Sailing: Chittendales relish their big parade: Nuclear Electric wins the British Steel Challenge after 28,000-mile marathon against the winds

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The Independent Online
TYPICAL. You wait for eight months and then two of them come along together. On a wave of emotion, the 10-boat British Steel Challenge came to a close conclusion here yesterday when Nuclear Electric arrived in early afternoon to retain her overall lead by a mere one hour 10 minutes and 25 seconds after 151 days of racing around the world. For the second- placed Group 4 Securitas, it was another one that got away.

Group 4 was first home on the final five-week, 6,000-mile leg from Cape Town, just pipping Commercial Union and British Steel II into the Solent in early morning, and then faced an anxious wait. Nuclear Electric had one final alarm, too close for comfort to going aground at Fawley, but 28,000 miles of consistency were not to be wasted.

'I've had a ball,' the winning skipper, John Chittenden, said in between embraces of respect from Group 4's skipper, Mike Golding. His boat had also won the third leg, this after losing 48 hours with equipment failure on the previous one.

'These are very competitive people and a pretty courageous bunch,' Chittenden said of his 13-person crew - the Chittendales. All amateurs, like the rest in the race, they had paid pounds 14,850 for the experience of sailing against the prevailing trade winds. 'The only person who has turned unpleasant at any time, to my shame, has been me,' Chittenden said. 'Professional sailors view bad weather as a nuisance. These people seem to revel in it and say 'This is what I came for.' He described the race 'the wrong way round' as 'like riding a push-bike uphill'.

Golding, he felt, had been the most aggressive skipper, Richard Tudor of British Steel II probably the best, and himself the luckiest.

Quite an experience it has proved. 'I've been rained on, blown over, had me delicate psyche bruised and to cap it all been hit in the crotch by a kamikaze flying fish travelling at Mach 2.2,' said Pete Thomas, at 54 the oldest on the boat.

While the competitive element intensified as the event unfolded, it was not so much a race, more a life-changing adventure. When Group 4 crossed the line at 7.33am, one crew member, Rob Coles, turned to a colleague and wondered: 'Who needs to take drugs when you can get a fix like this?' He immediately wondered about the wisdom of it, as a customs officer had just boarded the boat.

Coles, a 36-year-old printer who

estimates himself pounds 40,000 worse off in all, now contemplates life without a job. 'I used to work 16 hours a day grafting as a family man. Now to any family man I would say 'Stick it'. Do what you want. If you have to go without a dishwasher it's not important.'

All human life was at quayside; everyone had a story to tell. Alison McKichan's was as typical and remarkable as any. She had been part of the Commercial Union mutiny on the first leg, which led to the skipper being replaced, when she feared for her safety. She also celebrated that delicate 30th birthday en voyage.

It has all changed her, she says. 'My friends say I am more insane than ever. My parents worry about our mental health,' our including her sister Sue on the Pride of Teesside boat. Life as a marketing consultant no longer appeals. 'I just feel so unsettled by the whole thing. I am sure there will be another adventure. I feel sorry for my poor parents. Mum is a frustrated grandmother.'

The last few days on the boat, she said, had been like end of term at St Trinian's with, among other pranks, bogus faxes being sent to crew members informing them that their girlfriends were pregnant.

All wondered about the let-down factor. 'Sitting down and watching the 9pm news with his mum and dad is going to seem a bit dull,' said one of the many proud mothers on the dock, Christine Janes, nee Truman - yes, the tennis player - of her son Nigel on Nuclear Electric.

Last night the pull of home was strong, but Alison McKichan was planning to stay to greet the last boat, Heath Insured, not due until Thursday, having lost a man overboard on the final leg. She remembered how much it had meant to her when the fleet sailed out to greet her boat after their first-leg traumas.


Fourth leg (Cape Town to Southampton, positions with miles to the finish): 1 Group 4 finished; 2 Commercial Union 572 finished; 3 British Steel II finished; 4 Nuclear Electric finished; 5 Rhone-Poulenc finished; 6 Coopers & Lybrand finished; 7 Hofbrau 27 finished; 8 Pride of Teesside 43; 9 InterSpray 185; 10 Heath Insured 583.

Overall: 1 Nuclear Electric 151 days 11hr 45min 04sec; 2 Group 4 151:13:59:36; * 3 Hofbrau 152:13:10:46; * 4 Cooper & Lybrand 154:15:45:28; * 5 Pride of Teesside 155:15:18:44; * 6 InterSpray 155:19:45:41; * 7 Heath Insured 157:04:18:34; 8 Rhone-Poulenc 159:04:07:43; 9 Commercial Union 159:17:26:13; 10 British Steel II 163:00:25:07.

Pending adjustment. * Estimated overall time.

Information supplied by BT.

(Photograph omitted)