Whilst on an international scale in sailing circles, races such as the Whitbread and America’s Cup may be better known, if you have not been to the start of the Route du Rhum you have not experienced a yacht race that is a real national event. In St.Malo, France this week, 33 skippers are busy preparing their yachts for the start of one of France’s top 5 sporting events – and the whole nation is watching. Its estimated that more than a million people will have physically set eyes on the impressive fleet of single-handed mulithulls and monohulls. And just about every form of media and journalist in France will have posted a story or two. The start will be televised on most channels and 2 hours of live coverage. It is impossible to find a single boat in the region to watch the start in – they were sold out months ago – its even rumoured that tickets are changing hands at more than 100 pounds just to be on the water at the start.

17 multihulls and 16 monohulls will be on the start line at 1302 this Sunday for the 6th Route du Rhum – 4000 miles of hard sailing from St.Malo in northern France to Guadaloupe in the French Antilles. The race was created 20 years ago, as a reaction to the British decision to limit the size of yachts allowed to compete in the OSTAR race from Plymouth. Whilst size is now limited to 60 foot in this race as well, the boats are as fast as the bigger boats of the past. The record for the race is 14 days for the multis and interestingly only one day more for the monos.

Whilst the fleet is predominantly French, two Brits are on the start line – representative of the growing professionalism and competitiveness of British Solo scene at the top of the sport. They will be hoping to follow up Mike Goldings recent leg 1 win in the Around Alone, currently on stopover in Cape Town.

If you can fight your way through the crowds to the boats, you will find Ellen MacArthur and her team making the finishes touches to ‘Kingfisher’. Well, you might first find Ellen busy interviewing or signing autographs – an almost continuous process! Despite a relatively short period of preparation for the boat, Pete Goss’ former Open 50 Aqua Quorom, has undergone an amazing transformation in the past week. With the support of Goss Challenges from whom the boat was chartered, Team Kingfisher have done a great job to make her ready for the start – despite less than perfect weather.

“Everyone has been working very hard for a few weeks now – but Kingfisher is ready to go. Ready to win her class. I feel very at ease with her, and have been busy learning all the systems onboard. With Andrew Cape (Whitbread navigator), we are now working through the weather and strategy. The outlook for the start is upwind in moderate breeze – which should suit us compared with some of the bigger untried 60s such as the swing rig Sodebo – skippered by Raphael Dinelli – who of course was saved by Pete in the Southern Ocean on this very boat during the Vendee Globe in 97.”

Despite the pressure of the media, the crowds and the final lists of preparations, MacArthur is relaxed and eager to get out on the Ocean racecourse. “This is the next stepping stone for me for the Vendee Globe in the year 2000. I’ve sailed almost 12,000 miles offshore this year on 3 different Open 50s. We all feel really good about Kingfisher”

Main competition for Ellen in Class II is Guadaloupe RFO, skippered by Victor Jean-Noel – who has recently purchased Giovanni Soldini’s former Open 50, Telecom Italia / Kodak. But both skippers are aiming to beat some of the bigger 60s as well.

The path to St.Malo may have been fast and hard work for MacArthur – but there have been many other stories. Two yachts never made it – one sunk mid-Atlantic after a collision with an unidentified object, and the Open 60 Coyote that has spent much of the last 2 years in the UK with Josh Hall (Gartmore), ended up on the rocks off Cherbourg. Most tragic was the loss of a TV cameraman