Sailing: Britons' big impression

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The Independent Online
British hopes of winning what is undoubtedly the toughest test for racing yachtsmen and women, the Vendee Globe singlehanded non-stop round the world race, are decidedly slim. But, as they head out into the Atlantic here tomorrow, both Pete Goss and Tony Bullimore will know they have made a bigger impression in the host country, France, than they have achieved at home.

All week, queues of people 200 yards long and four deep have snaked their way to the pontoons where the 16 yachts, all but Goss's 60 feet long, have been going through their final preparations. Last Sunday alone, 17,000 people turned up to view not just their sporting heroes but the amazing boats they will drive for between 110 and 120 days, 24 hours a day, through some of the most treacherous seas and conditions as they circle Antarctica.

Nor was the organisation entirely sure how many competitors there would be. Fifteen are definite with the case of the recently qualified Raphael Dinelli still being considered. Hungary's Nandor Fa, Belgium's Patrick de Radigues, and Canada's Gerry Roufs complete the outside challenge to an event organised by and still dominated by the French.

Sporting the most radical approach is Yves Parlier, whose Aquitaine Innovations has cost another pounds 125,000 to beef up a mast and supporting beams which let him down in last year's singlehanded transatlantic race. It gives him a swivelling mast of the kind more favoured by multihulls, which should mean more speed but can also mean more problems where there is no one to solve them. Parlier also has to worry about Christophe Augin, twice a winner of the BOC race,whose Geodis looks to be a formidably powerful machine.

There are two women in the race. The irrepressible Isabelle Autissier in her new pounds 1m PRB, complete with the same sort of swinging keel featured on Goss's Aqua Quorum, and Catherine Chabaud in the rather older Whirlpool.

Autissier was strongly ahead in the last BOC race until her yacht was first dismasted and then lost as she was rescued by the Australian navy. "I have never had any nightmares about that," she said yesterday. "It's part of my life, part of my job. You cannot take revenge on the sea or the wind."