Addicted skippers of the forthcoming Vendée Globe are scourgingly honest about this brutal race

This morning in Paris the preliminaries of the Vendée Globe solo round the world race began with a packed press conference.

This hardest, cruellest of races, run only once every four years, is a feverishly anticipated sporting event in France. A frisson of celebrity crackles like an invisible force field around the 20 skippers due to take part.

“This is the hardest sporting event in the world,” Britain’s Alex Thomson asserted. Hard for anyone to make comparisons, but in its demands of the human body and spirit this is a monster of a race. The conditions can be brutal, the competition is unremitting and it’s a emotional battlefield.

It’s tough to find sponsorship as well, which is why after the boom of 29 entries four years ago the race has settled back to its historic average.

There is something about doing the Vendée Globe that borders on compulsion. This gives the race an indestructible quality. It’s a rare skipper who either does not return for more, or try their damnedest to.

A whopping 85 per cent this time are what you might call repeat offenders. Five have been in the game so long they have accidentally turned the corner on 50.

The Vendée Globe has become its own self-perpetuating hall of fame, where specialised knowledge, experience and maturity have ratcheted up to a quite heady level.

King of the veterans are Mike Golding (GBR) and Dominique Wavre (SUI), both preparing for their 4th Vendée Globe. That represents 16 years each of single-minded dedication to the ambition of grasping a historic 1st, something that has only ever been achieved by a French sailor.

I ask Golding, now 52, if this could be his best chance? Scourgingly honest, he says he thinks not.

“No, not really. Annoyingly, I think my best shot has been,” he says.

“It’s hard to be on this side of the race and not feel that with so many better boats and faster sailors. I have to look back at 2004, and 2000 to be honest, and say I had my best chances then.”

“But I’m feeling very strong,” Golding adds quickly. “I’ve got a well tried boat, we’ve had an expensive refit, I’m in the gym most days. I have the ability to keep going and driving, which is what distinguishes the men from the boys. I do, in my heart of hearts, think I can win.”

Fellow Briton Alex Thomson has become a circumnavigation addict as well. This will be his seventh round the world race and his third time on the Vendée Globe start line.

This is the one that has crushingly eluded him – he has twice failed to finish – and is the one he craves. “I must finish this time,” he says with feeling. “Not for my family, my sponsor or my team, but for me.”

Of the dozen more who have come back again and again, another notable is Bertrand de Broc. Asked about his views on the race he turned serious and replied: “I can’t under-estimate the undertaking.”

How could he? When he first took part 20 years ago he was caught by the mainsheet during an accidental gybe and had to sew part of his tongue back on.

The Vendée Globe throws up horror stories of injury and privation, coupled with moments of brilliant ingenuity. It attracts a certain sort of problem solver, and into this category one must put Samantha Davies.

Equipped with a solid racing background, a 4th place in last Vendée Globe and the intelligence and application that come with a degree in engineering from Cambridge, she ought to be a better bet than she is on paper.

Sam has had to struggle to harness together a group of French sponsors (she failed to raise a British backer, which she says is “disappointing and annoying as I still want to represent Britain”) and is racing one of the older boats.

She has also lagged behind in preparations after giving birth to her first child last autumn. “This boat [Savéol] is more physical than Roxy,” she says, “and I have less muscle because I couldn’t go straight into weight training. I’ve lost weight through sailing and breast feeding. So when the race begins I won’t be there yet. That’s realistic.

“But I’m quite confident it will come back after the first few weeks. And I’m happy to be on the outside of the lead group as I won’t fall into the trap of going pedal to metal and forgetting the race is three months long.”

Even having won this race, solo sailors don’t seem to get their fill of the Vendée. Having won once, Michel Desjoyeaux returned to claim a second victory in 2008.

His protégé Vincent Riou, also a previous winner, is back to give it another shot. Riou, a quiet man and the most pellucid of a very colourful bunch of individuals, deserves to be placed squarely in the role of race favourite.

The difficulty with the Vendée Globe, though, is the haunting array of pitfalls and potential disasters that come inescapably from being a non-stop, solo race round the world race. That the unexpected will happen is considered a given.

Skippers may spend years preparing minutely for this, but everyone mentions luck. They have to have it.

Looking at the 19 men and one woman lined up for the race, Luc Talbourdet, chairman of the IMOCA class, says matter-of-factly: “Historically, only 10 of them will finish.”

Which means that you can add a coda to the the maxim that to finish first, first you have finish. To win the Vendée Globe, chances are you’d have to do it more than once. Alex Thomson is right: this really could be the world’s hardest sporting challenge.

The skippers

Jérémie Beyou – Maître Coq
Arnaud Boissières – AKENA Verandas
Louis Burton – Bureau Vallée
Bertrand de Broc – Votre Nom Autour du Monde avec EDM Projets
Tanguy de la Motte – Initiatives-Coeur
Kito de Pavant – Groupe Bel
Alessandro di Benedetto – Team Plastique
Samantha Davies – Savéol
Jean-Pierre Dick – Virbac Paprec 3
François Gabart – Macif
Mike Golding – Gamesa
Marc Guillemot – Safran
Jean Le Cam – SynerCiel
Armel Le Cléac’h – Banque Populaire
Vincent Riou – PRB
Javier Sansó – Acciona
Bernard Stamm – Cheminées Poujoulat
Alex Thomson – Hugo Boss
Dominique Wavre – Mirabaud
Gutkowski Zbigniew – Energa