Three British sailors set sail today aiming to win the ultimate yachting prize - the Vendee Globe solo non-stop around-the-world race.

Mike Golding, 52, from Southampton, Alex Thomson, 38, from Gosport, Hampshire and Sam Davies, 38, - the only woman entrant - from Hayling Island, Hampshire, shared emotional scenes with their families at the pontoon before getting aboard their 60ft boats for the next three months.

The 25,000-mile circumnavigation started from Les Sables d'Olonne in France and is dubbed the Marathon Of The Seas.

sailing cup

British sailors Mike Golding (right), Alex Thomson and Samantha Davies in Les Sables

Heavy rain showers and slight winds were the conditions at the start but it did not stop an estimated 250,000 people lining the port and seafront to wave the skippers off as sailing in France is a big draw.

The British fans were also on show in the crowd with Union Jacks waved as the sailors made their way out to the start line.

The French have so far dominated the race, winning all six previous competitions with Michel Desjoyeaux the 2008/09 winner.

There are 20 sailors from six different countries setting sail, with the French the biggest group on twelve, followed by Britain.

First prize is 160,000 euro (£120,000) but it is not all about the money.

The Vendee is the ultimate test of human endurance with on average only half the boats ever making it back to Les Sables.

Two sailors have lost their lives since the race started in 1989 and several others have been lucky to survive.

And the tough nature of the contest was immediately shown after one French skipper, Bertrand De Broc, was forced to return to port for repairs after a collision with a spectator boat before the start left a hole in his hull.

The British challenge this year is headed by Thomson, who is sailing in Hugo Boss.

He has a reputation for speed but has not yet finished a Vendee after two previous attempts, so he has a point to prove.

"This is such a deep feeling, so emotional. It's a very humbling experience, to have so many people here to say goodbye.
These are very positive emotions, and it's now time for me to get to work. I feel lucky, I just love my job," he said before he left.

So far this year Thomson has already sailed 15,000 miles solo in his boat and is in good form after smashing the west to east transatlantic record by 24 hours in July.

Cambridge graduate Davies is now based in Brittany, is French-sponsored and will be sailing in Saveol.

The mother-of-one is hoping to better the fourth place finish in the last race but she has an older boat and admitted she could struggle to keep up.

Davies explained that her one-year-old son Ruben would stay with his dad Romain Attanasio.

"This is a very special moment with my friends and family," she said.

"I feel like I did four years ago, I'm going toward the unknown. Romain's Vendee Globe will be very different, almost harder even, and I'm very proud of him. I feel serene and confident."

The final Briton is veteran Golding, who is starting his fourth Vendee in his boat Gamesa.

The former firefighter has finished the race twice and was in the lead last time before losing his mast in the Southern Ocean ended his challenge.

But he is undaunted, and says this is his last attempt at victory. He argued that he would be "barking mad" not to take this final opportunity.

Before he got aboard, Golding kissed and hugged his wife Andrea and son Soren, nine, and said: "It's always emotional with your family and this is the culmination of years of work."

The Vendee, which is run every four years, catapulted Dame Ellen MacArthur to fame in 2001 when she came second in the race. So far she is the most successful Briton.

The winning circumnavigation should take less than 90 days, with the sailors tested to the limit, sleeping in snatches of 20 minutes as they first battle the Atlantic, then the iceberg strewn Southern Ocean, round Cape Horn and struggle back through the Atlantic to the finish at Les Sables.

Each skipper in their yacht has email and satellite phones for contact with the outside world but they cannot stop to seek outside assistance.

The objective is simple: the first one back wins.

Other skippers in the competition are from Italy, Switzerland, Spain and Poland.

The winner should arrive back at Les Sables d'Olonne some time in February next year.

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  • Sailing - Vendee Globe

    British sailors Mike Golding (left), Alex Thomson and Samantha Davies in Les Sables-d'Olonne, western France ahead of the start of the Vendee Globe yacht race which starts on Saturday. The three will compete against 17 other international competitors in the solo, non-stop, circumnavigation which takes place every four years. 200,000 visitors are expected to see the skippers off from the quayside and beaches of the resort.

  • Sailing - Vendee Globe

    British sailors Mike Golding (left), Alex Thomson and Samantha Davies in Les Sables-d'Olonne, western France ahead of the start of the Vendee Globe yacht race which starts on Saturday. The three will compete against 17 other international competitors in the solo, non-stop, circumnavigation which takes place every four years. 200,000 visitors are expected to see the skippers off from the quayside and beaches of the resort.

  • Sailing - Vendee Globe - Day One

    British yachtsman Mike Golding (left) says goodbye to son Soren and wife Andrea (right) as he leaves Les Sables-d'Olonne, western France aboard his racing yacht Gamesa at the start of the Vendee Globe yacht race. Three British sailors, Alex Thomson, Mike Golding and Samantha Davies will compete with 17 other competitors in the solo, non-stop, circumnavigation which takes place every four years. 200,000 visitors are expected to see the skippers off from the quayside and beaches of the resort.

  • Sailing - Vendee Globe - Day One

    British yachtsman Alex Thomson waves as he leaves Les Sables-d'Olonne, western France aboard his racing yacht Hugo Boss at the start of the Vendee Globe yacht race. Three British sailors, Thomson, Mike Golding and Samantha Davies will compete with 17 other competitors in the solo, non-stop, circumnavigation which takes place every four years. 200,000 visitors are expected to see the skippers off from the quayside and beaches of the resort.

  • Sailing - Vendee Globe - Day One

    British yachtswoman Samantha Davies with fellow competitor Alex Thomson before she leaves Les Sables-d'Olonne, western France aboard her racing yacht Saveol at the start of the Vendee Globe yacht race. Three British sailors, Alex Thomson, Mike Golding and Davies will compete with 17 other competitors in the solo, non-stop, circumnavigation which takes place every four years. 200,000 visitors are expected to see the skippers off from the quayside and beaches of the resort. Davies is the only woman competing.

  • Sailing - Vendee Globe - Day One

    British yachtswoman Samantha Davies hugs fellow competitor Alex Thomson before she leaves Les Sables-d'Olonne, western France aboard her racing yacht Saveol at the start of the Vendee Globe yacht race. Three British sailors, Alex Thomson, Mike Golding and Davies will compete with 17 other competitors in the solo, non-stop, circumnavigation which takes place every four years. 200,000 visitors are expected to see the skippers off from the quayside and beaches of the resort. Davies is the only woman competing.

  • Sailing - Vendee Globe - Day One

    British yachtswoman Samantha Davies waves as she leaves Les Sables-d'Olonne, western France aboard her racing yacht Saveol at the start of the Vendee Globe yacht race. Three British sailors, Alex Thomson, Mike Golding and Davies will compete with 17 other competitors in the solo, non-stop, circumnavigation which takes place every four years. 200,000 visitors are expected to see the skippers off from the quayside and beaches of the resort. Davies is the only woman competing.

  • Sailing - Vendee Globe - Day One

    British yachtswoman Samantha Davies hugs her father Paul as mum Jenny looks on (right) before leaving Les Sables-d'Olonne, western France aboard her racing yacht Saveol at the start of the Vendee Globe yacht race. Three British sailors, Alex Thomson, Mike Golding and Davies will compete with 17 other competitors in the solo, non-stop, circumnavigation which takes place every four years. 200,000 visitors are expected to see the skippers off from the quayside and beaches of the resort. Davies is the only woman competing.

  • Sailing - Vendee Globe - Day One

    British yachtswoman Samantha Davies blows kisses as she leaves Les Sables-d'Olonne, western France aboard her racing yacht Saveol at the start of the Vendee Globe yacht race. Three British sailors, Alex Thomson, Mike Golding and Davies will compete with 17 other competitors in the solo, non-stop, circumnavigation which takes place every four years. 200,000 visitors are expected to see the skippers off from the quayside and beaches of the resort. Davies is the only woman competing.