Think you should get out more? Why not sail round the world...

A group of amateurs – some of whom have never sailed before – are about to embark on a year-long round-the-world yacht race that costs £43,000. Jonathan Owen meets them

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The Independent Online

Enduring wild seas and force 10 gales may not be everyone's idea of fun. But the world's longest ocean race, which begins in the UK today, boasts a record number of rank amateurs who have swapped their daily routines for the experience of a lifetime.

A fleet of 12 yachts – the biggest in the history of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race – is setting off from St Katharine Docks in London. The 70ft-long yachts, which are crewed by amateurs led by a professional skipper, are starting a 40,000-mile circumnavigation that will last almost a year, with the fleet due to return to London next July.

Between now and then it will stop off at six continents. After the first leg, which ends in Rio de Janeiro in around a month's time, the fleet will continue via South Africa, Australia, Singapore, China, the US, Panama, Jamaica, Northern Ireland and the Netherlands.

More than 650 people, from teenagers to septuagenarians, are involved, the majority of them from Britain.

The amateur sailors taking part in the biennial race range from electricians and lorry drivers to professional musicians and rugby players. And even, as in the case of Susan Hunt from Solihull, a 52-year-old midwife, people scared of open water.

Some of this year's adventurers have signed up to do the whole voyage, while others will do different parts of the journey.

It's an expensive undertaking, at a cost of more than £43,000 for the whole voyage. Yet money alone does not guarantee a place. More than 20,000 people applied for this year's race, but just 673 made it through the selection process and completed intensive training courses to prepare them for what lies ahead.

"It's an amazingly diverse group of people of all ages and from all walks of life – ordinary people doing something extraordinary," said Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, founder and chairman of the race and the first man to sail non-stop around the world single-handed. "Forty per cent had never been on a boat before when they come to us. And we have a very tough training regime."

He added: "People are increasingly looking to do something special with their lives. You've only got one life, so paint it with bright colours. If you think you want to do something, do it. The worst thing you can do is look in the mirror at 90 and say, 'I wish I'd done that'."

Here, some of the crew members taking part in this year's race share their reasons for doing so.

'I'm hoping to use the race to close one chapter in my life and open up another'

Mark Fisher is a 38-year-old marketing manager from London, whose late wife, Emma, wanted him to take to the ocean. He has sold his house and taken unpaid leave to do the whole circumnavigation.

"My wife and I learnt to sail six years ago. She had lung cancer and passed away last August, and left a little book of instructions of things I needed to do. One of them was to sail across an ocean. I couldn't work out which ocean to sail across and when I saw an advert for the Clipper Race, I thought she'd be happy if I sailed across all of them. I think she'd be as proud as punch, quite frankly.

"Shortly after I signed up I met a new lady and now the motivation is more about how I can use the race to close one chapter of my life and open up another. I can cope with a year out of my career, but having to rehouse three cats that I absolutely adored was a big challenge. Leaving behind a new girlfriend is tormenting. She's pretty upset at the prospect of me being away for a year.

"At nearly 40 with no children it's not the ideal time to be running away for a year, but I think the benefits that will come from the experience probably outweigh the problems associated with having to sacrifice things in order to do it."

'I'm getting towards the end of my life and I've got to pack this stuff in. I've got a list I'm ticking off'

Gil Sharp, a 73-year-old musician from London, was the first female violinist of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The oldest female crew member in this year's race, she will join it in October, sailing 8,900 miles from Cape Town to Albany, then from Sydney to Brisbane.

"I spoke to my ex-dentist, who has sailed all his life, and said 'I've always wanted to sail' and he told me to do the round-the-world race. That was about 10 years ago. It has taken me until last December when I suddenly thought 'If you are going to do this you'd better blinking well put your name down'. So I did.

"The big sacrifice for me will be being apart from my children and grandchildren, and my violin. I'm getting towards the end of my life and I've got to pack this stuff in. I've got a bucket list, and am gradually trying to tick them off. I'm enthusiastic but I'm hardly even an amateur when it comes to sailing."

'People should try to change their lives. It's never too late to try'

Bob Baker, a 51-year-old lorry driver from Tilbury, Essex, weighed more than 18 stone and failed a medical that left him facing the loss of his HGV licence and career. That was in 2006. After changing his diet and taking up exercise, he lost a third of his body weight and will join the race next April, sailing 8,850 miles from San Francisco to New York via Panama and Jamaica before returning to London.

"The idea of taking part in the race started with watching a documentary about a group of people sailing around the world. I can remember saying to my wife that I would like to do something like that. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd be accepted. I drive for a living and had never sailed in my life.

"I always thought yachting was a rich man's sport. But when you get into it, it's not at all. People should try to change their lives. My life has changed beyond words since I got fit, and it's never too late to try."