There's no doubt that at one time or another, most of us have looked out to sea and felt something pulling us towards the distant horizon. Some have responded by jumping into a boat and getting hooked on the ocean's terrible beauty. Only a relative few have been bold enough to take the next step and follow the invisible highways across the globe; even fewer have opted to do it alone.
The ultimate challenge is to sail single-handed non-stop around the world. Not many have done it, and several have lost their lives trying. Those with the desire to do it competitively get their chance every four years in the Vendee Globe, a race that starts and finishes in the French Atlantic coastal resort of Les Sables d'Olonne. This year was a Vendee year, and by the time you read this the race will be already winding down, its 20 entrants finished, retired or on the final leg. The fleet left the French coast on 7 November in a flotilla of 60-foot (18-metre) purpose-built monohull yachts. At the time of writing (mid-February), the first three yachts have already crossed the finish line after a record-breaking run of a little under 90 days, and seven boats have been forced to retire with a variety of breakages. Thankfully, there have been no deaths or serious injuries, but there was plenty of excitement and tension, courtesy of the leading three boats, who--even after 43,000 kilometres of ocean sailing--were within just 160 kilometres of each other as they crossed the Bay of Biscay in the final few days. It has been a classic race in the greatest of the Vendee Globe traditions.
The Vendee is the yachting world's Mount Everest, sailing single-handed, non-stop, unaided around the world from west to east, leaving--as the race rules put it in such disarmingly simple language--the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn to port, and Antarctica to starboard. To win is, of course, the supreme accolade, but just to finish is a stupendous achievement in itself, more than enough to guarantee a place in yachting's hall of fame. "It's the hardest race in the world. I don't think anyone would dispute that," said Alex Thomson, one of Britain's leading single-handed sailors, shortly before he entered this year's race. "For me it's the challenge of being able to do it. I want to be in the Southern Ocean alone. I can't wait for it."
The Vendee Globe is, perhaps, the logical conclusion of a story that begins with the pioneering efforts of the earliest single-handed sailors. The first recorded long-distance single-handed sail was by Newfoundland fisherman Alfred Johnson, who, in 1876, took 64 days to sail his 20-foot (seven-metre) boat across the Atlantic to visit relatives in Liverpool. However, the father of long-distance single-handed sailing is generally considered to be Joshua Slocum, a New England seaman who, in 1895, set out on the first known solo global circumnavigation, a trip that took him just over three years.
The first half of the 20th century saw a few more single-handed sailing firsts, but things didn't really take off until 1960, when the first single-handed transatlantic race took place. In that year, wartime hero Blondie Hasler bet Francis Chichester, a well-known aviator and yachtsman, half a crown that he could win a single-handed sprint across the Atlantic. Chichester took him up on his wager and three other yachtsmen joined in. And so, with help from Plymouth's Royal Western Yacht Club and the Observer newspaper, the Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island, Observer Single-handed Transatlantic Race--or OSTAR, as it became known--was born. Hasler lost his bet, Chichester romping into Newport well ahead after a 40-day crossing.
The next OSTAR, held in 1964, hosted a much larger fleet that included an unknown Frenchman by the name of Eric Tabarly. He ran away with the race, beating the British at their own game, and in the process earning himself a tickertape parade through Paris and France's highest accolade, the Legion d'honneur. …