The Globe Challenge solo sailboat race around the world began Sunday in high winds, high seas and high spirits.
More than 300,000 spectators turned out to watch the start of the four-month, 25,000-nautical-mile race. The crowd and traffic were dense, despite a decision by police to close all roads into town shortly after dawn--hours before the scheduled 3:00 p.m. start.
The throng jammed the tops of the walls that line the channel into this Medieval fishing port.
Three thousand more onlookers hung on in boats ranging from inflatables to French warships as they rolled and plunged in the choppy sea.
Spectators on shore cheered and blew car horns as each of the 13 boats, including one flying the American flag, was towed by a fishing boat to the starting area five miles offshore.
The loudest cheer went up for Philippe Jeantot as his Credit Agricole was towed out. Jeantot, twice winner of the BOC Challenge around the world solo race, chose Les Sables as his home port five years ago.
The start was delayed 16 minutes while officials waited for the sailboats to thread their way through the spectator boats to the starting line.
Even then the confusion was overwhelming. Mike Plant of Newport, R.I., aboard his 60-foot Duracell, radioed the committee boat for clarification of the race committee's start intentions. "What's going on?" he demanded. Eric Taberly, France's most famous sailor, finally fired the starting gun at 3:16 and the fleet straggled across the line with double and triple-reefed manes and spaysails.
Despite the shortened sail, the boats, all 60-footers, quickly picked up speed and were doing 10 knots as they headed east toward the town. The course was selected to treat the thousands of spectators to the site of the racers wheeling around a mark off the beach and sailing past the resort hotels and homes that line the esplanade before turning southwest into the cold Atlantic might.
In a race that will last four months, it is irrelevant who crossed the line first. But the handicappers couldn't help noting that Felippe Poupon aboard a catch Fleury Michon was five boat lengths ahead of Credit Agricol at the first mark. They also noted that Poupon seemed to be having no trouble controlling his complicated boat. Sitting at the wheel, he looked as relaxed as if he were out for a drive in the country.
In front of Plant was Guy Barnardin, 44, aboard his boat, Okay. Bernardin, who last year was stopped twice at Cape Horn in attempts at breaking the clipper ship record of 89 days from New York to San Francisco, was the last to sign up for this race.
Bernardin, a French-born naturalized American, said he was sailing under duel citizenship. But the race committee has him down as a French entrant.
The only other non-Frenchman in the race besides Plant, 37, is Bertie Reed, 46, of South Africa aboard Grinaker.
Perhaps, because they have bested the British in the solo racing arena, the French media give solo sailing events priority attention. Jeantot, 37, is a national hero, and Poupon, 34, is called by the French press the fastest sailor on earth. The title stems from his seven-day record crossing of the Atlantic west to east in a crewed catamaran.
The speculation that dominated the days before the race was how many and who would finish.
One observer, who knows most of the competitors and who himself has circumnavigated twice, speculated that only three out of the 13 would finish. He saw it as a human issue. He thought that the more professional among the French would recognize impossible conditions should they arise and back off. The less experienced, but fiercely determined might press on, when prudence dictated caution or withdrawal.
All the sailors were certain they were up to completing the race, and each said he considered his boat ready. But all were aware that rig or equipment failure were constant threats. Each knew that a $25 shackle could break and bring their mast down, and with it any chance of finishing an event that cost each of them and his sponsor up to $1 million or more.
Before the race started, the skippers protested to race officials and had four marks of the course deleted.
These were the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic, Marion Island in the Indian Ocean, and Auckland and Diego Ramirez islands in the Pacific.
The race organizers wanted to use these marks as points where photo boats and aircraft could record the racers for the media.
The solo sailors argued that the marks would force them to sail courses that were not as direct as they might choose.
The race committee agreed. Now, the only marks are the Canary Islands (where the boats will be photographed as they pass). From there, the boats must proceed around the world, leaving Antarctica to starboard, and Cape Horn to port.
In late March, just as winter releases its grip on this port, the first boat will appear on the southwest horizon to claim victory in what is, in terms of time and unrelieved effort, the world's longest race.