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1996, BT Global Challenge - Rio to Wellington - first leg

BT Global Challenge 1996 - Credit Simon Walker

Richard 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 the Mast.

That was 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.

Four days' 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.

Our big 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 South America.

Between 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.

As the 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 Andes underwater.

With all 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.

Once they 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.

He warned 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.

The sail 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.

Four nights 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.

But there 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.

With the 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.

Life in 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.

Yet, there is always someone to lend a hand. Harsh words are mitigated by generous deeds.

Coincidentally, 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 Spray.

Slocum had 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.

© Financial Times

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved