Almost half a million visitors have come to see the Vendée Globe boats - it's the human stories that are the draw
This is but a small snapshot of the scene here in the Les Sables d’Olonne, an out-of-season holiday town on the Biscay coast of France that has been besieged by sailing fans.
The scale of interest is incredible. As of last Sunday, 485,000 people had come to town to walk along the pontoons, see the boats and skippers about to set off on the Vendée Globe solo round the world race, hunt autographs or even just touch the boats of their heroes.
The French audience is quite different to that elsewhere in Europe in that it’s a complete cross-section. They are not necessarily sailors; they are people inspired by maritime tradition and who regard the solo sailors who go out to test themselves against it as romantic heroes.
The story being told is much bigger than the narrow sports narrative that is the norm elsewhere. It’s unapologetically human and the atmosphere is that it feeds on, and in turn nourishes, revolves round the human stories of the skippers: their struggles to get to the start; their past disappointments; hopes for this race; their families; their sacrifices.
And the evidence is right here that the audience has grown significantly. Over 1 million people are expected to come to see the start this weekend and many millions more will watch it live on TV. It’s almost like World Cup fever.