Sailing: Crowded world of the ocean racers

Sailing round the globe used to be for heroes. Now package trips ride the same waves as the professionals.
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The Independent Online
HURRICANE GEORGES is only a temporary hiccough for the 16 yachtsmen scheduled to leave Charleston, South Carolina, tomorrow in the singlehanded Around Alone Race. Other storms await them in the desolation of the Southern Ocean, as they make their way round the world via South Africa, Australia and Uruguay.

However, Georges' successors could be one of the wilder cards thrown at the 100 adventurers who start their transatlantic leg from Plymouth next month in the Clipper Race.

Whereas the Round Alone is for the experienced ocean sailor, the Clipper features seven, professionally skippered, 60ft boats with up to 14 crew who have paid to sail all the way round or individual stages. A more relaxed, six-stage, 10-month voyage takes them to Nassau, Hawaii, Japan, Hong Kong, the Seychelles, Durban, Salvador and the Azores.

Yesterday in Plymouth, Robin Knox-Johnston, a racer and adventurer who simultaneously held the records for the slowest and fastest non-stop trips around the globe, was focused on final training for the latest recruits to his Clipper Race. But he had a moment to think of the Round Alone and the likes of Mike Golding in Group 4, Josh Hall, in Gartmore Investments, and Mike Garside, in Magellan Alpha, all carrying the British flag first raised by solo-legend Francis Chichester in 1967.

"I feel total empathy with the single-handers," he said. "I am with them in spirit right now, perhaps even a little envious." He still feels that the pinnacle of all his achievements is his 313-day epic in the 33ft Suhaili in 1969, when he became the first man to sail around the world alone, non-stop port-to-port (the Frenchman, Bernard Moitessier, had gone round the world a month earlier but chose to keep on going "to save my soul" and 301 days later fetched up in Tahiti). "We did not know if it was even possible," he said. "The fun was in being a pathfinder."

There has since been what seems a never-ending cycle of people sailing round the world, with Knox-Johnston's Clipper taking the sunnier route and Chay Blyth's BT Challenge (another paid-for package) the more painful one. Both provide opportunities for the man in the street - or at least the man who can raise pounds 22,000 - to circumnavigate the globe. In addition, the final Whitbread Race, now called the Volvo Ocean Race, has just finished, the Vendee Globe non-stop singlehander starts next year, and a flat-out, Millennium-celebrating French initiative in giant multihulls, called simply The Race, casts off on 31 December 2000.

The 26,000-mile, four-leg Round Alone race is not just another day at the office for Golding. Even though he will be going round the world for the fourth time this will be his first experience of racing the conventional route. One of the ironic facts about sailing around against the winds and currents, as he has done so far, is that you spend less time hurtling dangerously downwind under spinnaker. Instead, you just strap things in and wait for the pain of the slog upwind to go away. Now he has to be able to push instead of easing off the throttle.

The transition from grand tourer to grand prix is putting Golding's reputation on the line much more publicly than his foray into round-the-buoys Admiral's Cup racing, which he did with a Mumm 36 in 1995, when he was clearly uncomfortable about having to hand over some aspects of running the boat to specialists. He is now back being his own master.

David Alan-Williams, in talking about taking the 92-foot catamaran, Enza, on a world-record breaking run around the world, with Knox-Johnston and Peter Blake, put it in context. It is, he says, like taking a racing car on to the motorway, in the pitch dark and in pouring rain, your right foot almost buried in the floor. Then, you turn off the headlights. Then, still flat out, you swing on to a cobbled road.

The singlehanders have to know when to lift the right foot, and Golding is particularly aware that he must sail conservatively on the first leg to Cape Town. The mantra of first having to finish if you are going to finish first is repeated at every opportunity in sailing. He has gone for a full whistles-and-bells new 60-foot boat with swinging keel and wing mast in a bid to beat the two favourites, Giovanni Soldini, of Italy, and Isobel Autissier, of France. Hall, in contrast, though his hull was built from the same mould as Golding's in Cherbourg, has a conventional keel and mast and is putting his faith in simplicity, reliability, and being the lightest of the 60-footers. He is also hoping to avoid colliding with a drifting container lost overboard from a cargo ship, which sank his boat on the first leg last time out.

Autissier, too, sank when leading on the second leg and had to be rescued by the Australian Navy, who have a rather good reputation for that sort of thing, given their hand in saving the singlehander Tony Bullimore, who spent five days inside his up-turned boat in the Southern Ocean.

Pete Goss, a former Royal Marine also did a good job saving Raphael Dinelli. As Goss prepares for The Race, he may be pleased to know that the youngest of Knox-Johnston's disciples, 18-year-old Gareth Venning, of Redruth, is doing the first leg courtesy of a generous godfather before applying for a career in the Marines.

AROUND THE WORLD IN 100 YEARS

1898: The American Joshua Slocum, in Spray, completes 46,000 miles in three years to circumnavigate the world for the first private voyage.

1965-70: The 16-year-old Robin Lee Graham, aboard Dove, sets out from California on the youngest solo circumnavigation. He finished in his second boat, Spirit of Dove, through the Panama Canal five years later.

1967: Francis Chichester, in Gypsy Moth IV, goes round the world in 226 days.

1968-69: Robin Knox-Johnston in Suhaili wins the Golden Globe trophy as the first man to sail alone around the world non-stop in 313 days.

1970 Chay Blyth sails in British Steel the wrong way, clockwise, around the world non-stop in 292 days.

1973-74: First fully crewed Whitbread Round the World Race won by Brazil's Ramon Carlin in Sayula II.

1978: Kristyna Chojnowska-Liskierwicz is first woman to sail, in Mazurek, round the world. Naomi James is first woman, in Express Crusader, to pass the five great Capes around the world.

1982-83: The first BOC Around Alone Race won by Philippe Jeantot, in Credit Agricole, in 159 days.

1988: The first woman non-stop is Australia's Kay Cottee, who took 189 days in Blackmore's First Lady.

1989: The fastest singlehanded, non-stop time of 109 days is set by Titouan Lamazou aboard Lada Poch III in the Vendee Globe.

1992-93: First British Steel wrong way round the world challenge for amateurs.

1996-97: First Clipper Race for amateurs.

FORTHCOMING RACES

1998-99: Around Alone singlehanded with stops.

1998-99: Second Clipper Race for amateurs.

1999-2000: BT Challenge for amateurs.

1999-2000: Vendee Globe non-stop singlehanded.

2000-2001: The Race, fastest non-stop round the world.

2001-02: Volvo Ocean Race (formerly Whitbread Round the World Race).

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