Crowds packed the race village and lined the walls surrounding the Bassin des Chalutiers to watch the emotional goodbyes as the skippers said farewell to their family and friends. Following a moving departure ceremony held on the steps of the VELUX House the five impressive Eco 60s left the dockside at 1pm to rapturous applause.
More than 400 spectator boats carrying thousands of fans, friends and family of the skippers and media accompanied the fleet out to the start area. A host of special guests were among the spectators including Maxime Bono, the Deputy Mayor of La Rochelle, and Jack Dillenbourg, the Mayor of Sport for La Rochelle. Race veterans including Isabelle Autissier, Jean Luc Van Den Heede, Thierry Dubois and Bernard Stamm as well as round the world sailor Nick Moloney joined race chairman Sir Robin Knox-Johnston to watch the action from the water.
After months of build-up, the starting gun finally sounded at 4pm and the four-yearly race, known as The Ultimate Solo Challenge, began. The 2010/11 edition of the race is the eighth its 28-year history. Polish ocean racer Zbigniew 'Gutek' Gutkowski showed his aggressive style of racing honed during years of top level dinghy racing hitting the start line right as the starting gun fired. Although Gutek's yacht Operon Racing is the oldest boat in the fleet, it is a previous Vendée Globe winner and he led the fleet to the first mark, south east of the Ile de Ré.
American sailor Brad Van Liew crossed the line in second place and chased hard, overtaking Gutek after the first mark. Brad has already completed the VELUX 5 OCEANS twice, winning class two of the race in 2002. His yacht Le Pingouin also has a claim to fame, built by legendary French solo sailor Catherine Chabaud for the 1998 edition of the Vendée Globe.
Canadian Derek Hatfield, Belgian Christophe Bullens and Briton Chris Stanmore-Major regularly swapped places as they raced into the Bay of Biscay. However places are irrelevant at such an early stage of the race - the sailors have more than 7,000 nautical miles to go before they reach the first stopover in Cape Town, South Africa.
Christophe Bullens will sail a 48-hour qualification passage before returning to La Rochelle to carry out final preparations for the race. He already qualified in his yacht Five Oceans of Smiles but she was cruelly dismasted en route to La Rochelle three weeks before the race start. Christophe's team worked tirelessly to find another Eco 60 to race on and with just days to go he acquired Artech 60, now renamed Five Oceans of Smiles too. Christophe is expected to set sail again from La Rochelle on Thursday.
About the Race
The VELUX 5 OCEANS, run by Clipper Ventures PLC, is the longest running solo round the world race, and has 28 years of rich heritage as the BOC Challenge and then the Around Alone. This edition features five ocean sprints over nine months. After heading from La Rochelle to Cape Town, the race will then take in Wellington in New Zealand, Salvador in Brazil and Charleston in the US before returning back across the Atlantic to France.