Around the world in about 100 days
Around 300,000 people lined the harbour walls of the French port of Les Sables d'Olonne and nearby beaches as the sailors left the shore yesterday lunchtime and began to battle "lumpy" seas whipped by gusts of up to 50 knots in the Bay of Biscay.
The French have won the race, which is worth £120,000 this year, each time it has been run since 1989 but seasoned observers believe a Briton may go one better than Ellen MacArthur, who became a world sporting hero when she came second in the Vendée in 2000-01.
One of the 2008-09 crop, Dee Caffari, 35, from Hampshire, got off to a flying start yesterday. She had the honour of being first out from the pontoons, following a flotilla of fishing boats out to the starting area.
When the race began she was quickly into second place. Caffari resigned as a PE teacher in 2000 to become a professional sailor. Her previous experience of the Vendée was as a member of another competitor's shore crew. "My limited experience meant I was given the glamorous jobs like jumping in the freezing water and scrubbing the bottom of the boat," she said.
But since then Caffari has secured a place in the record books as the first woman to sail solo non-stop around the world "the wrong way" - against the prevailing winds and currents. "I can't wait to go racing with the best in the world," she said before the start.
Alex Thomson, was the next Briton to leave port. Three weeks ago he arrived at Les Sables d'Olonne with a gaping hole in the side of his boat and the mast on the bottom of the seabed two miles out after a collision with a French trawler.
Thomson, who is nicknamed the "Maverick", said he was just happy that he had not been killed and was choking back the tears as his father, Peter, cast his vessel off yesterday. "The realisation that he is gone now for 90 days is very hard but we just have to grin and bear it," said Peter Thomson.
Another British sailor, Brian Thompson, 46, spent a last few precious moments playing with his children, Genevieve, three, and Tristan, one, in the cockpit of his yacht. Family and friends have decorated the coachroof of the boat with messages, and the children have left their handprints to accompany him on what would be his first solo circumnavigation.
The race is arguably the most gruelling in any sport. Sailors get to sleep in snatches of only 20 minutes at a time as they face the Atlantic, the iceberg-strewn seas around Antarctica, round Cape Horn and struggle back to the finish at Les Sables in February. It is also very dangerous. A Briton, Nigel Burgess, died in the Vendee in 1992-93. Tony Bullimore famously survived for five days in the icy waters of Antarctica after capsizing before being rescued by the Australian navy.
The second British woman in this year's race, Cambridge graduate Sam Davies, 34, has been preparing for trouble by buying pig's trotters and practising sewing flesh in case she suffers a serious wound.
For other entrants getting the money together for the race has been paramount. Steve White, a 35-year-old father of four from Dorset, has remortgaged his home four times to raise the cash.
If Caffari had a dream start, one of the favourites, 48-year-old former firefighter Mike Golding, from Southampton, was less fortunate. Golding, who finished third in 2004-05, crossed the start line too soon and had to start again.
Ellen MacArthur said that all the preparation and the emotion of waving goodbye to loved ones would be forgotten.
"You're so busy on one of these boats, looking at the weather, changing the sails, trying to get some sleep. There's no time to reflect on 'Oh it's a long way round the world.' You are in the race. You are totally in the race."
Background to the race
No Britons entered the first Vendée Globe race in 1989-90 - all seven finishers were French. In the next race, in 1992-93, Briton Nigel Burgess died in the Bay of Biscay, probably after being knocked out and thrown overboard just four days into the race. In 1996-97, Pete Goss came seventh, completing the race in 126 days and also finding time to rescue Frenchman Raphaël Dinelli after his vessel capsized. But that race is best known for how Briton Tony Bullimore survived clinging to the underside of his capsized yacht before the Australian navy plucked him to safety. In 2001-02, there was glory for Britain when Ellen MacArthur , subsequently Dame Ellen, finished second and became a global superstar. Mike Golding, one of the favourites for the current race, came seventh in 2000-01 and third in 2004-05. This year, seven of the 30 competitors are British, and there is a great chance of a UK winner.