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Every four years, the Vendée Globe takes sailors around the world in scary-fast boats. This year, it’s the ultimate physically distanced sport – but that can be a hazard for racers caught in dangerous waters far from help

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Alexia Barrier's sailboat is shown on Nov. 26, her birthday, as she competes in the Vendée Globe, in which sailors race solo and non-stop around the world.Alexia Barrier/TSE-4myPlanet

Not all big-name sporting events have been crippled by the pandemic. The craziest of them all is in full swing, riveting a million fans around the world to their screens – me among them.

The event is the Vendée Globe sailboat race. Sailing races are usually plodding affairs, not much fun unless you are actually on the boat in a duel to the finish line (I raced sailboats in my youth). This race is different – big time.

The Vendée is a non-stop solo race around the world, covering about 44,000 kilometres in scary-fast boats. The rules are simple: You cannot seek help, and the moment you step on land you are disqualified. You can’t even pull up to another boat or ship for supplies or technical help. The skippers have to be navigators, mechanics, cooks, computer technicians, survival experts and medics – all at once.

You are entirely on your own, although a dazzling array of technology connects you to your home team on dry land, who supply weather analysis, navigation and repair advice, as well as mental and spiritual counselling.

The loneliness, the fatigue, the fear and the constant, terrible noise of the hull smashing into waves can be punishing.

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Race leader Charlie Dalin of France has encountered powerful storms and high seas.Charlie Dalin/Apivia

The skippers deliver a daily array of photos, videos and social-media messages, some of them harrowing, as their boats virtually fly through the air in gnarly seas. On Monday, race leader Charlie Dalin of France was facing wind gusts of 100 kilometres an hour and high seas, telling his Apivia racing team: “This is the biggest, most powerful storm I have had since the start.”

The boats are 60 feet long and made of carbon fibre. The most advanced among them have a hydrofoil sticking out their port and starboard sides, allowing the hulls to lift out of the water when the winds are strong. At that point, they are half-boat, half-airplane. The speeds are astonishing, with the bravest skippers pushing the boats to their limits and hitting 55 km/h or more at times, allowing them to cover 1,000 km on the best days.

At those speeds, the pressures on the boats are tremendous. Breakdowns, injuries and sinking are common – typically, almost half the starters don’t finish.

Already, the Vendée’s current edition has seen five skippers abandon the race; 28 are still in the game.

Three racers lost their lives in the event’s early editions, the last one being Gerry Roufs, a Montreal-born Canadian who went missing in savage winds somewhere near Point Nemo, the most remote spot in the South Pacific, in January, 1997. “The waves are not mere waves, they are the Alps,” he told the race directors.

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At top, Britain's Pip Hare has climbed into the boom of the ship. There are a record number of women taking part in the race this year, including Clarisse Cremer, bottom left, and Alexia Barrier, bottom right.Pip Hare/Medallia; Clarisse Cremer/Banque Populaire X; Alexia Barrier/TSE-4myPlanet

The Vendée’s inaugural race was in 1989 and was won by a Frenchman in 109 days. The race is held every four years and starts and finishes in the port of Les Sables-d’Olonne in the Vendée region of Atlantic France.

The course essentially follows the old clipper ship trading route – down the Atlantic, around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, through the Southern Ocean to the tip of South America, after which the fleet veers left and heads up the Atlantic to home.

The skippers in the current edition have had some magical and harrowing incidents.

Britain’s Pip Hare, one of a record six women in the race, this week told the Financial Times how she got “rained on by insects,” including dragonflies and beetles, in the Atlantic doldrums somewhere off Brazil. Other skippers showed videos of their boats surrounded by dolphins, images of stunning sunsets in the middle of nowhere – or of their boats virtually buried in waves as they seek shelter in their covered cockpits.

So far, the most dangerous incident occurred last week when the boat of Kevin Escoffier, a 40-year-old Frenchman, slammed into a wave at 50 km/h about 1,350 km southwest of Cape Town and simply “folded in half,” as he put it. He had just two minutes to jump into his inflatable life raft before the boat vanished below the waves.

He was rescued by fellow Frenchman Jean Le Cam, 61, the race’s most experienced competitor – he is on his fifth Vendée – whose boat was closest to Escoffier’s. Le Cam, a potential winner, lost valuable time but was happy to do it. In a way, he was paying back an old debt: In the 2008-09 edition of the race, his boat capsized 300 km off Cape Horn and he spent 16 terrifying hours trapped in the upside-down hull before he was rescued.

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Kevin Escoffier swims toward a French Navy vessel after his rescue by Jean Le Cam.Marine Nationale/Defense

Samantha Davies of Britain was forced out after her boat slammed into a UFO – unknown floating object – at high speed, causing structural damage. The impact propelled her into the bulkhead, giving her whiplash and a sore chest, which she wrapped in bandages.

In an emotional post on the Vendée website, she said: “I found myself in a flood of tears … I wasn’t even sure why I was crying – whether it was sadness for my boat and for my place in the race, or relief that my boat and I are safe?”

Fans are eating up the details. About 100,000 follow the race’s French and English Twitter feed, and 900,000 are registered for the online version, the Virtual Regatta, in which contestants – from the safety of their offices or living rooms – can challenge the real skippers by setting their own courses and tuning their sails according to weather conditions. The pandemic has made the computer game more popular than ever.

By midday Wednesday, the leaders faced another five or six weeks on the high seas. The top three were all Frenchmen: Dalin; Thomas Ruyant, who was about 450 kilometres behind; and Yannick Bestevan, who was about 675 kilometres behind the leader.

But with 28,000 kilometres to go for the leading skippers, the race was still wide open and some of the most dangerous seas lay ahead.

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