The start of the Vendee Globe Race is destined to send a shiver down the spine of even the most salt-hardened sailor. The French know how to give the skippers a proper send off too, and crowds flock to see the weather-beaten men and women as they embark on a race that is as much a battle with themselves as it is with their competitors, as much about control as is about speed and is probably the biggest challenge any human being can face.

Vendee Globe 2016 start - photo-vincent-curutchet-dppi

The fleet of 29 Open 60s start the epic race. Photo Vincent Curutchet/DPPI/Vendee Globe.

As is frequently pointed out, more people have climbed Everest than have sailed singlehanded around the world. The Vendee Globe race is non-stop, the skippers in charge of high speed, 60ft racing machines day and night until they reach the finish line. Every competitor is a hero and somehow, even thought they all want to win, they are all also comrades as they navigate their way through the world's most challenging oceans.

This year's start from Les Sables D'Olonne in France's Vendee region was no different. The crowds were as big as ever, the characters lining up as diverse and heroic and the anticipation at the stories to be written just as keen. With more than 300,000 spectators lined up along the harbour entrance channel in Les Sables d'Olonne and more than a thousand boats out on the water around the start area

So as the race begins to unfold who are the key characters and where are our eyes looking most closely?

Vendee Globe 2016 entries

Entry numbers are up to 29 for 2016 (from 20 in 2012) but the increase has come largely from French skippers, who account for 21 of the entries. However, here are 10 different nationalities from four continents among the 29 entrants, a record in the race's history. Four countries (New Zealand, the Netherlands, Ireland and Japan) and two continents (Australasia and Asia) will be present for the very first time.

While there are plenty of rookies attempting their first Vendee Globe, five skippers will be competing in their fourth race, and six in their third. The 2016-2017 line-up also brings together the youngest competitor in the history of the race (Switzerland's Alan Roura, 23) and the eldest (America's Rich Wilson, aged 66).

Hugo Boss aerial Photo Jean-Marie Liot/DPPI/Vendee Globe.

Alex Thomson's Hugo Boss is one of the cutting edge speed machines competing in the 2016 edition of the race. Photo Jean-Marie Liot/DPPI/Vendee Globe.

British Vendee Globe 2016 hopes

British hopes lie, for this edition, on just one sailor: Alex Thomson. This contrasts with recent editions of the race when multiple British sailors have been on the entry list (see Three British skippers take on the Vendee Globe 2012).

Thomson, who finished third in the last race (see A thrilling third for Alex Thomson in the Vendee Globe) has a good chance of being in the hunt for the race win, which has so long eluded him. He is one of six highly experienced, top skippers who will be racing the latest design of boats equipped with foils, which are expected to have a speed edge, although they may have a disadvantage upwind and in lighter airs.

Armel Le Cléac’h, who has finished second in the last two Vendée Globes has a foil-fitted boat, as does Sébastien Josse, who led the 2008-9 race at various times before rudder damage put him out of the race. Jean Pierre Dick, who finished fourth in the last race and has won the Transat Jacques Vabre and two Barcelona World Races has foils, as do Jéremie Beyou and Vendee rookie Morgan Lagravière.

Meanwhile, 2004-5 Vendee Globe race winner Vincent Riou is the only previous winner in the race, but he has opted for a conventional set up.

One skipper, Spain's Didac Costa, is sadly already out of the race, due to an ingress of water and an electrical problem. Many others are sure to fall by the wayside in this marathon of a race that is definitely about getting to the finish as much as getting there quickly.

Written by: Gael Pawson
Gael Pawson is the editor of Yachts & Yachting Magazine and the founder of Creating Waves. A keen racer, she has sailed all her life, and started writing about the subject whilst studying journalism at university. Dinghies and small keelboats are her first loves, but she has cruised and raced a huge variety of boats in locations across the world.