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Why Vendee Globe Is Considered The World's Toughest Sailing Race

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The winner of what's considered the world's toughest sailing race is expected to cross the finish line later today after more than 2 1/2 months at sea. More people have been to outer space than have completed the Vendee Globe, a solo, round-the-world competition that starts and finishes in France. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley tells us more.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The Vendee Globe begins and ends in the French Atlantic coast region for which it is named and takes place every four years. Thirty-three sailors from nine nations started the current race, which began more than two months and 24,000 miles ago. Andi Robertson works for the organizers.

ANDI ROBERTSON: It really does test everything, from the ability to sail fast for long periods of time. It requires massive amounts of stamina because the sailors have to just sleep when they can. They normally sleep in intervals perhaps of between 15 minutes and an hour.

BEARDSLEY: Eight skippers have had to drop out of the race, including Frenchman Kevin Escoffier after he hit a storm a thousand miles off the Cape of Good Hope.

ROBERTSON: The bow of the boat - the nose of the boat went into a big, big wave and basically it just cracked in the middle, folded in half.

BEARDSLEY: Escoffier abandoned his broken boat. Fellow competitor Jean Le Cam came to the rescue.

ROBERTSON: He got there in a very big 35, 40 knot winds. It was extremely difficult. And he lost sight of them. And so Kevin then was at 11 1/2 hours in his life raft before Jean Le Cam found him again and took him on board.

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BEARDSLEY: They soon got a call from a fan in Paris.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Bonjour, President.

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: Bonjour.

BEARDSLEY: President Emmanuel Macron was riveted by the heroic rescue, as was the rest of France.

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MACRON: (Laughter).

BEARDSLEY: The Vendee Globe has a dedicated tracking site with four daily updates on the competitors' positions, speeds and rankings.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Through a daily podcast and videos, the sailors entertain their fans with experiences from the open sea. They're all connected by the Internet.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French). Woo-hoo (ph).

BEARDSLEY: Which is how I reached British skipper Miranda Merron, one of six women in the race.

MIRANDA MERRON: I am in the South Atlantic, having rounded the three great capes. Last one was - Cape Horn was six days ago.

BEARDSLEY: Merron says there's 6,000 miles to go, but she's relieved to be out of the Southern Ocean.

MERRON: There are a couple of storms where I felt pretty small and inconsequential and really quite frightened. Around the bottom of the planet, there's not much land. And so there's nothing to stop the storm tracks and the waves.

BEARDSLEY: This year's following is wider than ever, and not just in traditional seafaring nations like France and Britain. The Germans and Finns are embracing competitive solo sailing with their first-ever entries. Robertson says the pandemic also has more people tuning in.

ROBERTSON: The audience, the fans, if you like, were in the situation where they're locked down at home, and there's not too much other live sport going on.

BEARDSLEY: But this year's Vendee Globe is also the closest in history, says Robertson. The winner usually sails into the port town of Les Sables-d’Olonne, hundreds of miles ahead of the next competitor. This year, five skippers are battling it out across the finishing stretch in the Bay of Biscay with just a few miles between them. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.