Landlubbers on the Net can share the thrills - and prizes - of a real round-the-world yacht race
Landbound wannabe sailors no longer have to dream of taking to the ocean waves: a virtual yacht race that began yesterday promises the thrills and experience of the open sea via the Internet. The virtual race mirrors the real BT Global Challenge round-the-world yacht race, which left Southampton yesterday.

Using the Global Challenge's World Wide Web site (, entrants select 14 virtual crew members from a possible 28. Each has various skills and the combination chosen affects the performance of the boat during the race. For example, some may have strength (good for raising and lowering the sails) while others are skilled in navigation and race tactics.

Stores of items such as food and water must also be selected: too little and the crew's health will suffer, too much and the extra weight will slow the craft.

The virtual race has six legs which follow the course of the real race. Although it is too late to take part in the first leg, participants can register for the second leg, which is due to begin in November. Once under way, entrants must specify compass direction and select sail settings, although in-depth nautical knowledge is not required. Craft must be checked every few days, and any course and setting changes made. Reminder email is sent to entrants if their yachts are left unattended for too long. Ignore the email and the crew may mutiny.

Andy Bridden, BT multimedia spokesman, says the race is an example of innovative Web use. "It harnesses the Web's capacity for interaction, enabling entrants to really feel a part of the event," he says. "We expect many thousands of people to enter the race, making it one of the most innovative online yachting events ever conducted. Staging this type of thing would simply not have been possible before the Web."

BT is offering prizes to the winner of each leg, and of the whole race.

As well as providing the interface for the virtual race, the BT Global Challenge Web site offers a vast store of information about the real event. Keen yacht watchers can access progress reports and view charts plotting craft positions. There is information on skippers and sponsors, and a library of photographs and video clips of the yachts that can be downloaded. These will be updated throughout the race. The site also offers a Quicktime yacht "tour" giving a glimpse into life and conditions on board.

The site is operated from a Web server at race headquarters in Southampton. Information on the server will be updated throughout the event using data fed from the yachts via the geostationary Inmarsat satellite network.

"The Internet allows us to communicate rapidly the latest race information to interested people throughout the world," Mr Bridden says. "The time lag between receiving information from the yachts and posting it to the Web site can be as short as 10 minutes."

Both virtual and real races will finish this time next year, when the yachts return to Southampton.