Forget messing about in boats. This is as serious as sport gets: nine months and 31,600 nautical miles cooped up in a 60ft-long boat with 11 other hygienically challenged sailors hot-bedding it in three-hour shifts with not even a change of clothes for company.
As if that wasn't daunting enough, somehow the guys on the 10 boats have also got to find time each week to shoot, edit, and send back to London eight minutes' film of their exploits. The result will be 36 half-hour round-ups of the race on BBC2, and footage syndicated worldwide. (The last race, in 1993-4, was broadcast in 177 countries to an audience of 2.6 billion.) As the boat is being tossed about like a cork on the 100ft-high waves of the southern seas, this could well come across as a Boys Own
It is the jittery week before departure from Southampton Docks, and Steve Hayles, the navigator on Silk Cut, the British boat skippered by Lawrie Smith, has taken time out from his weather charts to show me around his communications nerve-centre. As men with shades and suncream-warpaint that wouldn't look out of place on the Australian cricket-team scuttle frenetically around us, there is a genuine sense of coiled tension and pre-match nerves. But Hayles calmly sits me down by the below-decks cubby- hole that is grandly entitled his "media station".
With not enough room to swing a mouse, let alone a cat, down there - I got pins and needles after quarter of an hour - the station is a miracle of economical design. Hayles has had specialist training on the equipment and can tape action from any one of four water-proof fixed camera-positions on deck or with the roving 12g handheld job that is barely bigger than a lipstick. He uses his hi-tech micro-edit-suite to cut the footage down to a highlights package and then a laptop computer to send it via a satellite telephone link back to London. Film can even be transmitted from the mountainous seas round Cape Horn. This technology really has shrunk the world.
Hayles, 24 and already the record-holder as the youngest ever navigator in the race (he was just 20 last time round), is well aware that the boat's needs and television's will not always coincide. "The best pictures will come when things go wrong," he admits. "We hope to show you things that nobody has ever seen before - like a big gale at night when you're surrounded by icebergs. All journalists have written about that, but they've never really known what they were talking about. Now people should know more about it."
Rick Thomas, the executive producer in London, is aiming to bring out the sailors' personalities. "I'm interested in human emotion," he asserts. "We want to show how people react under stress. We have to make the sailors become characters, like Formula One drivers."
He accepts, however, that sometimes the crew's commitment to the filming may wobble: "If he's already been woken up six times in four hours, a sailor's desire to send us footage may not be that great."
In a real "all hands on deck" situation, Hayles acknowledges that the boat will always take priority over the television. He remains a professional sailor first and an amateur TV producer second. "There's no other reason we're here," he emphasises. "Sailing is what we're good at. You always want to take part in the top end of your sport. If you're a sprinter, you want to go to the Olympics. In off-shore sailing, the Whitbread is the premier event."
With the crews manifesting such ferocious devotion to the cause, Thomas is not in the least bit worried that the sailors might neglect their television duties. "In the last race, there were examples of someone pointing the camera at the sea and filming uninterrupted for three minutes just to fulfil their obligation," he laughs. "This time they're far more committed to it."
`The Whitbread: The World's Greatest Ocean Race' is on this Friday at 7pm on BBC2Reuse content