Rowers eager to follow in Blyth's wake

Atlantic challenge: The world's longest race 'will push the human spirit to its limit'
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STEPHEN GOODWIN

Maybe it is the effect of so much unaccustomed sun on the British, but to date 102 people have applied to take part in one of the most gruelling of the world's "ultimate" challenges - rowing the Atlantic.

Climbing Everest has become a commonplace, with the list of ascenionists now exceeding 600, but since Chay Blyth and John Ridgeway rowed the North Atlantic in 1966 in an open dory no more than 30 adventurers have followed in their wake.

Those numbers could treble next year, so long as the ocean is kind to entrants in the Atlantic Rowing Race being organised by Blyth and his company Challenge Business Ltd.

It will be the world's longest rowing race - starting in September 1997 in the Canary Islands and finishing late in December 2,900 miles away in Barbados. Two-person crews will compete on equal terms using identical specially designed 23-foot (7m) boats. Competitors will buy the boats in simple kit form and either assemble them themselves or, for the nervous, get a boat builder or joiner to do the job.

Blyth estimates the total cost of entry per team at around pounds 25,000, including the cost of the boat kit, race entry, flights and accommodation. The assumption is that teams will raise sponsorship at a local level. "This is for people who want to have a very hands-on challenge," Blyth says - find the sponsorship, assemble the boat and then row it across the Atlantic.

Raising the money is likely to be the biggest factor deciding how many of the would-be competitors make it to the start line off Tenerife. Blyth had originally envisaged a fleet of 38 boats, but with entries starting to come in from overseas - Spain and Canada so far - as well as Britain, he is thinking of adding another safety vessel, allowing for up to 60 rowing boats.

Applicants span the permitted age range for the race from 21 to 60 and occupations from the shopfloor to the boardroom. Many are club rowers who are going to have to learn the art of navigation, including the use of a sextant, and some are sailors who will need to increase their stamina with oars.

"My advice is to get to know who the hell they are sharing the boat with," says Blyth. "It will require the teams to adapt to testing conditions that will push the human spirit to its limit. It is no good if only one of you has the tenacity to see it through to the finish."

Though the teams will set out together they can expect to be scattered across the horizon within 24 hours. Some may not see another boat before Barbados. The course has been chosen to enable competitors to take advantage of a south-westerly current and the trade winds, but tropical storms are a distinct possibility.

"Previous rowing experience is only advised, not a prerequisite," say the entry details. After all, Blyth had no seafaring experience when, as a sergeant in the Parachute Regiment, he teamed up with John Ridgeway.

He said: "I had never been in a boat in my life ... And there was no safety back-up. There was only one way to get home, and that was to keep bloody rowing."

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