Pride, sadness and trepidation show as British skippers leave to race round the world

Emotions ran over this morning as the 30 Vendée Globe skippers left the pontoons for the race start. They face at least three months alone at sea and the sombre and quiet atmosphere as boats left at four minute intervals emphasised the difficulties and dangers they will face.

Dee Caffari was first to leave in Aviva. Her departure was a cheerful affair and she was given a tumultuous reception as she went through the entrance channel in Les Sables d’Olonne, cheered by hundreds of thousands of well-wishers. Although someone who was completely unknown in France a year ago, Dee is already a huge star here.

The next British sailor to slip his lines was Mike Golding. His leavetaking had an air of upbeat determination, but emotions were palpably running below the surface as he set off on his third Vendée Globe. His family was in tears.

Mike is a sailor who has had to do battle ceaselessly for everything he has achieved, and you could not help but feel the cumulative cost of that. Compared to the first-timers, his departure had a sharpness best described as the absence of innocence.

Just behind him Alex Thomson was not in a jokey mood. He looked emotional and very stressed, fretting about the lines as they were slipped despite all his shore crew. It seemed quite obvious that, with all the difficulties of the repair on Hugo Boss in the last two weeks, Thomson is far from relaxed. The stormy forecast and big seas anticipated after the start will be a great test of his nerves, and he knows it.

Jonny Malbon also looked sombre as Artemis Ocean Racing went off. For him and his boat, it literally is a case of going into the unknown. His neighbour Brian Thompson slipped out as cool as could be. Thompson is probably the most unflappable man in all of sailing, always measured and apparently serene whatever the situation.

A much more poignant and difficult departure was that of Steve White. The scenes round his boat Toe in the Water were reminiscent of ocean races 20 years ago, and something now virtually unseen in today’s big budget professional fleets – the pontoon was strewn with bags of clothes, repair gear and power tools as the last-minute jobs were finished in the nick of time.

With minutes to go White’s face fell visibly. He hugged his wife Kim, they were both in tears as the sadness of leaving his family, the stresses of so many financial hardships and difficulties, and finally the magnitude of what he is about to face struck home. If he experienced any joy at the moment of departure there was no sign of it; White looked like a soldier going over the top.

Finally, Sam Davies went off in happy, girly style. Her boat Roxy had bunches of flowers in the cockpit and she looked at ease and ready for what lies ahead as she left with smiles and waves.

The French organisers like to leave space and quiet for these emotions. They don’t drown them out with fanfares, public announcements or music. There is no other race start like it. It’s incredibly powerful stuff.