Sailing: A taste of Honey for the pupils: Stuart Alexander, who will join the yacht Rhone-Poulenc for the second leg of the British Steel Challenge round the world race later this year, reports from on board as the crew tackle their first trial race

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ALEC HONEY, the skipper of Rhone- Poulenc, took his yacht into the lead of the British Steel Ushant-Fastnet race yesterday as the leaders turned from the north-west coast of France on to the 250-mile run up to south-west Ireland. Rhone-Poulenc was 16 minutes ahead of the second boat, Interspray, and a further nine minutes ahead of British Steel II, and these three were well ahead of the rest.

The 10 identical 67-foot yachts are in their first big head-on clash before their race around the world, which begins on 26 September. With the exception of the skippers, the yachts are crewed by volunteers who are paying pounds 15,000 each for their plaes.

Conditions were at times wet and uncomfortable after beating for two days, but a fresh south-westerly promised a fast, exhilarating middle section to the race before turning for home and the finish at Southampton.

After an inauspicious start, Rhone- Poulenc had made considerable progress by the first night, as the crew settled into their round-the-clock two- hour watches of four people in each of three watches. By midnight Rhone- Poulenc was second and by Friday morning first again, only to see British Steel II then take the lead back.

Slowly the thinking behind the seven- month training programme began to make more sense. An important part of that had been in the hands of the French solo Atlantic and Whitbread sailor, Lionel Pean, who drilled what was largely a thrown-together crew of novices in his home town of St Malo earlier this year. He helped to weld a crew aged from 21 to 60 of mixed ability, experience, speed of thought and competitiveness into one that understands this is not just an adventure, it is a race.

He can be a hard taskmaster, but the standards he has set are reflected in the crew's attitudes. Just being good enough to sail the boat is not good enough.

As always, there is competition between the watches, named after the three stopovers of Rio, Hobart and Cape Town. To help them perform better, Rhone-Poulenc brought in a sleep deprivation expert to devise a less abrupt transition from sleep to full watch concentration.

Honey, who is also responsible for the administration, and the mate, Simon Walker, float between the navigatorium, stuffed with satellite navigation aids, boat performance and communications electronics, the wheel and deck and, irregularly, their bunks.

The only casualty so far has been Jerry Walsingham, who had the nail of his right hand index finger ripped out when trapped by a hank on the forestay during one of many changes of headsail.

He was looked after by the boat's and the fleet's doctor, Campbell Mackenzie, who is also the fearless leader of Cape Town watch. They take in another Scot, retired prison officer Daniel Tailor, Valerie Elliott, a grandmother, and the injured Jerry.

In Rio are Suzanne Emerson, a British Airways manager who has thrown herself wholeheartedly into the fray, Tony Fowler, taking a timely break from property development, and Jane Laycock, one of three employees being sent on a leg by Rhone-Poulenc, a French-based pharmaceutical and agro-chemical company. The watch leader is mastman David Brydon.

This leaves the intellectual hobos: watch leader and publisher Brian May, the youngest crew volunteer, Justine Cotton, who at 21 is taking a year off after graduating from Exeter University, 'Rocket' Rod Street, a Gloucester builder, and the man with a word processor at a funny angle (myself).