Sailing: A happy marriage built on anything but plain sailing

Dominique Wavre and his wife, Michèle Paret, will spend Christmas riding waves in the World Race
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The Independent Online

For many married couples, Christmas is all about turkey, mulled red wine and roast chestnuts in front of a blazing log fire, but for Dominique Wavre and Michèle Paret it will be screaming gales, freezing spray and disturbed sleep.

"Our Christmas present to each other is to be together in the Southern Ocean," said Paret, one half of the pair who are taking on the latest endurance race in the round the world sailing calendar. The other half is Wavre and together, in a 60-foot yacht called Temenos, they are sailing 25,000 miles, double-handed, non-stop, round the world in the Barcelona World Race which starts from the Catalan port tomorrow lunchtime.

What kind of man takes his partner of nearly 20 years into the life-threatening desolate kingdom of the albatross, and what kind of woman joins him in jumping up and down with excitement when they heard that the race was being organised?

Paret has all the Mediterranean beach looks of her native Nice on the Côte d'Azur. Yet, although they still spend a little time there, she prefers the rugged coast of western France and is happier in thermals and oilskins than a bikini.

He comes from Switzerland and, despite his almost schoolmasterly benign appearance, is teak hard and dedicated to ocean racing. They met during the 1989-90 Whitbread Round the World Race, he a watch captain for Swiss skipper Pierre Fehlmann on Merit Cup, she a watch captain on the all-woman entry Maiden, put together by Tracy Edwards.

They are now both 52 and, say close friends, joined not only at the hip but at the head. "It is as though they are one person. Sometimes when they are together it is as if no one else is there," says one.

No one else will be there for up to 90 days, neither of them can wander away to be on their own, they will be confined to a space below of about 18 feet square, no shower, primitive loos and freeze-dried food. Most people would go crazy, but they are both in some kind of personal heaven at the prospect.

They have twice done about 25 days together on a much smaller boat racing from Lorient to St Barthelemy in the West Indies, but neither thinks that three times that distance will put a huge strain on a relationship that is too good to risk.

"There was no question right from the beginning that we wanted to do this together and so no question of choosing to do the race with anyone else," says Wavre. "We are each other's best co-skipper. This is a race made for us. We are both very competitive and we are in this to win. After that, you hope you will enjoy it looking back."

Nor will changeovers from on-watch to watch below or sleeping be accompanied by an affectionate peck; just the normal rough, gruff shake into wakefulness. "For a start, we will not be tied to a regular timetable, like three hours on and three hours off," he says.

"When one is tired, the other will take over. Sometimes we do not have to talk much, a look will do. And when we do talk it is more likely to be about the boat manoeuvres, or race strategy.

"We did all the boat preparation together and know what each of us is better at. Michèle is more of a mechanic, I am better at electrics and we already know we can rely on each other.

"Some of the other eight crews in the race may not have the same understanding, so for us it will save time."

So three months cooped up together in some of the worst conditions that nature can devise and no friction, no rows? "From time to time you do have a fit of anger," says Wavre, "but not against each other, it is against the situation.

"Michèle is from the south and hot-blooded, so she does get het up from time to time, but that is normal, it is part of her character. But we can push each other and I am sure she will put in 100 per cent. There is no disadvantage in her being a woman; it is just not relevant at all as she is physically a very strong woman. We can both behave like men, but without the macho rivalry that can lead to violence."

So here are two people who feel a kind of fusion, both agreeing that they are leaving any domesticity behind and throwing themselves completely into offshore competition mode.

Wavre can think of no irritations that could become exaggerated in such a high-pressure environment, but Michèle can become a little stern.

"It is only a small detail," she says, "but he does not respect his diet. He can eat biscuits and chocolate before making the effort to cook – but as he comes from Switzerland, I suppose he has an excuse for the chocolate."

There will be no carols on board – "I think that would just guarantee a force nine gale," says Paret – but there is the possibility that friends will have hidden away a few treats. "I am sure we will get an email on Christmas Eve to tell us where to find them," she says.

At that time they should be in the thick of it, thinking not of roaring log fires, but the Roaring Forties.

Round the world in 90 days: The fleet aiming to rule the waves

The Barcelona World Race is a new two-handed, non-stop round the world race, which is intended to be held every four years. The race, which carries a first prize of £105,000, features the world's leading professional yachtsmen and women from both solo and crewed disciplines competing against each other over three months and across 25,000 miles of the planet's most challenging and hostile oceans. The nine-boat fleet are 60ft ocean racers equipped with the latest technology. Here are the other eight contenders:


Jérémie Beyou, 31, and Sidney Gavignet, 38, teamed up after Gavignet, who had enough Saxon pragmatism to persuade Mike Sanderson to give him a place on ABN Amro, came back as a winner of the Volvo Race 2004-05. They have a new boat and a lot of experience.


Albert Barqgues, 47, is from Barcelona while his co-skipper, in another co-ed challenge, is the 26-year old Servane Escoffier from St Malo. They have the oldest boat in the fleet, Ellen MacArthur's Kingfisher in which she came second in the 2000 Vendée Globe.


The fiery Guillermo Altadill, 47, is also from Barcelona and his crew, Jonathan McKee, 45, comes from Seattle. Altadill has been round the world six times, whereas McKee has been a short course and America's Cup specialist, after winning gold at the 1984 Olympics and, in 2000, bronze with brother Charlie.


Britain's Alex Thomson, 33, has a new boat and a new partnership with the Lymington-based Australian Andrew Cape, 45. Thomson was once rescued during a round-the-world race.


Javier Sanso, 38, is a long time Open 60 sailor from Palma, whereas Pachi Rivero, from the same holiday island, has concentrated more on big boat racing. Formerly an Ecover built for Mike Golding, the boat has been updated, but may lack the pace of the latest generation.


Although also a veterinary surgeon, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Dick, 41, has thrown much of the last 10 years into ocean racing, while his co-skipper, the Brittany-based Irishman Damian Foxall, 37, already has six circumnavigations to his name. The new boat has had to overcome keel problems, but is a powerful example of a new breed of Open 60.


Vincent Riou, 35, is a winner, not least of the Vendée Globe Race in 2004, while fellow Frenchman, Sébastien Josse, 32, showed huge leadership qualities when skippering ABN Amro 2 in the last Volvo Race. The latest boat, coupled with the talent of her crew, makes this the one to beat.


Roland Jourdain, 43, known the world over as "Bilou", has three round the world races to his name, but for his friend and neighbour, Jean-Luc Nelias, 45, from Quimper, Brittany, this is a first circumnavigation attempt. However, the pair have sailed thousands of miles together.