Sailing: Solo artists straining to stay in the saddle

The Route du Rhum is sailing's Grand National, where finishing ìtself is an achievement, writes Stuart Alexander in St Malo

The demolition derby that is the Route du Rhum sees 74 solo sailors of varying ability leave St Malo on Sunday for the transatlantic trip to Guadeloupe. How many will complete the 3,540 miles is anyone's guess.

Britain's senior hope, Brian Thompson, refers to the race as a sort of Grand National in boats. This is the French event that excites even those who have no real enthusiasm for sailing, even perhaps sport in general. The four-yearly event, which has run since 1978, provokes endless discussion about who is taking part and their chances of winning.

But, like the Grand National, there is also fascination about how many will fall along the way. Given the recent gale-hit experience of the Velux Five Oceans round-the-world race, that element of high-wire thrill has increased. Not least because only three of the 18 60ft trimarans competing last time in 2002 made it to the finish, and only one of the three did not stop for repairs along the way.

The race director, Pierre Bojic, is expecting the most vulnerable first two or three days to be fair. And he has seen stability rules tightened, especially for the trimaran greyhounds. But, he says: "There are only two positions for multihulls; upright or upside down and at this time of year the Atlantic can always be dangerous."

Four years ago Britain claimed first and second spots in the other grand prix class, the Open 60s, as Ellen MacArthur beat Mike Golding by nine hours and those two were a country mile ahead of their nearest French rival.

Neither is competing this time. MacArthur is deep into the organisation of the Barcelona two-handed race round the world in 12 months' time and Golding is trying to recover from yet another cruel stroke of bad luck at the start of the Velux.

Which leaves the flag-carrying to Thompson in his new steed, the Open 60 Artemis, though his four-year-old boat faces stiff opposition not just from rivals of a similar vintage but three new-generation boats which should have a considerable edge.

Thompson knows he is up against some of the best and a top-five finish would be a good result for him. He feels that both he and the boat are well-prepared for what could be a very testing time soon after the fleet leaves the English Channel.

From then, he has to be up with the leading pack as it picks up the trade winds, which carry them west. "You cannot afford to be behind, as there are not many passing opportunities," he says.

In contrast, and it could not be greater, the cause of Britain's seemingly never-ending stream of women on the racing front is being carried by Chelsea Art College graduate Aurelia Ditton, one of five other Britons taking part in the smaller classes.

She has crossed the Atlantic twice in a trimaran, parked it as a "living art" exhibition outside Tate Modern, and has now persuaded backers to buy an Open 40, which she has named Dangerous When Wet.

If sheer enthusiasm were all that is needed to win then the 26-year old Lia, who was brought up in Suffolk, would be unbeatable. She plans to write all over the inside of the boat, bought less than six weeks ago, a diary of everything that happens.

She is not sure if she is competitive or not, wants to be seen as a sailing artist and thinks that "if you just set yourself up for winning that's being short-sighted." She would like to make a sail that makes music and "to think of Radio 4 listeners tuning in to hear the sound of an ocean." As long as it is not the sound of disaster.