St Lucia or bust. No experience necessary

Surely a total novice couldn't race a yacht across an ocean? That's what Will Hide thought. Then the annual Atlantic Rally for Cruisers got him on board
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The Independent Online

I've got bad news for all those who say money can't buy you happiness. After another night on watch 1,500 miles out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the sun slowly rising, with 100 feet of spinnaker flapping gently in a 12-knot breeze above me and a solitary, dark-winged petrel skimming the waves off to my left, I was pretty bloody happy.

No one said it was going to come cheap, though. You won't get much change out of £3,000 if you want to take part in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC), an annual event that, every November, sees over 200 yachts leave Las Palmas in the Canaries for the 2,700-mile crossing to St Lucia in the Caribbean.

It was inaugurated back in 1986, primarily as a way of providing support for boat owners transferring their craft to sunnier winter waters who were wary of such a daunting crossing alone. It is mostly downwind sailing, chasing the trade winds (in layman's terms, a smooth enough passage, so less chance of throwing up), and there is also now a racing division; and I was on one of those 28 boats hellbent on glory.

My only previous experience of sailing had been a blustery weekend off the Isle of Wight in September, during which I had felt cold, wet and sick. Now I was wishing I had actually read my bumper book of knots, and studied what halyards, sheets and dip-pole gybes really were. I figured the best place to learn was on the job, and a sailing job doesn't get much bigger than crossing the Atlantic.

On board with me on the sleek, spartan Spirit of Diana were three professional crew, led by a laid-back 22-year-old, Ross Daniel, and 12 other crew, like me, paying for the experience. They included a builder, a lawyer, a surveyor and a car dealer, the eldest 68, the youngest 30, all male bar two. A few had done legs of round-the-world races, but most just enjoyed a bit of sailing now and again back home and slotted this into the "trip of a lifetime" category. For registered-blind Tim Horsfield, there were the additional challenges a lack of sight presented.

Cooping so many strangers up on a 65-foot yacht almost felt like a Big Brother experiment, and I preferred to ignore the question I was constantly asked by friends before I left: "But what happens if some people don't get on?" It would be a long swim if it all went pear-shaped.

After two days of final preparations we slipped out of harbour. Out of nowhere, my tears welled up: tears of emotion, of nervousness, of excitement. I was about to cross one of the world's major oceans in a 65-foot boat. Normally my most taxing daily decision is which sandwich to have at lunch, but now 2,500 miles of very deep sea and several tonnes of fibreglass separated me from normality.

I had expected the firing of a cannon or some similar grand gesture, but at 12.40pm exactly, a weak "Three, two, one, go" came over the VHF radio and the 28 racing yachts headed west. The first 12 hours turned out to be the worst of the whole crossing. The winds picked up as the Canaries faded over a grey horizon. We saw another boat almost capsize, and first our spinnaker, then the main sail, came away, but luckily didn't fly off.

The next day we were alone. Divided into two watches, during the day we had three hours on duty (taking turns at the helm or controlling the spinnaker) then three hours off. Four on, four off at night. Two different people did the cleaning and cooking every day, a task looked on with either joy or dread depending on culinary expertise. Efforts in the tiny galley ranged from almost gourmet to partially cooked mince in tomato soup.

Time off-watch was spent sleeping, reading, sunbathing on deck and chatting – the supposedly lost art of conversation was certainly alive and well on Diana. (We did all get on well, so no need for a long swim to shore.) Night watches spent controlling the spinnaker were a good time for pondering the meaning of life and observing dolphins playing in the wake, flying fish launching suicide attacks on to the deck and phosphorescence sparkling in the water. The sense of isolation, being so far away from land, was surprisingly unthreatening. Certainly, if something had gone wrong we would have been in big trouble, but no one seemed to give it a second thought.

The downsides were remarkably few. Snorers. Having a damp, spotty backside. Packing the spinnaker after we had to take it down in a squall. Being woken for the 2am watch. Fear of blocking the toilet.

Although it was a race, we hadn't seen any other vessels at all except a huge tanker on day nine. We knew we were doing well, though, and adrenaline kicked in as we realised we had a fighting chance of arriving first. So it was rather a shock one night to see the navigation lights of Lady in Red, a Belgian/French-crewed yacht slightly longer than ours, but technically slightly slower.

National pride was at stake. We needed to lose weight. Food was thrown overboard, water tanks were emptied, but upper lips remained stiff.

For 24 hours Lady in Red continued to catch up, then changed course and disappeared, only to emerge over the horizon slightly behind us the next day. For the final night we sat on deck transfixed as she bore down on us, trying to close the gap. Shortly after dawn on 7 December we spotted the north-east shoreline of St Lucia, and an hour later turned course gingerly around its most northerly point, crossing the finish line first at Rodney Bay, 12 minutes ahead of Lady in Red.

We'd done it, in 11 days, 23 hours, 41 minutes, 43 seconds. We were totally knack- ered and emotional; never has a rum punch tasted so good at 8.40 in the morning.

This time last year I had never heard of the ARC race, or been on a boat, now I'm right up there with the great yachting bores of the world. In a pub in Fulham recently some young Henry and Fiona types were talking dismissively about how in this year's ARC, the first boat home was "crewed by a bunch of amateurs".

"You're absolutely right," I said, leaning over and giving them a hard stare. "And what's more, we knocked 19 hours off the previous record."