-routed and assistance carried out, depending on where they are. They’ve had items added to their onboard medical supplies, for example to measure the level of oxygen in blood. There are additional masks onboard to protect people who might have to deal with a sick skipper.

When the race was finally ready to begin, with four minutes to go, all crew members had to be off the boat and the skipper alone. If the crew members were still onboard, it would be classes as a violation. Many skippers deposited their crew onto RIBs with plenty of time. Not so for the team of Alex Thomson which pushed the time to the last second.

When the gun sounded at 1420hrs (French time), Louis Burton on Bureau Vallée 2 broke the start line first. But the third-time Vendée Globe skipper racing the boat, which won in 2016-17 and holds the race record, was notably seconds ahead of the gun. He is penalised according to the race rules, required to halt his race for five hours – stopping racing and resuming from the same point – before 38°40,000N, so just north of Lisbon.

Prior to the race, Sam Davies arrived in her lucky red tights with white hearts on them. “I am excited, happy to be here with this amazing boat and amazing team. Now hopefully I can go and sail as well as my team has prepared my boat and for the race. I am just really looking forward to it,” says the Initiatives Coeur skipper.

“Why would I be worried? It is too late now,” says Miranda Merron, Campagne de France. “I have no indication right now that I am off on a round-the-world race on my own. I am sure I will be more worried at the start. I hate starts, I am always worried about other boats. I am sure the state has a good reason to have locked up the entire population of Les Sables d’Olonne in their houses this morning but to me it seems a little mean spirited when this event comes round once every four years. And I think the organisation has done an amazing job in a very difficult context and I just I think it is a shame that even people who live right on the waterfront are not allowed out of their houses.”

“I’m really, really happy even if it does not look like it,” says Pip Hare, Medallia. “I am really nervous. I can’t believe this day has arrived. I can’t believe it is here. It is huge. In a way I can’t imagine what is ahead of me, and in another way I can imagine every single minute of it. I just want to go out and find out if this thing that I have thought will be is as amazing. But I think it is going to be better.”

“It is going to be a tough five to six days for all the skippers, lots of sail changes and a complicated routing,” says Alex Thomson, Hugo Boss. “It will be tricky. And it will sort the men from the boys. For sure, it has been a tough year. It is a shame there is no public. I feel happy, privileged I have done four before and so there is not maybe the same emotion of before.”

The organisers expect it’ll be nine or ten days for the front runners to reach the equator, and they’ll be experience 4m waves in the next day or two. Competing for E200,000 (first place), they’ll need to keep abreast of the evolving ice exclusion zone which can change quickly. According to race organisers, each skipper has enough comms equipment on board that ‘I didn’t know’ won’t stand as an excuse for any infringements. Entering the exclusion zones is a violation and penalties will be imposed unless the skipper leaves again at the exact entry point.

Both Hare and Merron are carrying weather buoys (along with eight other skippers) to drop and deliver information back to scientists.

After starting, French skipper Fabrice Amedeo was forced to return to the start port because of a problem with the hook (lock) of his headsail which has prevented him from dropping his gennaker.

His stopover is expected to be brief.

Watch an excited Alex Thomson as the race gets underway:

Watch an emotional Pip Hare on the morning of the race:

Watch a very happy Sam Davies say farewell (in French):

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