1996, BT Global
Challenge - Rio to Wellington - first leg
Henry Dana had it right. "There is not so
helpless and pitiable an object in the world as
a landsman beginning a sailor's life," he
wrote in his seafaring classic, Two Years Before
last century, but he could have been speaking
of the 1996 BT Global Challenge. Fourteen identical,
67ft steel-hulled boats are competing in the second
leg of the Challenge, a round-the-world race against
the prevailing winds.
We are now
10 days into the 6,500-mile second leg which takes
us from Rio and down the east coast of South America
before rounding Cape Horn . Then, we face the
fury of the Southern Ocean before eventually making
landfall at Wellington, New Zealand.
sail training off Plymouth, Devon, was scant preparation
for my first taste of ocean racing when I joined
my yacht, 3com, in Rio. I felt as green as I looked
after just four hours at sea. And the seasickness
continued almost unremittingly for two days.
test will come very soon when we reach the Horn,
the place they call the sailor's Everest. No other
part of the ocean carries such mystique, respect
and fear as the seas around the southern tip of
the 50 and 60 degree latitudes of the Southern
Ocean, the sea has an unrestricted passage around
the globe, propelled by a continuous succession
of easterly-moving depressions.
These create westerly winds which can generate
enormous waves, sometimes reaching 120ft. For
most of their journey, the waves have a passage
2,000 miles wide. But, when they reach the Horn,
they are squeezed through a 600-mile gap between
Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica.
waves approach the continental shelf at Cape Horn
, the sea bed rises from 15,000ft to 600ft in
just a quarter of a mile. The sea is meeting the
that momentum, there is nowhere for the sea to
go but up - and, more worryingly, over. It is
these large, breaking waves that have tested the
stomachs of seafarers since the time of Magellan.
reach the Horn, the race boats face a 36-hour
dash to the comparative safety of deeper water.
But we remember the words of Chay Blyth, the race
organiser, who once survived for 18 hours on the
upturned hull of a catamaran after capsizing while
rounding the cape.
of the noise that occurs when a 40-ton yacht breaks
through the top of a Cape Horn wave and comes
crashing down the other side. "Nothing will
prepare you for that first bang as the hull drops
maybe 14ft back on to the water," he said.
south from Rio began gently enough with spinnakers
flying. Moonlit nights silhouetted dolphins breaking
the surf alongside, providing some of the most
magical moments at sea. But it could not last.
into the journey, we were overtaken in the darkness
by a frontal system that brought driving rain
and light, swirling breezes, allowing little headway
in spite of flying a spinnaker.
was a risk of damage from squalls, so four of
the crew went forward to take it down. Sure enough,
no sooner had they reached the foredeck than a
sudden, ferocious blast caught us.
boat leaning over almost at right angles and water
flooding the cockpit, we were forced to release
the spinnaker sheets. Lit by flashes of lightning,
the white sail flogged wildly from the mainmast
like a giant flag of surrender to the elements.
"This is what ocean racing is all about,"
shouted David Tomkinson, the skipper.
a confined space is not always easy among the
14 crew. Tensions can flare. It is like Christmas
day, with all the relatives around - only they
don't go home at midnight.
is always someone to lend a hand. Harsh words
are mitigated by generous deeds.
our journey marks the centenary of one of the
most astonishing achievements in sea-going history.
It was 1896 when Joshua Slocum travelled this
path on the first single-handed circumnavigation
of the globe. He sailed a small oyster boat, the
only himself for company and he entered the Pacific
through the Beagle Channel rather than around
the Horn. Later, he and the Spray were lost without
trace on another expedition. But he might feel
comforted to know that his spirit lives on in
the Global Challenge fleet.