Farewell family, hello high seas

Stephen Brenkley meets the crew of a boat that will be their home for 10 months
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A strange, long winter looms for Ronald Bentley. He has prepared meticulously for it, considering the peculiar circum- stances which prevail in Round the World yacht races, and is confident he can overcome the unknown perils of the spring and early summer which follow. Bentley's mind is ready. For three years he has contemplated this fantastic adventure and now it is upon him.

Still, he is not entirely sure how he will react when his wife, Helen, sails beyond the Southampton horizon today in the race's hot favourite, Nuclear Electric. "I can't tell what I'm going to do, I didn't know all this was within her," he said. "I had always seen her as quite a quiet, sedate, organised person." Ronald Bentley is one of those being left behind in the substantial wake of the BT Global Challenge. He has plenty of company.

Invented by Chay Blyth, who sailed solo round the world a quarter of a century ago, this is the second staging of the Challenge, self-styled as "the world's toughest yacht race". The entry has risen from 10 to 14 yachts of exactly equal design and dimensions, steel and 67ft long, and while participation began as the main goal for most crew members there was unquestionably a competitive edge in Southampton last week.

Nuclear Electric is favourite because of its outstanding form in the trials and because it has as its skipper, Richard Tudor. Tudor, 36, is all that an ocean- going yacht skipper should be. Hard, charismatic, decisive, uncompromising, fast - this is the crusade where a Tudor not a Plantagenet may become Richard the Lionheart. He also has a point to prove. Leading in 1991, his boat was de-masted and in effect eliminated. The Nuclear Electric crew have clearly been entranced by his desire for retribution.

More than 150 volunteer crew members in the 14 boats - all with professional skippers - expect to make the whole 30,000- mile voyage over 10 months and six legs. Others will do a leg each. Almost all of them were without previous sailing experience before they began training three years ago. To travel this journey in utterly inhospitable seas on a vessel with bathrooms no bigger than those on trains, almost all of them have paid pounds 18,750, the sort of sum to buy opulence and a jacuzzi on a cruise liner. For almost all of them it was not money readily come by.

Almost all of them have wives or husbands, sons or daughters who might well wish for a luxury liner before a Bermuda sailing rig. The senses of purpose and adventure, not to mention the qualities of courage and endurance, necessary to attempt to sail around the world, possibly while watching the life savings being washed away, are beyond doubt but the attribute of selfishness may not be far behind.

"That's been suggested," said Ronald Bentley, who, will be reporting for duty as a safety officer in the House of Commons while his wife confronts the unkindnesses of the high seas. "It's funny to think that Helen once persuaded me not to take a job because it would have meant being away from home two nights a week. I wouldn't go on cricket tours because she didn't like me being away. We've always been very close in the 16 years we've been married. But once Helen decided she wanted to do this there was no point in being anything than 100 per cent in support."

At this last statement, June Mann, who was also crammed into the galley of Nuclear Electric three days before its departure, nodded. No doubt the reaction would have been similar on the Challenge's 13 other boats. In most cases, for this epic sea-going adventure to be viable, support from the piece of land-lubbery known as the home front has been essential.

June Mann's husband Tony is 50 and has given up his senior banking job to do it. She never demurred and indeed will follow him round the world by air, meeting him in each of the five stop-over ports from Rio to Boston. It is costing them pounds 65,000. This former pub landlord and insurance salesman has no fears for the future. "I've never been out of work," he said.

Peter Calvin, 32, is making the trip although his fiancee gave birth to their first child on Thursday night. Simon Wardle, 37, a self-employed gardener and now unemployed, was married to Adele only two weeks ago. "We'd already cancelled it once," he said, "because Adele originally booked the ceremony for the day of the England v Scotland match in Euro 96."

John Williams, a computer company managing director and at 54 the oldest crew member, is leaving behind his wife, sons of 13 and 15 and a desk probably the size of the yacht. He accepts the point that his boys are at formative stages in their lives but he simply had to do this (the single most common reason).

Opinions about spiritual fulfilment and teamwork and finding one's soul ("I'll be glad to get going so we can get sober," opined Simon Wardle) abounded as the yachtsmen packed the yachts, prepared their farewells and tried to evaluate an uncharted immediate future. As for Helen Bentley, this quiet, sedate, organised ward sister of 43 from Brighton has become charmingly outgoing. So accustomed is she to the attentions of interviewers that she speaks in well modulated sound bites beyond honing by the most pernickety of spin doctors.

"As you go through life we must expect change," she said. "In the sort of job I do I often see people who haven't achieved what they wanted to and for whom it's too late or haven't done what they should have. I feel I should do this."

But for Nuclear Electric it is no longer a case of merely doing it. Its crew wants to win it. Tudor said that he had already noticed other yachts looking at their preparations, following their methods. "They can follow us all the way round if they like."

All these people start today as strangers, but given a figuratively fair wind should finish next July as friends. They had better hope the opposite is not true of their relationships with their family.