The clock is counting down to the biggest ever challenge in the careers of two of Hampshire’s rising stars of solo sailing.

In just 72 hours Ed Hill and Jack Bouttell will each set sail alone in 32ft yachts with more than 2,000 miles of gruelling ocean racing lying ahead of them.

The pair are set to join the 40-strong fleet competing in the Solitaire du Figaro, one of the most respected – and feared – races in the solo sailing calendar.

Hill, 29, and Bouttell, 22, have been put through an intense six-month training regime just to qualify for the race.

Now they face their toughest ever challenge against some of the world’s top sailors in the race around France, Spain, the UK and Ireland.

At 22, Bouttell will be among the youngest sailors competing in the Figaro, which kicks off from Bordeaux in France on Sunday (June 2).

He and Hill, 29, both from Southampton, were picked to race in the event following their success in a series of shorter solo races this year.

They will face sleep deprivation, physical and mental exhaustion and extreme weather conditions during the race.

Joining the two rookies will be race veterans Sam Goodchild and Nick Cherry, also from Southampton, and West Country sailor Henry Bomby.

All five sailors are graduates of the Artemis Offshore Academy, Britain’s first and only school for singlehanded offshore sailing.

The Solitaire du Figaro is split into four legs: first is from Bordeaux to Porto in Spain, the second to Gijon in Spain, then on to Roscoff in northern France before finishing in Dieppe.

Speaking to Sail Solent from Bordeaux, Hill said: “It’s an awesome set up here – the atmosphere is great and totally different to any races I’ve ever done in the UK.

“The first 536 mile Leg from Bordeaux to Porto is longer than any of the other races we have done this season and we’ll have just two days on land before Leg 2 to Gijon starts.

“Learning the race legs now is vital, as there will only be time to fix up the boat and recover during stop-overs, there’ll be no time to be learning anything new.

“On arrival in Porto, we’ll still have 1,402 solo miles and three legs still to race!”

The race starts at midday on Sunday (June 2).