PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Always wanted to sail around the globe but never had the nerve? Just sign up online and now you can compete in one of France's most beloved yachting events without ever having to leave your desk.
By Wednesday, some 170,000 people were playing the virtual version of the Vendee Globe, a solo, non-stop sailing race around the world that skirts the southern continents and which some call the Mount Everest of the sea.
While only 30 skippers started off last month in the real race, the game's producer said the virtual race draws its success from the huge popularity yachting, and this extreme event in particular, has in France.
"We wanted to organize the world's biggest online sporting event and this race is huge for the French -- they want to take part in it," said Philippe Guignedo, a former professional sailor who has partnered with Vendee Globe this year.
He said the game, a Flash application called Virtual Regatta, was designed to be easy to play, and has drawn in "mostly people who do not sail in real life," around 80 percent of whom are French.
Players skipper single-hull IMOCA 60-foot yachts along the race's actual route, while navigating through weather that uses a data feed to mimic actual conditions on the sea.
While these virtual sailors may avoid the broken masts, torn sails and snapped rigging that have characterized this year's competition, they still have to navigate at sometimes odd hours if they want a shot at the game's 10,000 euro ($12,720) prize.
Playing the game cost nothing, but an extra 10 or 20 euros buys options like autopilot, which can spare one from manning the helm round-the-clock or during work.
Sailing has a large following in France, where pollsters TNS say a third of the population is interested in the race and some 60 percent follow the finish -- figures similar to the Tour de France cycling event.
"I'm not into games, but I used to sail when I was a kid so that drew me in," said Sylvain Marchandise, a senior IT technician who helps maintain Reuters editorial computers in Paris and is racing online at around 59,000th place.
The over-100-day Vendee Globe first took place in 1989 and happens every four years. This year it's had its most participants to date, but five of the initial 30 have already dropped out due to damage.
Frenchman dominate the top three positions in this year's race, with Sebastien Josse leading Yann Elies by 40 miles and Loick Peyron trailing another 20 miles behind.
The game can be found at (www.virtualregatta.com/index.php)
Editing by Paul Casciato