Sailing: Wild seas, dangerous storms and 100 days of solitude

Stuart Alexander reports from Les Sables d'Olonne as the Vendée Globe race prepares to cast off
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A score of intrepid souls, 18 men and two women, tough on the outside, hearts hammering within, set out tomorrow on a 21,700-mile journey.

A score of intrepid souls, 18 men and two women, tough on the outside, hearts hammering within, set out tomorrow on a 21,700-mile journey.

None of them knows if they will return alive. While the police in this French west coast resort town were worrying about a predicted influx of more than 250,000 people in the last few days before the start of the world's premier singlehanded yacht race - to add to the 270,000 that had already streamed along the pontoons - the competitors themselves were worrying through last-minute checks of every nook and cranny, every piece of gear on their 60ft boats.

Equally importantly, they were running through final mental preparations and wanting, above all, to get their 90 to 100-day masochistic marathon under way.

As so often, the idea of racing solo and non-stop round the world started in a dreamy sort of way but was then pushed forward with steely determination by Philippe Jeantot, the man who won the first two BOC round-the-world races. Fifteen years later, the Vendée Globe that he created has grown into one of the sport's great battles of man against the elements.

Most of the people who have come to wander and wonder hardly know one end of a boat from the other. But they are fascinated by the stories of hardship and heroism, and seduced by the sheer adventure of the whole thing.

Forty per cent of the competitors, if you include a Canadian-born Frenchman, are from overseas, and there have even been requests from Istanbul for radio interviews, so the Gallic insularity of the Vendée has finally been breached. So far, all the race's winners have been Frenchmen, but an English woman, Ellen MacArthur, was second last time and an Englishman, Mike Golding, is the favourite for this race.

The challenge is simple: one man or woman, one boat, once round the planet. But the ways in which the challenge is met are as varied as human ingenuity can devise. Golding's Merfyn Owen-designed Ecover is a combination of power and simplicity, while some of his main rivals have more complicated boats, making their job that much tougher. This may be another reason why Golding, 44, has impressed even the patriotic French observers.

The competitors are not allowed any outside help: they must plot their own courses; read their own weather maps; do their own repairs; and heal their own injuries. In this race, neither triumph nor disaster are impostors. One will be hard-earned, the other a constant threat.

But the fear factor has diminished. Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first person to sail non-stop around the world, says fear is generally of the unknown, and much more is now known of the wild seas that form more than half of the race. The boats are strong and built to cope and the competitors are better prepared.

But there are so many variables that it is almost impossible to name a favourite, much less have confidence in picking a winner. A simple gear failure can lead tocatastrophe. Falling out of favourable weather systems can leave the fastest boat hundreds of miles behind.

The two other Britons in the race, Alex Thomson and Conrad Humphreys, are likely to be pushing hard. Thomson has had his profile raised by his sponsor, Hugo Boss, who launched his bid with the help of David Coulthard and Davina McCall. But the fourth British-based entry, the Australian Nick Moloney, who will be sailing MacArthur's old boat now in Skandia colours, is more likely to be prudent than punchy.

The French threat is strong with Roland "Bilou" Jourdain, third last time, tipped to improve on that if his new boat, Sill et Veolia, holds up. And then there is the hugely experienced Marc Thiercelin in Pro-Form, and Jean-Pierre Dick in the fast but unreliable Virbac.

These three and Golding should be the leading quartet, but anyone who even finishes this race will have done something special.