Sailing: Humphreys faces long, lonely battle

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As two of the aristocrats of French rugby, Bourgoin and Narbonne, exited the European stage on Friday night to concentrate on a domestic championship they clearly consider more important than the ostensible pinnacle of the club game, they might like to contrast their approach to professional sporting competition with a lone British yachtsman who has shown himself less willing to throw in the towel.

As two of the aristocrats of French rugby, Bourgoin and Narbonne, exited the European stage on Friday night to concentrate on a domestic championship they clearly consider more important than the ostensible pinnacle of the club game, they might like to contrast their approach to professional sporting competition with a lone British yachtsman who has shown himself less willing to throw in the towel.

Conrad Humphreys is back on a race track on which few sailors choose to compete, the Vendée Globe. This is a single-handed race, non-stop around the world without any outside assistance, and, in a nit-picking way, the 31-year- old from Gosport in Hampshire has already had to bend two of those rules. Humphreys has had to make a detour to Cape Town, pick up a mooring and then work for four days on his 60-foot yacht, Hellomoto.

During that time he was able to talk to his shore crew for advice on how to remove a smashed rudder and then replace it with a spare he was carrying on board. But he could take on no supplies, had no help when diving beneath the boat, and at no time could say to someone: "Just hold on to this for a moment".

Even his restart had a touch of Murphy's Law as he set off into the teeth of a 40-knot gale with the Southern Ocean ahead of him. Yesterday, not surprisingly, Humphreys was 17th out of the 17 remaining starters from the fleet of 20 who left Les Sables d'Olonne on 7 November, and was over 3,000 miles behind the leaders. He is now putting his life on the line for a race he has no hope of winning to achieve a personal challenge.

Ahead of him, his fellow-Briton Mike Golding, who had to survive a knockdown on Friday night, knows what Humphreys is feeling. He was dismasted eight hours into the last race, in 2000-01, and restarted 10 days later. This time he is pushing himself hard to try to stay in touch with the leaders, Vincent Riou and Jean le Cam of France. Lying fifth, he is 485 miles behind, but chasing Sebastien Josse, 25 miles ahead of him, to snatch back ourth place. All of them, including the third-placed Roland Jourdain, have been warned of severe Southern Ocean weather over the next few days.

Also facing adverse weather is Ellen MacArthur, still a day ahead of schedule in her attempt to break Francis Joyon's record of 72 days and 22 hours for sailing solo round the world. She has completed 5,000 relatively incident-free miles, is settled into work and sleep patterns, and is lining up for her own battle against the Antarctic elements.

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