There are 400,000 boats racing round the world right now, driven by some heroic feats of self-sacrifice


Did you know there are over 400,000 boats racing round the world right now?

Not for real, of course – that could be a worrying maritime problem, especially with the number who’ve given up and abandoned derelict yachts – but out in the virtual world. Because that’s roughly the number of entrants in Virtual Regatta’s Vendée Globe race (280,000 competitors) and in the virtual Volvo Ocean Race (around 120,000).

Apparently many, possibly most, of these racers aren’t real-life sailors, which is quite encouraging. That’s a whole new demographic, and I can see some potential there.

I’m not a virtual racer myself (too short an attention span), but I’m told that the most successful skippers are obsessively devoting themselves to the game for hours every day, not just trimming and changing sails with every 12-hour weather forecast. Others have formed a syndicate so there are regular watch changes to deal with varying conditions.

The keenly competitive have also parted with real money for virtual autopilots or ‘auto sail repair’ packages.

But if the developers are smart at extracting cash, the gamers can be, too. Rumour is that there’s been a little black market in virtual boats being traded by those who’ve diligently worked their boats up the rankings and then listed them for sale on eBay. How very enterprising.

I’m dying to meet the winning skipper. In the virtual Vendée Globe, he (or she, but I strongly suspect it’s a he) is only a few hundred miles behind the real-life position of Michel Desjoyeaux who, after all, has a clearly unfair advantage in being paid to do this 24 hours a day.

How tough this race must be for the virtual leaders. Think of all those sleepless nights, the stress, the physical challenges of hunching over a computer for three months. Imagine their lonely Christmas vigil. Not to mention the nutrition problems: just how much weight have they put on since the start?

Are they looking forward to finishing and being reunited with friends and family at long last? Presuming, of course, that they have not all long gone.