Welcome to the ultimate sailing race – around the world, alone

Skippers hit speeds in excess of 30 m.p.h. as they brave near-hurricane winds, monstrous seas, and flying squid in one of the most harrowing sporting competitions in the world – the Vendée Globe.

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    Lonely voyage: British yachtswoman Dee Caffari navigates heavy seas south of New Zealand in a race that would make her the first woman to sail around the world alone in both directions.
    Gareth Cooke/Courtesy of Subzero Images/Aviva Ocean Racing
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It’s Day 65 at sea, 85 degrees west longitude, 52 degrees south latitude, and just west of the dreaded Cape Horn. Dee Caffari, skipper of Aviva, is being buffeted by some of the most harrowing conditions she’s ever experienced in her sailing career.

It’s been a nightmarish 24-hour stretch as she nears the southern tip of the Americas, feared by sailors for centuries. The wind, as forecasted, whips over the water at 50 to 65 knots, nearing hurricane viciousness. But it is the sea itself that unsettles her: massive, foam-flecked swells alternately towering over and then grabbing under Aviva, lifting the 60-foot monohull to their billowing gray zeniths and then tossing it into their vertiginous nadirs.

“The sea state was monstrous,” Ms. Caffari says via e-mail. “And I had never encountered anything like it.”

Along with 30 other skippers last November, Caffari embarked upon an Olympian-styled quest to circumnavigate the globe – solo – in a race with no stopovers or outside assistance. The Vendée Globe, which every four years brings together the world’s most skilled and intrepid navigators for a race considered the Everest of sailing, begins in the harbor of Les Sables d’Olonne in France. It sends the skippers on a east-bound voyage that will traverse under each of the world’s great southern capes in Africa, Australia, and the Americas.

It’s a route beset with furious gales and infuriating doldrums, tangling seaweed and intruding sea creatures, oppressive heat and hair-encrusting ice. And while organizers expect the leader, the legendary Michel Desjoyeaux, skipper of Foncia and winner of the 2000/2001 Vendée Globe, to arrive around February 1, only 12 of the 30 skippers remain currently still at sail.

“The Vendée Globe is considered the pinnacle of offshore sailing,” says Caffari. “So as a stand-alone race, it was always going to be something that I aspired to take part in.”

If Aviva can finish the race next week, as expected, Caffari will become the first woman to sail alone around the world in both directions. In 2006, she traveled against prevailing winds from east to west, in a 178-day voyage in a 72-foot sailboat.

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Each Vendée Globe competitor sails a similar “Open 60” monohull, or what a boat would be if NASCAR raced on water. Shaped like an arrowhead, these light carbon-fiber crafts are flat and wide, built both for speed and the buffeting fury of the sea. Each sailor navigates with three types of sails, working to match their rigging with an appropriate plan for wind and sea conditions.

Competitors constantly adjust their mainsail and smaller headsails, tacking the bow into the wind or jibbing the stern through the eye of gusts. And when the seas are stable enough, the skipper can unfurl the massive spinnaker, a balloon of a sail, and surf along the surface of the deep as fast as any sailboat ever has.

But the cockpit remains open to the sea, and the Vendée Globe demands a near-perfect harmony of seamanship, navigating skills, and physical endurance for a race that will last more than 100 days for most competitors. A semisheltered cuddy holds a crash seat (where sailors spend the majority of their time); and a small high-tech navigation station below deck holds food and supplies and a small bunk. Sailors rarely get more than an hour or two of sleep at a time.

Only the world’s greatest sailors can confront the physical demands and perilous seas of this global race. In the five previous Vendée Globes, first run in 1989, only 48 of the 84 boats that started the race were able to finish, and two sailors have been lost.

This year’s race, too, has produced harrowing moments. On Day 57, while caught in the monstrous seas west of Cape Horn, Jean Le Cam, skipper of VM Matériaux and running in third position, was capsized by the ferocious winds, trapping him within the boat’s hull. After Mr. Le Cam activated his EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon), Chilean search-and-rescue aircraft, nearby freighters, and fellow racers mobilized for a dramatic rescue.

The first to reach him was fellow Frenchman Vincent Riou, skipper of PRB, and winner of the last Vendée Globe in 2005. When Mr. Riou arrived, Le Cam swam out into the freezing waters in a special survival suit, but Riou had to circle the capsized VM Matériaux four times before retrieving him. PRB’s mast ended up being damaged by the upturned keel fin of the capsized boat, and Riou had to later withdraw from the race.

Vendée Globe officials have already awarded the 2005 winner with third place this year, his position when he was forced to retire. (The top six finishers receive cash prizes: approximately US $195,000 for first, $117,000 for second, $78,000 for third, and so on.)

Earlier, on Day 39, Yann Eliès, skipper of Generali, broke his thighbone in the South Seas after his boat slammed into a wave. In extreme pain, he crawled from the bow back to the cockpit to radio for help. Marc Guillemot, skipper of Safran, who had been 100 miles away, rushed to the scene. He could only offer emotional support, however, as Mr. Eliès lay disabled in the galley. It took two days for the Australian Navy to rescue the injured skipper, but Guillemot returned to the race and is currently battling for fifth position.

A number of skippers have damaged their boats after hitting sharks or whales, and Caffari once noticed that her rudder was tangled with a long trail of kelp.
While out in the open seas, “suicide” fish or squid sometimes leap onto the vessels. Samantha Davies, skipper of Roxy and the only other woman in the race besides Caffari, recounted a series of nights off Southern Africa when squids kept leaping onto her boat.

“It seems that as the temperature drops, the size of squid increases, so does the intensity of its ink, thus increasing the overall mess on the deck!” she wrote in a daily message. “Last night’s suicide attacker was just one rather large inky squid, who landed just aft of the cockpit next to the starboard tiller!”

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Despite the risks and endless exhaustion, sailors are quick to recount the days when the sails are full of wind and the matchless feeling of being at sea – the adventure that keeps drawing them to sail. Nearly all the Vendée skippers are professional sailors – they compete in races full time, funded by corporate sponsors.

“My best moments have been when Aviva is blasting downwind, we are surfing off the waves, flying along, and the conditions feel just perfect,” says Caffari, who began sailing with her father when she was in grade school. “There have been many times like that during the race so far and it is on days – or nights – like this where you just feel so in tune with the boat and the environment. You almost want to bottle the experience so you can share it with others when you get back.”

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