Mark Nicholls heads to the French resort of Les Sables d’Olonne for the start of the Golden Globe single-handed round-the-world yacht race.
Les Sables d’Olonne has all you expect of a French harbour town: narrow alleys, a quaint fisherman’s quarter, wonderful seafood restaurants and long stretches of sandy beach.
A salty aroma wafts along the channel that links the sea to the expansive quays where row after row of yachts and motorboats are moored.
This is, after all, the capital of single-handed round-the-world yacht racing, a claim to fame this resort on the west coast of France cherishes.
Set on the Atlantic coast, it is the departure and finish point for two of the most challenging round-the-world races; the Vendée Globe, and the Golden Globe.
The latter is a throwback to racing in days past, with the vessels skippered by intrepid sailors deprived of the sophisticated technology of the sleek Vendée Globe yachts, and instead setting off with little more than a sextant, compass and paper maps to guide them.
The circumnavigation for these 35-footers does take a little longer – around 250-300 days compared to 80 days for Vendée Globe entrants.
While at sea, Golden Globe competitors are unassisted and have little contact with the outside world, land, or family and friends, and only receive warnings of the most perilous weather conditions.
Founder and Race Chairman Don McIntyre points out:
“These guys are totally isolated, it is a unique challenge, they are on their own.”
As a result, the 16 vessels and skippers – including one woman Kirsten Neuschäfer from South Africa – have to pass stringent safety requirements and have proven sailing ability just to make it to the start line and receive the coveted “green card” to compete.
The vessels have to be designed before 1988 and meet strict dimensions of 32-36 foot yet be robust enough to withstand navigation through the world’s treacherous oceans.
British skipper Ian Herbert-Jones tells me a couple of days ahead of departure:
“It’s a victory just to make it to the start line.”
He has been preparing for the race for three years but his yacht Puffin, a 35-foot Tradewind built in 1986, has a pedigree and was one of five finishers from the 18 starters in the 2018 race, which was only the second time the Golden Globe was staged since 1968, when yachting legend Sir Robin Knox-Johnson, now 82, won.
As the official starter for 2022, Sir Robin is delighted with the ongoing revival of the race:
“It is a great event because we are hanging on to traditional sailing skills.”
Round-the-world yacht racing has put Les Sables d’Olonne on the map as a coastal jewel in the Vendée region of pleasant towns and villages, natural landscapes and an irresistible cuisine, with a big focus on seafood.
Sailing remains a huge aspect of the resort, with the quay crammed with vessels of all shapes and sizes. But with its lovely ambience, fish markets, and narrow alleys lined with shops and bars, the appeal of Les Sables d’Olonne is far wider, and is also a steppingstone into the Vendée’s relaxed way of life.
Set in a south facing bay, its sandy beaches are ideal for swimming and surfing, while inland are forest areas and marshlands where hiking, cycling and horse-riding are popular.
The salt marshes surrounding the coastal town underpinned its wealth and importance as a trading centre in centuries past, but today are popular for leisure activities.
A little way inland are the shallow waters of the former salt producing areas, which are popular for canoeing or stand-up paddle boarding and make for a pleasant hour or two passing through small channels.
Elsewhere, the raised paths of the saltpans have become routes for walking, cycling, venturing off on e-scooters. With fat tyres suitable for the terrain, they are quite different to city centre rental scooters, but are an exhilarating way to traverse the landscape or head off further into routes through forested areas.
Sardines and tuna
With a long-standing maritime heritage, Les Sables d’Olonne remains the fourth biggest French fishing port.
Its origins lay in whaling before a shift to cod fishing in the 17th century and in more recent times to sardines and tuna, which underpins much of its industry today.
It is no surprise that seafood is central to the menus of the resort, but you can also shop for it in the covered markets of the town.
Moules mariniere are a favourite in many quayside eateries, such as Restaurant les Patagos in Port Olona, or if you are feeling hungry, plump for one of the magnificent seafood platters at the Fleur de Thym restaurant with an array of whelks, oysters, prawns, langoustines and crab. The markets are also great places to buy fresh bread, fruit and vegetable, meat and other produce.
If you are inspired and want to further absorb this maritime heritage, wander the older district of Chaume with quiet back streets with small fisherman’s houses, churches, murals on walls, or pop into a traditional side street café.
Walk on further and you find yourself along the channel that connects the sea and the harbour entrance, dominated on the rocky shoreline by the Priory of St Nicholas, defended by iron cannons pointing out to sea.
While the resort is separated by channels, they are criss-crossed by river buses, linking each part of the town.
Head off in another direction into the centre, where the Notre Dame Church is hemmed in, and you come out at the covered market with all its produce.
Wander round and cut through to the promenade and walk barefoot on the beach or take a refreshing sea swim.
Sunday mornings brings out the locals; promenading, swimming, performing yoga and tai chi on the beach, or walking, as a form of group exercise through the pull of the waves.
Yet in contrast to this carefree coastal ambience, the levels of activity were picking up within the Golden Globe race village.
As the clock ticked towards departure, skippers made final preparations, conducted interviews, and said farewells.
While some had rousing send-offs, others slipped quietly from their berths for the months of solitude, lack of sleep and physical and mental challenges that lay ahead.
It posed the question, why do it?
For some, it was a one-off, once-in-a-lifetime challenge; others saw it as one adventure in a career of further ocean-going racing exploits; while some were seasoned racers wanting to stretch their skills to the limit.
For Ian Herbert-Jones, 52, from Shropshire, there was the personal challenge, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to sail single-handed around the world unassisted.
Having said farewell to his wife Sally, 21-year-old twin sons Thomas and Owen, and daughter Emma, 16, he remained acutely aware of the psychological challenge of not being able to contact family and friends.
A former soldier and now a sales director with a software company, he aims to complete the race but has also set landmark goals; getting to Cape Town or Australia, whilst meeting the risks of sailing in the Southern Ocean with high fierce winds, the 50-foot waves, and the possibility of capsizing.
With cabins crammed with food and other bare essentials, and a reliance on rainwater capture to drinking water, it was just after 1.30pm on the afternoon of Sunday, September 4th, that Puffin and the other vessels left the shelter of Port Olona.
It was to be a last contact with home, loved ones, support crews and supplies, until the end of the race, possibly 300 days away.
From emotional farewells on the quayside, and the harbour walls of Les Sables d’Olonne lined with well-wishers, the competitors were followed out into the open sea for the official start by a flotilla of press boats, small vessels and official craft, as well as two French Navy ships just out to sea.
Returning to Les Sables d’Olonne
As the clock ticked on to 4pm local time, a blast from the horn of the naval vessel signalled the start of Golden Globe 2022.
The race has a high attrition rate as the small vessels battle some of the most ferocious seas and weather conditions on earth, but among the skippers there is this huge desire to complete the race and return to Les Sables d’Olonne.
Funnily enough, that’s my goal too.
Having discovered the resort and its attractions, I also made a vow to return, though not with a single-handed 250-day round-the-world yacht journey in between.
Mark Nicholls flew easyJet from London Gatwick to Nantes with a 90-minute transfer to Les Sables d’Olonne. There are also good rail connections with Paris.
Accommodation: The Originals Boutique Admiral’s Hotel, close to the marina.
Paddle boarding at Terrasse des Salines: www.lessalines.fr
Vendée Tourism: www.vendee-tourism.co.uk
Les Sables d’Olonne: www.lessablesdolonne-tourisme.com
Golden Globe Challenge at-a-glance
The Golden Globe Challenge originally took place in 1968 as the first solo, non-stop, round-the-world race and was won by Robin Knox-Johnston. It was revived in 2018 on the 50th anniversary and won by 73-year-old Jean-Luc Van Den Heede after 212 days at sea. The third edition retains the core, solitary, ethos of the earlier editions without technical assistance and GPS and using the same equipment as the first race in 1968. But it allows for greater interaction with competitors with five points of passage where the skippers can transmit photos and videos.
The 2022 skippers include Guy Waites, Ian Herbert-Jones, Ertan Beskardes and Simon Curwen from the UK; South African skipper and the only woman, Kirsten Neuschäfer; Pat Lawless from Ireland; Abhilash Tomy from India; American sailors Guy de Boer and Elliott Smith, at 27, the youngest competitor; and Canadian Edward Walentynowicz, at 69, the oldest.
Boats must be production models, designed before 1988 and be no longer than 35 feet.
For more information or to follow the race, please visit: www.goldengloberace.com.
Mark Nicholls is an award-winning freelance travel writer and author, based in the UK and has written for a range of national titles, specialist magazines and international websites and operated as a war correspondent in locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Photographs by Mark Nicholls