No previous experience required

Stuart Alexander meets Peter Miles (below), who has never sailed before but tomorrow sets off round the world
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The Independent Online
The season for fireside dreamers battling the ocean wave is about to turn into reality for several hundred over the next few weeks as three fleets set out from England, starting tomorrow with the 14 yachts in the BT Global Challenge.

Next month, the Hong Kong Challenge and Clipper '96 Challenge yachts begin their circumnavigation, taking a warm- water route and stopping for some sightseeing in locations such as the Galapagos Islands. But the BT route, going against the prevailing winds and dropping into the hostile southern ocean round Cape Horn, is the one for those who want a little more steel in their CV.

Celebrating his 56th birthday in Rio at the end of the first BT leg will be Peter Miles, having previously, in his words, "only really had a stab at windsurfing." But, he adds, "this opportunity came up and I thought it was a fantastic thing to do. I also wanted to see if I could hack it."

Miles is both typical and atypical of the new breed of crew for what is the second edition of an event which, if nothing else, has brought a lot of British sponsorship into a British yachting venture. This comes at a time when the country has struggled to find an Admiral's Cup team, is struggling to support a Whitbread entry, and its America's Cup challenge is still under wraps.

Miles is typical in that he is more than capable of meeting the financial commitment. By the time he has finished paying almost pounds 19,000 for his berth, plus the costs of going to the training sessions and then living at the stopovers, as well as bringing his wife and son to Wellington, there will be no change out of pounds 30,000. The same sum, he estimates, will have been lost in earnings.

He is atypical in that he is not wedded to the idea of racing - indeed, he says he is not all that keen on sailing. "I don't think I enjoy yachting as much as some of the people around me," he says. "I think I can take it or leave it. I don't expect to be buying my own yacht."

Additionally, he suffers from seasickness. "The one thing which terrifies me is being seasick for a whole leg. At times like that, the only thing you want is to be dead." Other downsides are the element of tedium and sitting on deck cold and wet.

So why is he doing it? The principal reason is that having taken early retirement as an architect from the Public Services Agency, he returned to his village in Cambridgeshire, next to the one in which a 1992/3 competitor lived, and had the time, money and appetite for a major challenge before it was too late.

Not just for a leg, but the whole way, "otherwise I wouldn't have felt a complete part of it." The people he met in the early training stage were "uplifting, enthusiastic, amusing and vibrant with lots of vim and vigour." And when he went race-training on some smaller boats, the whole concept began to change.

He still feels a little guilty about the self-indulgence, but says there has been no opposition at home, his three children all think it is terrific. It is not only the image which is fantastic, at times the experience lives up to it. Like many, he sees the pinnacle as being the battle against the elements of the southern ocean as they skirt Antarctica, with the icebergs, wild seas, and wonderful dawns already clearly pictured in his mind.

But there is also a paradox as his most exciting memories so far are from the run downhill in a strong breeze from southern Ireland, surfing on the waves. "It was thrilling," he says. "Like standing on a station platform in the old days when a mighty steam engine rushed past."

But has not he chosen to do the opposite, to crash uphill against the wind? "Ah, yes. I suppose so. But going uphill can be equally thrilling, what with the power of the wind, the noise, and the strength of the environment."

Yet the fireside will be beckoning. "I shall miss being at home," he says. "I expect to be only too pleased and only too happy to go back home. I enjoy being at home a lot."

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