'You must be comfortable as a tiny speck in the sea'

As he prepares to cast off in the 5 Oceans Chris Stanmore-Major tells Chris McGrath in La Rochelle how he will harness his fear
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The Independent Online

Contemplating the months of peril, fatigue and solitude ahead, he seems perfectly sanguine.

"I know I'm not going to go nuts," he says lightly. Well, no, of course not. It's a bit late for that. You would only embrace an enterprise like this if you were nuts already.

Tomorrow Chris Stanmore-Major will steer a 60ft yacht, Spartan, out of this elegant old port for the first leg of the Velux 5 Oceans, the quadrennial, solo, round-the-world challenge that has claimed the lives of three out of just 123 starters since 1982. Read together with those of the non-stop, Vendée Globe race, the annals are full of shared, succinct discouragement: "dismasted", "retired", in one case "toothache". And every few years the terse euphemism: "lost at sea".

Spartan herself has already lasted the course. In fact, under a different name, she was first home 12 years ago for an Italian, Giovanni Soldini. And in 2006 she safely completed for the old man of the sea himself, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, in his 68th year. Stanmore-Major, in contrast, is a solo novice. But with only four rivals taking up the challenge, and having recently skippered 18 amateurs in the Clipper series, the 32-year-old hopes to become the first Briton to win such a race in his lifetime.

"I might have limited experience, but I've always been a student of the sea, always listened to its lessons," he says. "The best prepared boat, the lightest boat, the most technically proficient skipper is going to get to the front. But as the barometer falls, it's the wisdom of the ages that will keep you safe. There's nothing new in sailing. Every situation has been faced over the last 5,000 years, and much wisdom passed down."

Round-the-clock responsibility for his Clipper crew accustomed Stanmore-Major (above) to the corrosion of sleep deprivation, but other challenges are uncharted. Having started out as a tall-ship rigger, and spent several years as an Outward Bound instructor in Hong Kong, he will have no problem climbing the mast. "But if you do that on your own, and get knocked out, the boat will just thrash you to death before you wake up again," he says. "It'll be the same going over the side, to fix things underwater. You have to separate yourself from the boat with just a thin piece of line, and have this nightmare of the boat sailing off without you. So physically there will be places I'm going to have to go that are very new. But the long slog, the mental side of it, I'm not so worried about."

In the 1998 race, Viktor Yazykov performed open surgery on an elbow abscess with a scalpel, mirror and emailed instructions from a doctor. "But if you tried to anticipate everything that might go wrong you might never do anything," Stanmore-Major says. "Fear makes you hold on harder, think faster, move quicker. Fear can be a useful companion. You can't be afraid of being afraid. You have to be a bit fatalistic. With boats, when things go wrong, they tend to go wrong very quickly. You can wake up and find the boat's on its side, flooding, with the sail in the water. But I'm not going to spend 10 months worrying about that."

As a climbing instructor, he found that every solo ascent takes you to a moment where you are tempted by retreat. "I guess you could always just peel off into port. But something drives people to push themselves on. Money or fame wouldn't get you very far when times are hard. But if you revel in the challenge, the harder it gets, the better it gets."

Maritime experience resonates in our daily vernacular. The first leg, to Cape Town, takes the race through the Doldrums. Later, in the Roaring Forties, the same element becomes violently transformed. They say that in the Forties there is no law; in the Fifties, no God. Like the trawlermen who make it an article of faith not to learn to swim, Stanmore-Major reckons a sailor's primal affinity is not with the sea at all.

"It's the boat that is your friend," he says. "The ocean has no personality. It's a barren wasteland, a faceless, unseeing enemy, that doesn't care whether you're there or not. All that keeps you safe is seamanship, awareness, and remaining humble in front of this overpowering force – being comfortable with what a tiny speck you are. I think it's when you get too big for your boots, when you start pushing beyond what's reasonable, that things go wrong. The speeds you attain in those situations are pretty intoxicating. But there's another face to the sea, when there's no wind, it's ridiculously hot, and you're just pirouetting in the wrong direction. Then there's the easy trimming, the dolphins and albatrosses and sunsets. They don't show so much of that – it wouldn't be very good TV. It would be Big Brother with really well rounded people helping each other."

Circumnavigation of the planet suggests man at his most assertive, most competent. At the same time, however, the brutal grandeur of the environment rebukes his egotism. And here, perhaps, is the secret of men like this. They embrace mortal hazards to give life fresh purpose. They are made heroes by humility.

"Everyone plays the lead role in the film of their lives," Stanmore-Major observes. "But there are a lot of films on, at any moment. I work on what I call the axle principle. If I get run down by a bus, and have a couple of seconds staring at the axle, I want to be able to say: 'I've done everything I want to do, I've challenged myself, understood as much as I can in the time I've had'."

He professes suitable guilt over abandoning his girlfriend again, the strain on his parents and friends. But he hopes to bring many others on his adventure, through his blog – and perhaps to show them that you don't need five oceans for a life-changing voyage. "It doesn't have to be something grand," he says. "Whatever you want to strive towards can give you a feeling of empowerment. That's the essence of being alive, isn't it? I guess that's why we're all doing this stuff."

Follow VELUX 5 OCEANS at www.velux5oceans.com and Chris Stanmore-Major's blog on www.csmoffshore.com