Leaning from balconies, perched among chimney pots, teetering on ladders they wisely brought with them, the sea of people at the start the Vendée Globe were a dozen deep. For hundreds of metres along the edge of the old canal they swelled in peaks and troughs of applause as the twenty skippers began their slow march to the start.
The Les Sables d’Olonne canal gives you goose bumps. The Vendée Globe is the three-month marathon that begins with a sprint, but before that comes lap of honour. An estimated 300,000 people were at the port, the race village, and along the beach, as Bernard Stamm (Cheminées Poujoulat) left his moorings at 9.30am. The other 19 boats followed in four-minute intervals, slowly motoring their way through the throng.
© Jacques Vapillon / DPPI / Vendée GlobeLocals, Parisians and those from far and wide had come for one of the great experiences in the world. To be in the Les Sables d’Olonne canal is to be at the Rio Carnival Parade, the vertiginous stands of Barcelona’s Nou Camp, in Shanghai for the Chinese new year, India’s Eden Gardens cricket ground, the running of the bulls in Pamplona or indeed lining the road to Alpe d’Huez in the Tour de France. It is at once unmistakably French and at the same time universal. Great events do that, mainlining you deep into the different obsessions and celebrations of nations.
You do not need to be a sailor to enjoy the spectacle or understand the scale of what each skipper is attempting. They are choosing to go into the wilderness alone and look inside themselves. We know almost for certain that not all the boats will finish - only 11 of 30 made it back last time and one, Jean Le Cam’s was lost for good, slipping beneath the waves after he was rescued by his rival Vincent Riou, in tumultuous seas 200 miles west of Cape Horn.
It is testimony to the increasing professionalism of the teams and the maritime cooperation around the world, that only two lives have been lost in the previous six editions - Nigel Burgess from Britain was drowned in the Bay of Biscay in the 1992-93 race and Gerry Roufs from Canada disappeared in the Pacific in the 1996-97 race and the wreckage of his boat washed up six months later off the Chilean coast. But the last destruction derby of a race with its dramatic rescues showed how perilous it remains.
© JEAN MARIE LIOT / DPPIFor some of the skippers it is a race, for some still an adventure, but for all, the Vendée Globe transcends sport. That is why banners reading: ‘make us dream’ and 'yes you can' were hung from the balconies and walls.
More than a million people have been through village, many of them queuing for half a mile for their chance to walk the pontoon and be less than a metre from the boats as the crews made their final preparations. With free entry for all it makes the skippers heroes you can touch and different from the commercial confection that cloys many once great sporting events.
The following of the Vendée Globe grows with each edition, more organically than by marketing machine. People can spot a phony and know that this is the real deal. Characters such as, Sam Davies (Savéol), the belle of the canal, make this the most aspirational events.
“We’ve just had a 14-hour drive down through France, I thought it would be good, but I never expected anything like this, it’s enormous,” Tim Lowin, from Long Eaton, between Nottingham and Derby, said. He had travelled to the start with his daughter, Abby, for the first time. “My wife couldn’t get the time off work but I’ve always wanted to come. I sail a bit, I’m not following a particular skipper but Sam Davies (Savéol) – she’s got bigger b&!!0£@$ than any of the male skippers.”
Yves Schepens and his wife Therese had travelled from Belgium to see the departure live for the first time.
“It’s my first time here,” Schepens said. “I’ve watched it on television before, but it’s nothing to being here and experience the ambiance and the atmosphere. I saw Samantha (Davies). We’ve travelled 760km. You must live it.”
“All France loves the Vendée Globe, it’s a great and very important race,” Albert Malet from Paris, said. “I’m not a sailor, but I wish I was. I saw Samantha (Davies).
For the locals the race is a source of great pride with residents competing about memories of previous editions. Annie Voyer, a resident, held the trump card on her ladder. “This is my seventh edition,” she said. “It’s fantastic for the town of Les Sables d’Olonne,”, said. “(Francois) Gabart is my favourite to win but it depends on many things. Samantha (Davies) is also so impressive.”
Just one person appeared disinterested; a man from Portugal walking against the tide - but then it’s a while since Vasco de Gama was at the top of his game.
The only thing better than the start in the canal, of course, is the finish and the tumult that greets those blinking their way back into the light and civilization after months in isolation. But there is much work to do, and nearly 30,000 miles of ocean to cover, before they can think of that.