Since the second edition of the Vendée Globe, that was raced between 1992-1993 when Alain Gautier won, there have been solo skippers from Great Britain in each successive edition. Alan Wynne-Thomas and Nigel Burgess were the first British skippers to start a Vendée Globe race. Tragically Burgess drowned in the Bay of Biscay three days into the race. Wynne-Thomas retired into Hobart, Tasmania after his Cardiff Discovery was knocked down between the Kerguelen Islands and Heard Island. With his rudder and tiller smashed and having sustained several broken ribs and a partially collapsed lung he struggled into Hobart, Tasmania where he retired from the race.
Briton Pete Goss was the hero of the 1996-97 race, a brutal edition in which only six of the 16 starters finished and Canadian Gerry Roufs was lost. Goss relinquished any chance he had of winning the race to return 160 miles upwind in storm force winds to famously rescue Raphael Dinelli from a liferaft after his boat had capsized and sunk.
In the 2000-2001 race Ellen MacArthur became the youngest sailor at 24 years old, and the first and only woman yet to finish on the podium of the Vendée Globe when she finished second just 24 hours after the victorious Michel Desjoyeaux. In the following race Mike Golding finished third after losing his keel some 60 miles from the finish.
But it was in the record breaking 2008-9 edition when the complement of 30 skippers comprising seven different nationalities including no fewer than seven British skippers, Mike Golding, Alex Thomson, Sam Davis, Dee Caffari, Brian Thompson, Steve White and Jonny Malbon. In that race in which only 11 boats finished four were British and three finished in the top six.
Almost inevitably that international entry of 13 non-French entries remains the numerical high water mark, though in statistical terms the average of entries from outside France over the seven editions is just under 40 per cent. This time it runs at exactly 40%. But it has been a struggle for many potential entrants and many are here as supporters not skippers: 'I think it noticeable this time that there feels to be a smaller range of nationalities here, but I think that is a sign of how difficult sponsorship is at the moment,' remarks Dee Caffari the record breaking British skipper who, even after finishing sixth last time could not raise sufficient sponsorship to compete this time. 'You have to consider this is a class which has a massive profile in France but which has a message which is still quite hard to transmit outside of this country.'
Britain provides three solo skippers this time Mike Golding (Gamesa), Alex Thomson (Hugo Boss) and Samantha Davies (Savéol), but at least three of the 2008-9 finishers were intent on racing again this time. Indeed Caffari, Brian Thompson and Steve White are all in Les Sables d’Olonne this week, as are Rich Wilson (USA, The Great American III) and Norbert Sedlacek (AUT, Nauticsport-Kapsch), the first Austrian to complete the race.
Switzerland has mustered a consistent number of entries since the first edition. Bernard Gallay technically did not complete the course of the first edition after stopping twice, but he finished eighth in 2000-1 setting an impetus which has been followed each time by compatriots Dominique Wavre and Bernard Stamm. After finishing fifth on his first attempt, Wavre improved to fourth in the 2004-5 race. Like Golding, Wavre is starting his fourth successive Vendée Globe on Saturday and Stamm his third.
Though Vittorio Malingri started the first Vendée Globe, the first and only Italian skipper to actually finish the non-stop solo round the world race was Simon Bianchetti who finished 13th after 121 days in that 2000-2001 race. The remarkable Alessandro di Benedetto starts as the only Italian entry this time, racing the venerable former Akena Vérandas.
Spain’s Javier ‘Bubi’ Sanso will be starting the Vendée Globe for a second time with his Acciona 100% EcoPowered but he follows the trail blazed in the first edition by José Luis de Ugarte who completed the course in 134 days 05 hours as the oldest finisher yet, aged 64.
Poland’s Zbigniew ‘Gutek’ Gutkowski is no stranger to racing around the world, having taken part in two stopping races – The Race and the Velux 5 Oceans – but he is the first Polish skipper ever to take on the Vendée Globe, racing Energa, previously Hugo Boss.
I think it noticeable this time that there feels to be a smaller range of nationalities here but I think that is a sign of how difficult sponsorship is at the moment, especially considering this is a class which has a massive profile in France but which has a message which is still quite hard to transmit outside of the country.
Dee Caffari, GBR - This race will always be special to people who have had any contact at all with it all. There are a lot of people who were touched by the last race who will be following it again. There are a number who us who are back here who would love to do it again. Every edition is hard. It is an unknown and it is so difficult to predict a top five. I have never seen Mike Golding so relaxed at the start of a race. Alex had done the best preparation we have ever seen and I think this is his chance to really shine. But my allegiance, of course, is with Sam as the only girl in the race.
Brian Thompson, GBR - Sponsorship has been definitely harder to get but the core market in France seems to have been alright. In 2008-9 it really was the apogee of the race with 30 boats and now it is back to a more traditional 20 boats. I think there will be more international entries in the future though, when the economy picks up. I think sponsors are still getting keener on sailing and this is such a strong, simple story, which is easy to understand. But what we need to be seeing just now is Germans, Americans, Australians and so on walking the dock just now to see what it is all about.
Mike Golding, GBR Gamesa - It feels like the level of international competition is down. The fleet is smaller and the number of British skippers is down to three, so we have lost a proportion. But as an event though it is known around the world I think one has to accept it is quite parochial event with the focus still very much on France. The race organisers need to have a more international approach. If one of the international teams did well this time that could have a positive effect. Outside of France we are always looking for global sponsors and that is often tougher. But is certainly possible that either Alex or I could win. We are both capable of getting on the podium and if you are at that level then you can win.
Vendee Globe website
by Vendee Globe
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6:45 PM Tue 6 Nov 2012GMT
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2012 Vendee Globe
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