Foul weather threatens Vendée Globe yachts

The cream of Britain's ocean-racing talent was heading into perilous waters yesterday as the world's most difficult and challenging yacht race, the Vendée Globe, set sail in conditions that threaten to tear the fleet apart.

Seven Britons, a record contingent, were among 30 solo racers who were heading across the Bay of Biscay having been warned that they were heading into the teeth of an "aggressive" and "dangerous" storm.

The weather is likely to inflict its worst damage late this evening as gales of up to 50 knots (58 mph) and treacherous waves sweep through.

The race, which begins and ends at the port of Les Sables D'Olonne in western France, started yesterday. It is a non-stop, 26,000-mile, single-handed contest expected to take three months, for those who finish. It is held every four years.

The Met Office had gale warnings in place across the Bay yesterday, with the sea state forecast as "rough or very rough" and the visibility as "moderate or poor". The worst of the weather is yet to come. The British starters included the only two women in the race – Dee Caffari, 35, and Sam Davies, 34 – as well as the veteran racer Mike Golding, 48, and the largely self-funded amateur, Steve White, 35, from Dorchester. Chris Tibbs, a weather adviser to the Artemis Ocean Racing team for which another Briton, Jonny Malbon, is competing, said he was predicting a "rough" first night for the sailors, and progressively deteriorating conditions for a further 24 hours.

"I'd expect things to start banging and slamming overnight," he said. "A cold front is coming through on Monday night and ahead of that the winds are expected to pick up to 40-45 knots, gusting 50, the worst of it sustained for perhaps two to three hours."

Mr Tibbs said ripped sails were a potential hazard in such weather, "but the biggest danger is the sea state, which becomes a problem when the boats launch off the waves and crash down" into the troughs.

Storms in the Bay have proved lethal before. The body of Nigel Burgess, a British sailor in the 1992-93 Vendée race, was recovered off the Spanish coast in November 1992 after he had activated a distress beacon in winds of 45-55 knots. Six of 14 yachts turned back to port within days.

In the 1996-97 race, two boats were crippled by a Bay storm within days and others needed to return to shore for early repairs.

In autumn 1999, another Biscay storm during a different race, the Transat, claimed the life of a Frenchman, Paul Vatine, while the start of 2000-01 Vendée, in which Ellen MacArthur shot to international fame, was delayed for a full four days because of atrocious weather.

Yet wind and waves are the lifeblood of ocean racing, and there was no suggestion yesterday that the fleet will do anything but press on. One skipper, France's Dominique Wavre, was already on his way back to Les Sables with electrical problems. The early race leader was France's Sébastien Josse, aboard BT, while the leading Briton was Alex Thomson, in seventh.