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raceweek-archived-vendee_glode-largeOnce in a lifetime, opportunities are sometimes easy to miss. I have been volunteering for Spirit of Canada for several years, so when I got the chance to go to the start of the Vendee Globe, I saw my chance and took it; missing this event wasn't an option.

The Vendee Globe is the most gruelling event on the planet. It is a non-stop, around-the-world race sailed solo, without assistance. As you know, Derek Hatfield, the lone Canadian participant, has worked for five years building an Open 60 to compete in this race. Sadly, a fellow competitor, Gerry Roufs, the only other Canadian to participate in this race, was lost at sea just before Cape Horn in 1996.

The race starts from Les Sables D'Olonne a small fishing village in the Vendee region on the west coast of France, a four-hour train trip from Paris. Every four years, starting in 1989, this little town transforms into race village and hundreds of thousands of people visit.

This is the excerpt from the story of my experience during the three weeks leading up to the start of the Vendee Globe. For the full story, go to www.cymagazine.ca and hit RACE WEEK!

October 16: I arrive at the train station in Les Sables D'Olonne at 9:30 pm. Patianne and her daughter Sarah greet me. Once settled in, Derek joins us and, in true French tradition, we drink wine and ate cheese until midnight. (Sarah actually didn't drink much wine.)

The next morning, we head to the boat. We arrive at the dock before dawn; the view of the other race boats is amazing. Seeing Algimouss Spirit of Canada tied up along 29 other Open 60s side each other with colours flying makes you breathless. It looks like it truly belongs.

Some changes were made to the boat in France: the "ALGIMOUSS" is new and looks great next to the wonderful Maple Leaf swatch on the bow. Algimouss, a French company that makes environmentally friendly cleaning products, offered to sponsor Derek as soon as he arrived.

October 20: Race village consists of several buildings built entirely for this event – temporary structures that will be dismantled after the race.

The first pavilion contains displays about the Vendee Globe. At the entrance, larger than life, mock-ups of all of the skippers greet you. There are also kid-friendly, hands-on displays that teach weather patterns and the technological innovations of the Open 60. There is even a staged cockpit with a working coffee grinder and cabin. Pictures of each skipper, plaster moulds of their hands and their life stories are all showcased here.

Our booth, along with the other booths, was located in a pavilion called the Açores. It featured a bar with live entertainment that skippers and their crews enjoyed almost every night.

Other structures housed restaurants, media centres and vending booths. There was even a two-story building with huge picture windows facing the dock where banquet and corporate events are held.

Saturday is opening day and it was quite a surprise. The number of people that came into the pavilion was amazing. The main attraction, however, was the dock, where the boats were secondary only to the sighting of a skipper. The organizers were disappointed that 'only' 300,000 people walked the dock in the first three days!

The number of children that visit is truly unique. Derek talks to at least one group of kids every day. The kids know all the boat names, the skippers and the country they are from. The children come to the booth clamouring for posters and saying "Ah le bateau Canadien!" and say that Derek is "Très gentil!" No wonder there is such a following of this race. These kids have obviously been trained since childhood.

Every evening, there is a 10-minute light show that runs every 15 minutes until 2300 hours. Lasers and floodlights flash against the sky as videos of the boats racing and pictures of the skippers are projected onto three-story high warehouse walls on shore. Spectacular!

October 25: Manning our booth with only very rudimentary French was an interesting experience. Although the learning curve is steep, people were willing to listen to my broken accent and limited vocabulary. We had a network of helpful people that have now become friends and three amazing bilingual volunteers (Marie Claude, Celine and Christophe) who generously donated hours of their time.

The festive atmosphere was now in full swing. Dancers and musicians (Algerian and Columbian) dance through the aisles. There is a gentleman called Victor who walks around with a cordless microphone and talks about the booths, the skippers, the race, etc.

Every morning Victor announces when Derek will be at his booth to sign posters. When Derek arrives, the people swarm the place. The first time he was there, he signed 250 posters! We have been busy at the booth, but the crew on Spirit of Canada have been busier on the boat. Derek has had to attend many safety training sessions and the boat went through its safety inspection. The inspection went well, with only a few deficiencies that were fixed with time to spare.

At time of writing, Derek is slowly making his way south, away from the high pressure system and into better winds. It's been a bit frustrating but he is making good headway towards the southern highway that heads East. For daily reports, go to:

www.vendeglobe.org