Bubbles? Separation? Solitude? Trying to cope with 2020? Let's examine the Vendée Globe

British skipper Pip Hare is a first-time starter and one of six women in the Vendée Globe race. Photo by Richard Langdon / Pip Hare Racing

The 33 skippers leaving port Sunday to circumnavigate the globe alone in the most grueling sailing event ever conceived will have to make do without a proper sendoff.

The harbor in Les Sables-d'Olonne on France's Atlantic coast, normally jammed with as many as 300,000 spectators for the start of the quadrennial Vendée Globe race, will be barren. A national lockdown ordered by the French government starting Oct. 30 shuttered the prerace "village," which normally draws up to 1.5 million visitors to gape at the boats and catch a glimpse of their seafaring heroes and heroines. As with so many sporting gatherings in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered and muted a much-loved communal experience.

Yet the essence of the race won't change.

Once the fleet of IMOCA 60s cruises over the starting line and heads south toward the Cape of Good Hope -- the first major waypoint on this most simple and brutally difficult of courses -- the race will unfold as it always has. Each skipper will compete in his or her own bubble, separated from one another and any other human being for somewhere between two to four months, prohibited by the rules from accepting any assistance unless they're in mortal danger. The Vendée Globe was the ultimate socially distanced event before most of us had ever heard of the term.

"This sport reflects the times we are in now." British skipper Pip Hare

"This sport reflects the times we are in now," said British skipper Pip Hare, one of a record six women starting the race. "Not just the physicality of being locked down or isolated, but the problem-solving, the resilience, the inner will to make things happen, the determination that one person can make a difference. Before, sometimes people would look at the sport and say, 'This is a really crazy thing to do, they're all crazy.' But those are just life skills, and they can be applied anywhere."

It's not as if the skippers will be in solitary confinement. They'll be in touch with loved ones and support personnel back on land daily via satellite communications, emails, WhatsApp, and in some cases, streaming internet connections. They're obligated to file daily reports to the race organization and transmit a couple of video segments each week. Many of the sailors are savvy social media users who will post often to build interest and keep their sponsors in the spotlight.

And they won't have a lot of time to brood. They're busy minute by minute as they try to maximize their boat's performance and their own safety while catnapping for intervals as short as 15 minutes. Dee Caffari, the veteran British skipper who has finished the Vendée Globe twice and sailed around the world six times in all, found herself in demand for advice on how to cope in the early months of the pandemic. Her answer is simple and practical: structure.

"There's always something you're tasked to do," said Caffari, who will follow this edition of the race from afar. "It's the best possible way to be self-isolated. I don't remember being lonely, because it's you and your boat. You feel you're a bit of a team and you're there together, taking on everything Mother Nature can throw at you."

That can be considerable. Over the estimated 24,696-nautical mile voyage, skippers will face violent weather that can hurl them around their cramped quarters, risking serious injury, or rip away their masts. Icebergs in the Southern Ocean are drifting closer to the traditional course and breaking up sooner, forcing the fleet to go farther north and thus lengthen its route. There is the ever-present possibility of striking a UFO, or unidentified floating object. Eighteen of 29 boats finished in the 2016-17 Vendée Globe; seven were forced to abandon in the first two weeks in 2012, when only 11 of 20 made it all the way around.

All the skippers have logged countless thousands of miles at sea and built confidence from both good performances and perilous close calls. But the sheer duration of the Vendée Globe will thrust first-time starters into new and unknown psychological waters. They all have different coping mechanisms.

Hare will pilot her boat, Medallia, stoked by a good supply of both black and herbal teas and music playlists compiled by her friends. "When nobody can hear me, I sing at the top of my voice to Aretha Franklin," she said.

Miranda Merron, another skipper new to the Vendée Globe, stows English Breakfast tea but leaves music and videos at home, preferring to tune in to every creak, whistle, rattle, throb, and roar of her boat, Campagne de France. Merron, who took her first trans-Atlantic sail at age 9 with her family, ditched a high-powered advertising job for full-time sailing and spent 20 years competing in the Class40 (40-foot) boats. She jokes that she had plenty of companionship on solo trips when fatigue made her hallucinate.

"You really are on your own, and when things start to go wrong, you just have to get on with them," said Merron, who splits her time between England and Normandy. "You can't call a taxi and go home. If I'm feeling a bit down, I'm quite good at giving myself a mental kick in the backside to get on with it. And remember -- you know -- I chose this."

To a certain extent, Vendée Globe skippers believe they were naturally wired to tolerate extremes of weather and solitude. "I don't think somebody can go out and learn to be that kind of person," Caffari said. "There are some people who couldn't think of anything worse than being stuck on a boat for months. And there's other people who would say, 'Oh wow, that would be amazing.' I think you are either that person or you're not, but you can develop those skills the more you do it."

Merron, whose longest previous solo outing was 21 days, said she doesn't have any particular mantras or meditation techniques to get through the most stressful times.

"But praying to God and Neptune to grant me safe passage?" Merron said, laughing. "That I do."

As always, the Vendée Globe is a true race for some skippers and a personal test for others like Merron and Hare, who have a fraction of the funding enjoyed by some of their peers and whose goal is to finish intact.

The newest boats are multimillion-dollar projects either built with or modified for foils -- the winglike appendages that put those IMOCA skippers who have them in another class of speed. Among contenders generating the most buzz this year are French entrants Jérémie Beyou (Charal), Charlie Dalin (Apivia), Kevin Escoffier (PRB) and Thomas Ruyant (LinkedOut). British skippers Alex Thomson (Hugo Boss) and Sam Davies (Initiatives-Coeur), who hope to break the French stranglehold on the winner's trophy, have attracted particular attention because of their long histories with the race.

Davies finished fourth in her first Vendée Globe in 2008, then was dismasted five days into the 2012 race in the treacherous North Atlantic that often culls part of the fleet in the first two weeks. She sat out the 2016 race in favor of her longtime partner, Romain Attanasio, who finished 15th. This year, both she and Attanasio (Pure-Best Western) are competing while their 9-year-old son stays ashore with Davies' parents.

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Thomson will be making his fifth attempt and has had every imaginable experience on his résumé, twice withdrawing because of damage to his boat. Four years ago, he overcame an early UFO collision that left one of his foils inoperable and dueled with eventual winner Armel Le Cléac'h until the final days of the race, finishing a mere 16 hours off the French skipper's record-setting 74 days, 3 hours, 35 minutes and 46 seconds.

But the races within the race -- the competition between boats of a similar vintage, and the suspense to see whether stragglers can make it all the way back to Les Sables-d'Olonne -- keep aficionados and casual fans engaged all the way through. Spectators flock back to the quaint town to greet each returning skipper like a hero.

Both of the American skippers who have finished the Vendée Globe experienced that. Bruce Schwab was showered with chocolate by admirers at the 2004-05 finish after confessing he missed it during his 109-day saga. "The world is hurting right now, and the value of the Vendée is inspiration," he said.

Rich Wilson was 10th of 12 finishers in 2008-09, taking an epic 121 days, and repeated the feat two weeks faster in 2016-17 at age 66.

Wilson, who devoted his two races to an educational nonprofit, did his second lap around the world in the same now-14-year-old boat Merron will sail this time. He said Merron and her modest team -- mostly consisting of herself and partner Halvard Mabire -- have done everything possible to make her boat a solid performer, but added that there's no way to fully prepare for the rigors of sailing single-handed for weeks on end.

"For everybody who does it the first time, there's great anxiety the whole way through," said Wilson, who survived cracked ribs and a facial gash suffered in heavy weather early in his first campaign. "The entire future is unknown, and the future extends out into infinity. What I found in the second one was that range of anxiety was sort of a 24-hour one. If I just keep taking care of myself and the boat for the next 24 hours, eventually I will get there, or somewhere, and this will all end and it'll be OK. It was bite-sized chunks of anxiety rather than a mega-overdose."

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Merron feels fortunate to embark on an adventure where life will narrow down to the essential, especially given the tumultuous state of the world at the moment. She'll bring along one book and a PDF guide to the marine life and birds she'll see, and especially looks forward to seeing albatross, with their unmistakable 10-foot wingspans. Aside from that, "amazing seascapes and skies and ever-changing clouds" are her only entertainment needs.

She admits it's strange to start a race knowing that it is "nigh-on impossible" to compete with the top boats. "But finishing the Vendée Globe is not a given," Merron said. "For me that would be a victory in and of itself. There are going to be some disappointed people among the finishers, who wanted to do better. That's not gonna be my problem."

Hare said she has come to regard the Vendée Globe as an endurance event rather than "just" a sailing race. And although she's never been at sea alone for longer than eight weeks, she has a deep understanding of long-haul mindset, having run ultramarathons and competed in the fiendishly difficult Three Peaks Yacht Race. That event -- where competitors sail between and then run up to the highest summits of England, Scotland and Wales -- usually involves teams of three sailors and two runners. In 2016, Hare and a male teammate became the first to do it in its entirety as a duo.

"I like being very selfishly focused on one thing," Hare said. "To be allowed to do one thing, where nobody expects anything of you except to deliver that one thing, is really a privilege. So far, I've never felt lonely. This [race] has always been it for me, since I was 16 or 17. I love the fact that men and women compete on equal terms and nobody even thinks about it. You have your place on the start because you deserve it."