Thursday, 8 November 2012

Does it really matter who wins the Vendee Globe?

There are not many press conferences in sport where you sit and look at the athletes and seriously wonder if you will ever see them again.

But the Vendee Globe skippers press conference in Les Sables d’Olonne every four years is one such gig. 
Gathered together yesterday, all  scruffy and wrinkly (not our Sam of course), knackered from all their boat preparations and media obligations (yawn!) they laughed and joked and did their best to come up with the perfect soundbyte ahead of their three month self-imposed carbon confinement.

Scruffy, craggy and BRAVE Vendee skippers!!
But inevitably there was an unmistakeable nervy feel to the humour and there is no getting away from the fact that on Saturday, these 20 courageous or deranged skippers (depending on how you see it)  will venture out on the most difficult and dangerous race track in modern sport.  It’s a crazy crazy business but thank god they want to do it because their derring-do makes for compulsive viewing.

Fifteen of them have done it before. Mike Golding, 52, and Dominique Wavre, 57, have both done it three times but for the new kids on the block, including the much touted (and some say complete lunatic) Francois Gabard, the next three months will be a life-changing experience, however it ends up.

Let’s not think about what might go wrong – it’s been 15 years since anyone died in this race – but it is always salutary to remind ourselves of the high attrition rate to make sure we fully understand the risk these guys take when they head off.

Since the first race in 1989, 116 skippers have taken part. Only 60 of them have managed to cross the finish line with 54 either retiring or being disqualified and two losing their lives. In 2004-05, the attrition rate was a massive 65%.

The best performing Brit, from the 14 who have competed was Ellen MacArthur who took part in 2000-01 and finished second, behind Michel Desjoyeaux. She was only the fourth British sailor to enter. She was also the first British woman and at 24, the youngest ever skipper. Who can ever forget her triumph and her agony.

Before her was Pete Goss, who rescued Raphael Dinelli and had to undertake some stomach churning do it yourself surgery, to his arm I think.   

And of course there was Tony Bullimore who capsized in the Southern Ocean and survived for five days in his upturned boat before being rescued by the Australian Navy.

Before Pete Goss was Nigel Burgess, who in 1992-93 became the first sailor to die in the race.

Nigel Burgess who died in 1992
 Three Vendee Globes, four compelling stories and lorry loads of pluck and luck, death and despair, fame and misfortune, the very reasons why hundreds of thousands of people (no kidding) turn up in Les Sables d’Olonne each race to see the boats and catch a glimpse of the sailors.

It is impossible for any Brit to comprehend the levels of interest in this event. The French sailors are action hero celebrities attracting massive crowds and big time sponsors. Even our very own Sam Davies gets mobbed. I was walking back with her yesterday and could not believe the attention she was getting – she had to stay out of the main thoroughfares in the interests of all our safety. It was remarkable.

More than 600,000 people have turned up so far and organisers are expecting thousands more at the start on Saturday, either watching from the shore or taking to their boats to be in the thick of things. 

To have 20 boats on the start line when the recession in Europe continues to bit hard and deep, is also remarkable. We worked out that between 70 and 100 million euros are tied up in this event though Gamesa, Golding’s sponsor has had to rein in their activities here on account of their laying off workers back home in Spain.  

Tony Bullimore rescued in 1996

But who will win? Some reckon it doesn’t really matter because the thing about the Vendee Globe is that it is a bloody good story first and a sporting competition second. Seeing  Alessandro Di Benetto’s tiny little 6.5m parked up in the Basin, complete with the jury rig he built to round Cape Horn during his circumnavigation tells us everything we need to know about the sailors that compete in the Vendee Globe.


God speed......

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