They Walk Among Us
By any modern day assessment, the twenty-nine men who will set off single handed around the world this coming Sunday on the Vendee Globe can be classed as superheroes. In days of yore they would have been regarded gods amongst men just for attempting a circumnavigation alone and unassisted. And, if they were Greek they would surely each have had an epic Homer poem written in their honour.
It’s well known that for many competitors just making it to the Vendee Globe start line often requires considerably greater effort and sacrifice than most regular people go through in their entire lives.
Whether they are part of the top flight of well-funded racers with their new foiling boats or one of the Corinthian adventurers set on testing themselves and their boats to the absolute limit, every one of the skippers who has assembled in the French port of Les Sables-d’Olonne this week has a unique story to tell about how he got there and what he hopes to achieve during his solo lap of the planet.
What is most surprising then - not to say utterly mystifying - about the latest crop of Vendee Globe skippers, is how downright ordinary they all look.
I mean, these guys are going to sea for two months or more alone, coping with sleep deprivation, loneliness, self-doubt, paranoia and general stress; to say nothing of having to deal with huge extremes of temperature and likely the very worst mother nature and the oceans can conspire to launch against them and their matchbox yachts in the lower latitudes.
Shouldn’t the ground should shake and we mere mortals cower in fear as these giants of the sailing firmament stride colossus-like in our midst? The stark reality is that you could easily pass any one of the sailors in the street without giving them a second glance for the sporting demi-gods they are.
To a man – and they are all guys this time around, unfortunately – none of them would look out of place buying flat pack furniture at the Les Sables-d’Olonne Ikea this coming Sunday instead of setting off to race alone around the world.
To be fair, that is not the case in Les Sables-d’Olonne or in fact in most of France where the sporting public has embraced the Vendee Globe almost to the same degree they do their national football, rugby teams or even the hallowed cyclists of the Tour De France. Past present and even some future Vendee Globe sailors are household names in France and some have even achieved celebrity status.
Irrespective of the weather, thousands queue in the Vendee Globe race village just for a chance to marvel at a close up view of the boats their heroes will adventure their way across the world’s oceans.
And if their boats attract that sort of attention, then you can easily believe that the skippers themselves are mobbed on sight by eager hoardes well-wishers and autograph hunters of all ages the moment they show their faces.
As normal and run-of-the-mill as the skippers may seem, there is one tell-tale that subtly marks all of them apart from the rest of us. It’s a hard to define combination of quiet reserve in their demeanour and an almost imperceptible glaze to their eyes that says mentally they have already set off on their odyssey.
As much as we should hail the VG skippers as superheroes, the truth is that they are just men attempting a superhuman challenge.
In an era where the world’s media dishes out a diet an endless stream of oftentimes artificially engendered drama for the masses to consume, the Vendee Globe stands virtually alone as a righteous test of man’s ability to push himself to the limits of endurance and fend for himself in the wild.
In the Vendee Globe the dangers are real, the skippers have little in the way of a safety net at their disposal and their survival is far from guaranteed. Their own fragile mortality is not lost on the skippers, nor on their support teams and their families who for the next two and a half months will track their every move from ashore.
This Sunday morning, after two weeks of inquisitive and enquiring crowds thronging the race village since it first opened, you will almost be able to hear a pin drop on the competitors’ pontoon as the skippers say their quiet and emotional goodbyes to friends and their close relatives.
The farewells will be all the more poignant after the tragic news last week of the loss of Chinese single-handed sailor Guo Chuan from his trimaran during a Pacific Ocean crossing record attempt which reverberated throughout the Vendee Globe community.
Chuan had aspirations of one day becoming the first Chinese Vendee Globe skipper and had visited Les Sables-d’Olonne only weeks before setting off on his final voyage.
Statistics suggest that less than half of the fleet will make it all the way around and that some will be eliminated on the first night or few days. The rest face a relentless and punishing war of attrition against the world’s oceans and weather systems until the glorious few walk among us in the mortal world once more sometime around the end of January next year.