Vendée Globe gets into blood of skippers

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Skippers start the seventh edition of the Vendée Globe, the solo, nonstop, round-the-world yacht race, in western France.

LES SABLES D'OLONNE, France -- This quadrennial race gets under a skipper's skin and stays there, a permanent, subcutaneous layer of exotic salt. The best single-handed sailors obsess about getting to the start of the Vendée Globe. Then they obsess about finishing, and keep returning until they do. Then they obsess about how much better they might perform next time, with a newer boat, cannier tactics, a little better luck. Rare is the skipper who isn't tempted to tempt fate again.

Witness Great Britain's Alex Thomson, whose first two tries fell short, the second almost as soon as it began. Witness France's Vincent Riou, who won the race in 2004 and has nothing to prove, yet is back four years after likely sacrificing his title defense to rescue another skipper. Ask Rich Wilson, who became the second of only two Americans ever to finish the race in 2008 and, at age 62, hasn't ruled out trying again.

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Like most Vendée skippers Saturday, Samantha Davies had the aura of a tuned-up thoroughbred restless in the gate.

Wilson's 121-day journey around the world, which included a rib-cracking fall that hampered his movement for a month, was dedicated to an educational mission. "After I got back, I thought I might go play for the Patriots just to take an afternoon off,'' said Wilson, of Marblehead, Mass., a former math teacher and defense analyst with degrees from Harvard and MIT. "They'd keep knocking me down, and I'd keep getting up.'' And like all past Vendée skippers, Wilson doesn't go unrecognized in this port town; one restaurant patron hauled out a photo of the two of them taken four years ago and asked if he'd pose for another.

The Vendée Globe gets into the blood of a lot of people who track it from the shore, too. More than half a million visited the fleet moored in the inner harbor for the past three weeks. When the 20 boats cast off one by one Saturday morning under blustery skies, the jetties along the channel leading to the ocean were so dense with spectators in multicolored raingear that from a distance the gray stone looked piled high with confetti. More onlookers packed balconies and hung out of windows. Some had no hope of an unobstructed view but stood on cars and craned their necks anyway just to see the disembodied top of a mast float by.

Emotions were complex on the departure dock. These skippers inspire confidence. Their talent and resourcefulness are beyond dispute. Millions of dollars have been invested in their safety. As part of qualifying, their boats have to be deliberately flipped to show they can be righted again. Their loved ones can talk to them periodically and see them almost daily via video blog.

But there was still an undertone of urgency in the traditional double-cheek kisses exchanged with sponsors and crew and family and a tangible poignancy as each dock line was unfastened. It is a romantic ritual, or at least as romantic as farewell can be in a fishbowl. The crush of media alongside Saveol, piloted by British skipper Samantha Davies, was so intense that her father, Paul, wrapped a protective arm around his wife and politely but pointedly asked a cameraman not to push her into the water.

Like most Vendée skippers Saturday, Davies had the aura of a tuned-up thoroughbred restless in the gate. Early in the week, she spoke of wanting to get a better view of Cape Horn on her way past this time and how she looked forward to the wild water beyond. "I think all sailors, if you could be transported to the Southern Ocean for six hours and then come home and take your shower, we'd do it,'' she said.

Davies accommodated the hordes cordially, as she has all week, and granted last-minute sound bites with boyfriend Roman Attanasio -- a world-class sailor himself -- at her side. He will care for their 14-month-old son with support from Davies' parents and a nanny for the next three months as Davies attempts to round the three great land's-end capes of Africa, Australia and South America before heading home.

If Davies has her way, her last steps on solid ground for some time came when she spontaneously hopped onto the dock to embrace Thomson, whose boat, Hugo Boss, was next door. Thomson, in turn, hailed Italian-French skipper Alessandro Di Benedetto, a popular favorite because of his cinematic good looks and valiant escapades, such as circumnavigating the globe in a 21-foot boat with a mast he repaired alone en route. "Be safe!" Di Benedetto called out from the deck of his 14-year-old boat, one of the oldest in the race.

The bonds between the skippers in this race are tight square knots of pugilism, empathy and respect. Six years ago in a different race, fierce, laconic British veteran Mike Golding veered off course and plowed through a storm in the Southern Ocean to rescue Thomson from his sinking ship; two men who had little love lost between them cried in each other's arms. Golding planned to drop his rival off and resume racing, but his mast promptly broke and they both wound up on shore.

In 2008, then-defending Vendée Globe champion Vincent Riou diverted to save fellow Frenchman Jean Le Cam after the latter capsized. Riou's mast snapped the next day, but he was ultimately awarded a shared third place in recognition of his "assistance provided,'' the blasé code words for what skippers know they can expect of each other in crises.

Bruce Schwab, whose 2004 finish made him the first American to accomplish the feat, is one former skipper content to watch. But he will never be a stranger in Les Sables d'Olonne. The townspeople, who knew he'd run out of chocolate during the race, showered him with it when he returned after 109 days. He has several lasting friendships among the locals.

The irreverent, guitar-playing Schwab -- a coastal Maine resident and amateur cyclocross racer -- raised $1.7 million of the $2.1 million budget for the foundation that supported his Ocean Planet boat. Two years later, he teetered on the brink of financial ruin before regaining his bearings and now runs his own alternative energy company. He said it wasn't sailing around the world that has made him sure he can do anything -- it was getting to the start line and surviving the aftermath.

Schwab's dark eyes gleam when he talks about the race. "There's something in the Vendée Globe for everybody,'' he said. "Whether it's pure love of competition and tactics, or technology -- these boats are incredibly complex machines, almost like spaceships -- or the fact that almost everybody in the race will have to do something amazing or heroic. It's a bottomless pit of content. You don't have to be a sailing fan at all.''

Smooth passage is never guaranteed in the Vendée Globe, and true to form Saturday, one skipper fell behind before the gun fired. France's Bertrand de Broc collided with a support raft on the way to the line, punctured the hull of his boat and had to return to port for what appeared to be an overnight repair. Five boats drifted across the start line before the official stroke of 1:02 p.m. and were forced to turn around for a do-over.

But the rest of the boats hopped on a brisk westerly wind of 12 to 14 knots, white wakes feathering out behind them. There was no immediate threat of turbulence like the curtain-raising 2008 storm that damaged nine boats, forcing four to withdraw and five more to make repairs in Les Sables d'Olonne before continuing.

The inflatable rafts and other spectator vessels slowly peeled away, leaving the 60-foot boats to their own regatta. A Swiss, a Spaniard and a French skipper forged ahead. Before long, they'll lose sight of each other.

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