By CHRIS MUSELER.
LES SABLES D’OLONNE, France — A tear appeared at the corner of Morgan Lagravière’s eye as he was interviewed before the start of his first Vendée Globe, a solo, nonstop around-the-world race.
By the time he was halfway out the mile-long channel to the North Atlantic on his Team Safran Imoca 60 racer, roars from the 350,000 people gathered along the natural amphitheater overwhelmed him. He slid to the deck, crouched with head hung, and broke down in tears.
The start of the Vendée Globe, which takes place every four years, is a phenomenon that rivals the world’s largest sporting events. Bars along the channel were opened at 4 a.m. as visitors filled the streets, singing and chanting in the 40-degree darkness. By dawn, the people were 10 deep along the sea walls for a mile on either side.
More than 1.5 million people, largely French families and school children, poured through the race village here on the west coast of France over three weeks to catch a glimpse of the 29 skippers and the radical 60-foot boats that will take them to the most remote areas on the planet.
When the race began on Nov. 6, the crowds cheered as each boat slowly motored through the channel, the skipper playfully starting an uproar with his arms. Four hours later, the last of the support boats and television helicopters peeled away, and the sailors were left alone to negotiate the solitude and challenges of the open ocean.
They are facing perhaps the most dangerous edition of the race since its inception in 1989.
For the first time, Lagravière and six other skippers are using hydrofoils, which can lift the boats nearly out of the water and reach speeds of more than 30 miles per hour. Designers said these boats would sail an average of three to four knots faster along the 28,000-mile course.
If the new Imoca 60 designs, known as foilers, hold together, François Gabart’s record of 78 days, set in the previous race, is predicted to fall.
The additional stresses the foils are placing on the skippers and the boats have forced some to wear helmets and body armor when below deck to protect against the violent motion of these avant-garde designs.
The new boats are untested in the three-month race. Skippers including the British sailor Alex Thomson, considered one of the fastest in the fleet and the current leader, know the risks well. Though he was third in the last race, he failed to finish the previous two. To reduce this risk, he and other teams have installed sensor alarms that will sound when the boats become overstressed at speed.
On Thursday, Lagravière shed tears of despair as he became the third skipper, and first foiling boat, to retire from the race. His boat hit what he labeled an “unidentified floating object” that tore off more than half of one of the boat’s two rudders.
Entering the weekend, all but one of the new-generation boats were still filling the top five places as the leaders hurtled past the Cape of Good Hope. The top nonfoiling boat, PRB, whose skipper is the former race winner Vincent Riou, became the second retirement of the race on Tuesday.
Proving the dominance of the new boats, Thomson broke the 24-hour world speed record for this class last Saturday, covering 535.34 nautical miles. He rounded the southern tip of Africa on Thursday, beating the race record from the start to the Cape by five days, even though one of his foils broke a week ago while the boat was averaging more than 27 m.p.h.
Since the first race, about half the competitors have finished. There have been deaths and daring midocean rescues.
Illuminating the close bond and respect between the competitors representing 10 nations, the veteran skipper Kito de Pavant held the head of a rival in his hands before the start, kissed his cheek and embraced him, closing his eyes and sharing a final supportive message.
This extreme race is distinctly French.
“There is a huge public love and intrigue and fascination in particularly about single-handed sailing here,” said Mark Turner, chief executive of the Volvo Ocean Race.
Turner said this interest went back to the solo sailing exploits of the Frenchman Éric Tabarly when he won the 1964 Observer Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race, a feat for which he received the rank of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
Today the race is considered the pinnacle of solo ocean racing and is mainly sponsored not by a corporation but by the region of Vendée, contributing to its longevity and prominence in the country.
Gabart said the attraction of the Vendée Globe was the shared experience.
“Everyone looks at the sea, and there is a feeling of freedom,” he said the day before the start. “This is not only about sports. This is something more universal. Something more human about going on a boat and going away.”