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LES SABLES D'OLONNE, France -- The hardest sailing race of all time has the simplest directions and the most straightforward rules. Samantha Davies, the lone woman skipper who on Saturday will start the three-month solo round-the-world test of skill, technology, fortitude and luck known as the Vendée Globe, knows them by heart. She's been this way before.
Leave Les Sables d'Olonne, heading south.
Keep Africa's Cape of Good Hope to port.
Keep western Australia's Cape Leeuwin to port.
Keep Antarctica to starboard.
Keep South America's Cape Horn to port.
Return to Les Sables d'Olonne, heading north.
Alone. Nonstop. No help allowed.
French skippers have won the previous six editions of the Vendée Globe, which is contested every four years, and 12 of this year's 20 starters are native sons. But regardless of nationality, anyone in this race is heroic in the eyes of a country utterly mad for single-handed sailing, which is considered as much art as competition. Stories of brilliant, improvised boat repairs and selfless rescues of fellow skippers in mortal peril are the pinch-hit home runs and Hail Mary passes of this sport, except that life and death really do hang in the balance.
Davies, 38, who is British, female and the mother of a 14-month-old boy, is an anomaly in the fleet only on paper. She was truly born and bred to belong in this elite company, and well-suited to a playing field where women compete on equal terms with men. Her paternal grandfather commanded a submarine during World War II. Her grandfather on the other side built powerboats. She was cruising with her father and mother before she can remember, and her parents, now retired, live full time aboard a custom-built wooden schooner. She met her boyfriend and the father of her child, Romain Attanasio, on the racing circuit. She has an engineering degree, preternatural calm and enormous passion.
There are far more similarities than differences between Davies and her male counterparts, even aside from her lighthearted but accurate observation this week that "We're all a little crazy." The skippers are collectively smart, methodical, entrepreneurial workaholics, Renaissance people who have to be comfortable with solitude but also figure out how to market their personalities to the public. Many of them ooze charisma, and several make the word "dashing" relevant again.
Davies, already an accomplished solo sailor when she started the Vendée Globe four years ago, earned respect by finishing fourth with a nearly incident-free, tactically savvy debut. It was especially impressive because she was at the helm of an "older" boat, while others had more modern engineering. Her current boat, like the previous one, is eight years old.
"I'd like to do better than last time, but it's not going to be easy," Davies told reporters this week. "I have a very capable, solid boat. I want to be proud of myself at the finish. I could finish eighth with the impression that I navigated three times better than last time. After that, it depends on who finishes in what kind of shape. I'm not conceding anything. I'm going to give it my all."
Last time around, Davies also proved herself adept at connecting with fans by producing a memorable series of video and text diaries throughout her 95-day journey.
Understated on land, Davies shed her inhibitions at sea. She danced on deck to Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," donned a Santa hat to display her freshly unwrapped Christmas presents and used a toy inflatable globe as a prop to show her location. She also documented some hair-raising moments, starting with her trip through a terrible storm in the Bay of Biscay between France and Spain that knocked four boats out in the first week of the 2008-09 race. The 27-second clip ended abruptly when a wave half-swamped her and the camera.
Davies owes her first name to her father's crush on "Bewitched" actress Elizabeth Montgomery, but there are no wiggle-your-nose shortcuts in her world. In a race where skippers say finishing is winning -- and really mean it -- the keys are risk management, optimizing a boat's capabilities without asking too much of her and balancing daring with prudence. All this while living in the shallow cabin of a 60-foot boat, enduring days of catnapping in place of true sleep, taking sea-spray showers, subsisting on freeze-dried food for the final few weeks and using a bucket as a toilet.
The measured confidence from having done that once will be priceless when Davies points the bow of Saveol, a lime-green-and-white boat that sports sails blooming with a fanciful palette of fuchsia, red, chartreuse and yellow toward the equator.
"Even the richest rookie in the fleet with the biggest sponsor can't buy the experience of having finished the Vendée," she said in a phone interview in October.
"I think the more the race goes on, the more your confidence builds, you sail your boat faster and faster, you get more and more used to the speed and the noise and the power -- the more I kept reminding myself, 'You've got to finish, you've got to finish, you've got to finish.' There were more and more boats behind me, and it was a reminder it is a really hard race, and you've got to use your seamanship and sometimes take your foot off the floor a little bit and slow down."
Winds on the Vendée Globe route can snap masts and fray sails; waves up to 30 or 40 feet deliver a cumulative pounding that has broken more than one "swinging," movable keel weighing several tons. Skippers encounter giant kelp, flying fish and icebergs. They also have interludes of serenity, like a night Davies experienced in the Southern Ocean. "The sky was black, but the breaking waves glowed with phosphorescence," she wrote. "It was magical, enhanced by solitude."
There's only one historical certainty about the Vendée Globe: Everyone who sets out intends to come full circle, and not everyone will.
Davies is part of a short but successful list of female skippers in the race. France's Catherine Chabaud was the first to finish, in 1996-97. British sailing icon Ellen MacArthur, at age 24, came in second four years later. Six of the seven women who have started the Vendée Globe have completed it once. They include Davies' friend and fellow British skipper Dee Caffari, who was sixth in 2008-09, when only 11 of the 30 starters finished.
In an event where the attrition rate has averaged 48 percent, is that a coincidence? Caffari doesn't think so.
"We laugh a lot that it's our ability to multitask, and we'll always see things through to the end," said Caffari, the only woman member of a club of five who have sailed solo the "wrong" way -- against prevailing winds -- around the world. "The unique environment of offshore sailing is that it's not all about being physically strong. It's about being tactically aware and strategically clever. It's a marathon of keeping your boat together and making everything work. I think it kind of allows us to play to our strengths of managing all these other factors and delivering a big package.
"We may have to change our sail a little bit earlier, but maybe because we don't have a massive ego making this push to the limit, we're having less damage."
Despite her pedigree, Caffari is a wistful spectator at this Vendée Globe, having been unable to assemble the sponsorship necessary for another campaign. "I'll miss having a girlfriend on the water," Davies said. "Joking around is not the same with the guys. I feel a lot of support from the public, being the only woman, but I'm a little bit sad for the ones who have looked and couldn't find a way to be here. There are women capable of doing as well or better than me."
The global economic slide is the major reason the number of boats is down by a third, from 30 to 20, from four years ago. There are no American skippers in this race. Two, Bruce Schwab (2004) and Rich Wilson (2008), have completed it. Both will be on hand for Saturday's gala start, joined by hundreds of thousands of onlookers.
Boats in the IMOCA (International Monohull Open Class Association) class can cost over $4 million to build now, more than twice the price tag of 12 years ago. Most skippers are aboard older craft. Engineering evolves rapidly between races, and each new "generation" is indisputably faster and more powerful than the last in the same conditions.
Conventional wisdom holds that this Vendée Globe will be won by a skipper aboard one of the six boats launched within the last two years, including Armel Le Cleac'h on Banque Populaire and 2004 Vendée Globe winner Vincent Riou on PRB, both of France. They will take aim at the course record set by two-time champion Michel Desjoyeaux, who returned in 84 days, 3 hours and 9 minutes in 2009. He is not contesting this race.
Davies had hoped to have a new boat built for her, and she started working toward that goal almost from the day she set foot back on land in February 2009. She founded her own company shortly afterward and put together her pitch. Two and a half years later, Saveol -- a tomato and strawberry producer -- committed to funding 60 percent of what company chief Roger Capitaine told reporters is a $2.5 million project budget. The balance is coming from more than a dozen smaller sponsors and some private investors.
Xavier David, Davies' business partner, oversees a staff of seven, plus several interns. He began working with Davies in 2006, when she took the helm of her previous boat, Roxy, and he is not surprised or necessarily displeased that she is once again an underdog.
"She really impressed me last time," David said. "Her personality is so positive and dynamic, and it's genuine, it's not a mask. She's a leader. There were certain people who said, 'OK, good, she's a girl, she'll generate a lot of publicity, she has a pink boat.' As the race went along, we didn't hear from them anymore. She did a strategic, beautiful course, the great navigation of a skilled sailor.
"And it gave her pleasure to share with the public. She's natural, she does things instinctively."
There is no denying the risks in this race, even though stricter safety standards for the IMOCA class have lessened the chance of fatalities; one skipper was lost in each of the 1992-93 and 1996-97 editions. Davies had some anxious moments in mid-December 2008, after she lost her balance while stowing sails and whacked her elbow on a winch transmission box -- a blow painful enough that she briefly blacked out. (Injured skippers are allowed to consult the race doctor by phone.) But she quickly forgot about her discomfort when she received a call from the race director telling her that a fellow skipper was in real danger.
Yann Elies of France, tossed in heavy seas off western Australia, had suffered a broken leg and was lying immobilized in his bunk, unable to reach food and water and at risk of bleeding to death. Davies and Marc Guillemot were the closest competitors to Elies, and in time-honored marine tradition, they immediately diverted off course to try to offer assistance.
As it happened, a rescue party from an Australian naval frigate reached the stricken skipper first and saved him. Davies and Guillemot returned to race mode. She actually crossed the finish line ahead of him -- at night, with a red flare aflame in both upheld hands -- but after calculating the relative time spent on their respective detours, Guillemot was ruled to have finished third by an hour and 20 minutes.
Jenny Davies knows she has no one but herself and husband Paul to blame for Sam's pursuit of sailing excellence and her love of adventure, which they've encouraged at every turn. "I did wonder last time, how am I going to cope with this?" Jenny said, relaxing over tea in the sitting area next to the galley in the couple's boat. "But there's so much communication."
Before she left in 2008, Sam told her parents to look after her younger sister Debbie, who tends to worry more. She fretted over her parents' position when she heard they were riding out a storm on a river in Brittany. "And she was in the North Atlantic," Jenny said, smiling.
For this race, Jenny did what many mothers do: She prepared a care package of six fruitcakes -- one designated for Christmas with a thin layer of marzipan and icing -- mindful that Sam polished off the only one she had halfway through the last race. Caffari did what girlfriends do and put together a bag of milk chocolate and licorice, with a few encouraging notes tucked in.
Treats aside, Davies chooses her cargo carefully, estimating how much is enough to allow for a variable voyage without adding superfluous weight. What would she pack differently this time? "More porridge, because I ran out of porridge." Nothing else occurs to her. "I managed to get it quite right last time," she said.
Ruben, Davies' sturdy, towheaded toddler son, will spend the next three months being cared for by his father, a nanny and two sets of adoring grandparents. Paul and Jenny Davies, who will spend the winter moored near their daughter's home in Brittany, have rigged a hammock for Ruben over the bathtub on their 59-foot wooden schooner, Niñita, a replica of a 1920s-era American boat.
Davies answers questions about Ruben readily. She jokes that pregnancy and nursing were good training for the sleep deprivation of solo sailing. On a serious note, she often points out that she isn't the only skipper leaving a young child on shore.
"I knew that one day if I became a mother, I would not stop everything I'm doing," Davies said in October. "I was born into a sailing family. We've already been cruising with him, and mentally, it's not a shock to leave him because I've always known I will. Everything he's done since the beginning of his life has revolved around the fact that his mum's going to go sail around the world.
"It's hard to miss important waypoints in his life, but it's also nice when you've had a couple of weeks away and you come back and you can see development, all the things he can do that he couldn't do when you left. You have to have a positive approach. I talk to him about it. I'm not sure whether he understands it or not. There'll be difficult moments, but hopefully I'll manage to deal with them well and sail fast and get back to see him as quickly as possible."
David, her business partner, is also sanguine. "It's changed the way she looks at things, but I don't think it's going to change the way she attacks, or performs," he said.
Thursday dawns overcast. Davies, wearing a deep coral-colored hoodie and jeans, boards Saveol for one last barrage of interviews. The lenses of half a dozen still and video cameras swing to follow her every move; crew members who are cleaning the cabin step silently around the people and the cables. She answers question after question, gracious, smiling, self-contained. Has she been to the dentist? (Yes.) Will she drink rum on Christmas Day? (No.)
Fans are stacked six or eight deep behind the rope barrier on the viewing pontoon, holding up their own cameras and smartphones, alternately cooing and shouting to get Davies' attention. "Sam-an-TA!" they plead, pronouncing her name without the 'h' as the French do, hoping she'll turn away from the reporters and toward them.
Vendée Globe skippers spend the days leading up to their solo voyage being mobbed, a phenomenon Davies described earlier in the week as "an emotional transition." On Tuesday, after saying goodbye to Ruben, she briefly escaped to a pool and swam laps, enjoying the sound of nothing but her own breathing.
"We're a little smothered by the people around us," Davies said. "It's hard to even think about the course. I haven't even looked at the weather. But these three or four weeks are amazing. Just to be here is a victory."
Another interview ends. Davies stands up, her blond hair shining and loose on her shoulders. The crowd shifts and calls out again -- Sam-an-ta! -- more insistently. She obliges them, steps to Saveol's stern and waves. "Merci," she says. "A bientot."
See you soon, wind willing.