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Britain's Sam Davies leaving son behind to compete in round-the-world Vendée Globe


Northern hemisphere November is not known for its salad days but for Britain’s current queen of ocean racing, fast becoming a French star, it is sunny and fruitful and for three British sailors there is the neck hair raising challenge of taking on 12 Frenchmen, two Swiss, an Italian, a Pole, and a Spaniard in one of the toughest challenges in world sport.

Sponsoring Sam Davies is a major French tomato and strawberry supplier, her partner is French, she lives in Brittany, but she has a Cambridge degree in engineering and, on the side of the boat, is the union flag.

Davies has done the Vendée Globe singlehanded non-stop round the world race before, except that last time she left only her cat in the care of partner Romain Attanasio. This time her 14-month old son Ruben will be without his mother on Christmas morning and temporarily single father Romain will have to make do with satellite telephone contact on New Year’s Eve.

It is part of a deal worth several editions of Woman’s Hour. When Attanasio went to do his AG2R doublehanded race from France to the West Indies, a race they had done together in 2010, Sam stayed at home as a dutiful mum. Before Ruben was even in the making, the agreement was that sailing would remain central to both their lives. Ruben was not consulted; nor, earlier, was Sam, who was already living on a boat when she was two weeks old.

Alex Thomson’s son, Oscar, will be two on 7 January. Thomson was at home with acute appendicitis which forced him to pull out of the 2010-11 Barcelona Race, two-handed non-stop round the world, just before he was born. No sooner did Oscar make his appearance in the delivery room than he was whisked to the emergency room to cure a heart problem.

Instead of returning to the race, Thomson stayed at home to share the problem, but he says that, now, he will race as hard as ever, his style unchanged.

The third Briton challenging the might of the French has completed six of his nine attempts to sail round the world before, was dismasted once out of his three Vendée Globes, and came third in 2004-05 by the skin of his teeth when the keel of his yacht fell off 50 mile from the finish. He has also completed 12 transatlantics, the first in a trimaran from Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island, in 1988.

Now the wrong side of a half-centenarian, his fourth Vendée Globe will be his last but he will at least be able to speak to his nine-year old son Soren from the boat, though, in an age when the written word has made a comeback, he is also thinking of conducting an e-mail dialogue.

All three say they are under no real pressure to win and Sam Davies’ boat is an old one. But her gentle manner, and amazingly youthful 38-year old looks, disguise a steely determination to stay a 24,400-mile course which is always littered with breakdowns and retirements.

Thomson has twice tried and twice failed to complete the VG. He says his only objective this time is to cross the finish line in one piece. Yeah. He is too old to be the young turk any more. He wants to win.

And Golding appreciates more than most that “this is a very cruel race. A lot of it is where you are in your head. Being attritional is what makes it a race, accentuates the risk and the unknown, and what makes it worth doing is that it is very hard to do.”  He is backed by two-times winner Michel Desjoyeaux. “This is the most complete and most complex race there is,” he says.

This seventh edition of the race is no different than the first. It requires strength both physical and mental and for the equipment to survive. Thomson is convinced that most, if not all, of the five-strong clutch of new, lighter boats will simply not be strong enough to go the distance. When it blows in the Southern Ocean it blows.

His own preparations with an older boat have been meticulous but luck always plays a part. He was hit by a local fishing boat just prior to the start in 2008. His race ended before he even started.

Golding has replaced his previous never-ending quest for change and improvement right up to the starting gun with a more relaxed but more focussed attention to reliability, while Davies feels that all her experience from childhood to date contributes to a kinder, and therefore more successful, way of treating the boat.

She proved it by coming fourth last time and fellow British singlehander Dee Caffari was sixth. This time she is the only woman in the race and, while betting on this race is a bit like gambling on the Grand National, there is nothing to stop her achieving a single number finish again.

Over a million people are predicted to come and see their heroes by the time of the departure on Saturday. Conditions are still expected to be good for the start; no-one knows how many of the 20 will still be racing at the end of the first week.