Les Sables-d'Olonne (France) (AFP) - Thousands of bystanders Sunday gave 29 skippers a raucous send off as the Vendee Globe solo race around the world began off the French Atlantic coast.
The three-month race will see the skippers joust with the elements in their 18.5 metre (60 foot) vessels after leaving the western French port of Les Sables d'Olonne.
Competitors from 10 countries are competing in the eighth 'Everest of the Seas' covering 21,638 nautical miles (40,073 km) through the toughest seas and around the three great Capes -- Good Hope, Leeuwin and the Horn.
Any participant who puts into port or receives assistance along the way will be disqualified.
Around 14,000 people were on hand on the water and some 300,000 more thronged the shore to see Prince Albert of Monaco sound the starting signal.
Emotions got the better of some competitors as relatives and friends waved them off.
"It's a tough moment. Your stomach is in knots and the tears flow," acknowledged Yann Elies, sailing Queguiner-Leucemie Espoir.
"It's a moment I'll not forget," added a tearful Morgan Lagraviere, sailing Safran.
"I look at all the people around me and ... well, it's hard to leave."
The race, which has been held every four years since 1989, has to date claimed three lives while barely half of competing vessels -- 71 out of 138 -- have completed the gruelling course.
- Captain Haddock -
La Fabrique's Alan Roura, at 23 the youngest competitor, bade farewell dressed for the occasion as Captain Haddock of Tintin fame in a blue sailor's jacket, white slacks, stripy scarf and cap.
Asia has its first ever contestant this year in the shape of Japan's Kojiro Shiraishi, who set off wearing the garb of a Samurai warrior replete with sabre.
The Tokyoite only bought a boat in April and sailed out aboard 'Spirit of Yukoh' in honour of his mentor, Yukoh Tadda, the Class II winner of the 1982-83 BOC Challenge, the Vendee Globe precursor.
A signal gave the skippers notice it was time to bid a fond adieu to their crew before embarking on their three-month adventure before Prince Albert sounded the official start horn.
Francois Gabart holds the course record after finishing in 78 days, two hours and 16 minutes three years ago.
Ten of this year's skippers are non-French and they will be hoping to prise the crown from the grasp of 'home' sailors for the first time.
- Reduce toil with foil ? -
On the technical side, the sailing fraternity will be keen to see the effect this year of "Dali moustache" lifting foils which seven of the partiipants are debuting this year.
The appendage device helps lift the boats above the water in a dragster effect, the idea being to increase dynamic power and also lighten the vessel.
However, some observers have questioned the device's effectiveness over such a long distance.
The foils could come into their own not least during the opening days of the race as skippers handle north-northwesterly winds gusting at 15-20 knots (28 to 38 kph/17 to 23 mph).
Race director Jacques Caraes says the conditions are pretty much ideal for the start as the vessels set a course towards Finisterre point off northwest Spain.
Welshman Alex Thomson, taking part in his fourth Vendee Globe, indicated that "if the forecasts are correct it will be tough for the boats without foils to be in the front group."
He and his rivals then headed out into the ocean and the Equator, which they are slated to reach in eight-and-a-half days.
Also Sunday, French navigator Thomas Coville set off from the port of Brest in a bid to break the solo non-stop round the world record in his 31-metre maxi-trimaran Sodebo Ultim'.
The 47-year-old has already failed on four occasions to beat Francis Joyon's 2008 record of 57 days 13 hours and 34 minutes.