Race organisers are anticipating 16 starters for the 1998-99 Around Alone, which will cover nearly 27,000 miles. Many thought the race would die when, after the 1994-95 edition, its long-term sponsors BOC pulled out. But far from it. Solo sailors are dogged and determined individuals, as dogged and determined to overcome the hard part - getting to the starting line - as they are to battle the Southern Ocean alone in large and often unmanageable beasts. The Vendee Globe Challenge may lie at the pinnacle of single-handed sailing: non-stop grand prix racing around the world. But in Around Alone, Corinthians rub shoulders with Formula One in boats that are as diverse as the people who sail them.
In the grand prix Class I for 60ft open-class monohulls, innovation and technology is the name of the game. The boats boast a mixture of precariously swinging keels, rotating wing masts and strange rigging configurations that hang way outside the confines of the hull. In this class - the main focus of attention - Britain has a real chance. Mike Golding, a man more used to battling round the world in the opposite direction in large clunking cruising boats, has a new and lightweight sled beneath him. Supported by Group 4 for several years now, Golding went to the French designers Fino-Conq and commissioned the best they could offer. The result, Group 4, sports all of the gizmos, the swinging keel and the rotating mast, and for Golding this is his chance to shine on the Formula One stage.
Josh Hall is a veteran of Around Alone. This will be his third race. But whereas previously he had been battling the elements on a personal crusade, this time he has a boat that could be a match for the front runners; Gartmore Investment Managers is not a new boat, but is potentially a fast one. Mike Garside has potentially the quickest boat in Class II, while the eccentric Robin Davie, in a borrowed 48-footer and sailing under the American flag, will be paying a time penalty for late arrival in Charleston for scrutineering from the moment he starts.
If the British contingent - four in total - are to succeed they will need to overcome talent and strength, if not great depth. If Golding and Hall are to top their fleet they will need to keep the Frenchwoman Isabelle Autissier, the Italian Giovanni Soldini and Frenchman Marc Thiercelin at bay. Autissier was credited with turning round the performance of the Women's EF Education in the two legs that she sailed the Whitbread with them. She was also the runaway leader of the last Around Alone until she was spectacularly rescued south of Australia. Soldini has many single- handed miles behind him and beat Golding on this summer's transatlantic race while Thiercelin finished second in the last Vendee Globe.
While the competition is fierce the British sailors have every reason to be optimistic. Golding, particularly, has much to prove and now has the vehicle to prove it. Silk Cut was a Whitbread disappointment; today brings Britain another chance.