We invented it, but can we win it...


Vendee Brits Will the British wrest the solo yacht racing crown from French hands?

It’s a humbling fact that most of the world’s best-loved sports were invented by Brits. Football, Rugby, tennis, cricket, golf, boxing – the list goes on. And it is genuinely humbling because the world has been teaching us how to play them ever since.

Perhaps it was umbrage at this inability to master the sports we invented that inspired us to seek out ever more unpleasant, uncomfortable, dangerous, even lunatic challenges, in the hope that the rest of the world would leave us to them? In some cases, the world has done just that. Cheese-rolling, bog-snorkling and Morris dancing are all fine examples of daft British ideas whose parochial charm remains unmolested by popular appreciation.

Others, however, caught on in heart-sinking fashion. Mountaineering, for instance. Climbing mountains for fun, or ‘because they’re there’ is not, on the face of it, an especially sane pastime but, since the Alpine Club was founded in London in 1857, the sport seems to have developed international appeal. Likewise solo yacht racing.

In 1959, Blondie Hasler and a few devil-may-care friends, Francis Chichester among them, decided to race singlehanded across the Atlantic, from Plymouth to New York. In 1960, the start gun fired and solo yacht racing was born. It was a gentlemanly affair (Chichester ‘arrived’ first in 40 days, winning the half crown Hasler had wagered) and there was enough camaraderie and enthusiasm for the sport for a regular race to be scheduled.

On the next running in 1964, Eric Tabarly, a young officer in the French Navy, streaked across, leaving the British swirling in his wake and gnawing reflectively on their pipestems. Tabarly was awarded the Legion d’Honneur and the race became known, with crushing irony, as the Transat Anglais.

Later that decade, the Brits bid again to reclaim their sport but upping the ante to utterly madcap, hitherto impossible levels: a singlehanded non-stop race around the world. Robin Knox-Johnson won the Golden Globe in 1969, but not without debate. The argument is: would the hard-charging, spiritual-bordering-on-unhinged Frenchman Bernard Moitessier have overtaken him in the Atlantic had he not decided to ‘save his soul’ by sailing around the world again? It rages to this day.

Less than two decades later, the French appropriated the singlehanded race around the world and called it the Vendée Globe. There have been five editions since the first began in 1989 and all of them have been won by a Frenchman. The Brits were given heart in 2000-01 when the phenomenal Ellen Macarthur came second, the youngest ever skipper and the fastest ever woman to sail solo around the world, but the French remained unassailed.

Fast forward to 2008, to Port Olona in Les Sables d’Olonne on France’s Atlantic coast. A record breaking fleet of 30 yachts is assembled, and it includes no less than seven Britons, 23 per cent of the fleet and the largest ever British contingent.