Sailing: Goss fights to be shipshape

You have to be fit for strife on the ocean waves to race around the world in under 80 days
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The Independent Online
THESE ARE tense days for the six members of the Goss Challenge crew. Their boat, 120 feet of Formula One flying machine, is a month away from launch, a thousand niggly little details still have to be sorted out, yet the stomach is just beginning to tighten at the prospects ahead.

In March, they will tackle the round the world record of 71 days and 14 hours for the Jules Verne Trophy; then on the stroke of midnight 2000- 2001, they will sail out of Gibraltar at the start of The Race, a French- inspired dash around the globe for yachts of any size, design or nationality. The rules are pretty simple: turn left at the Atlantic, first back wins.

The emotions of all six, from skilled yachtsmen like Goss, who received the Legion d'honneur from the French government for his rescue of Raphael Dinelli on the 1996 Vendee Globe single-handed race, to enthusiastic amateurs like Mike Calvin, a sports feature writer with the Mail on Sunday, can be located somewhere in that vortex of uncertainty which lies between the commands of "ready" and "steady". Last week, in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside, just about as far away from the sea as the geography of an island nation allows, the crew gathered at the Benetton high- performance laboratory to monitor fitness and do a bit of bonding. They even had a makeshift enemy to enhance their sense of camaraderie, one Bernie Shrosbree, former member of the Marines and the SAS, Nordic skier, triathlete, canoeist, marathon runner and general hard nut. No one could mistake the harsh tones of Shrosbree for the gentle lapping of the waves against the shore.

The parallels between driving 530kg of Formula One car round the streets of Monte Carlo for 90 minutes and sailing a catamaran around the world in 80 days were not readily apparent until Alex Bennett, the youngest and most powerfully built member of the crew, thrashed the life out of a step machine and then confronted the reflex board. The exercise tests not only reaction speeds but agility and peripheral vision. To reach the outer of three rows of buttons laid out like a noughts and crosses grid, you have to stretch. When the button lights up, you press it.

Alert and fit, Bennett achieves a score of 60 in a minute, which is pretty reasonable. Giancarlo Fisichella, the talented young Benetton driver, holds the record of 88. But in a state of near exhaustion after the step machine, Bennett's fumbling attempts to locate and press the buttons make him resemble a drunken spider trying to track down a particularly elusive fly. It is an extraordinary demonstration of how quickly the brain can disintegrate under physical pressure. Bennett, who has just sailed his 21ft yacht to a highly respectable fifth place in the recent mini-Transatlantic race, is suitably chastened by his diminished score of 42. Lesson one learnt: pace yourself.

Formula One drivers need to have the build of a jockey, the forearms and wrists of a darts player, the neck muscles of a prop forward, the stamina of a marathon runner and a ballet dancer's suppleness in the ankle joints. In one exercise, Fisichella sits on a red bouncing ball in full race gear with his helmet attached by wire to weights on either side. Not exactly hi-tech, but the nervous movements of the ball precisely recreate the twitchiness of a Formula One car at high speed, while the weights work to develop the ability of the neck muscles to withstand enormous G-forces.

Benetton are the first team to develop their own in-house performance lab. During a race, the Italian's heart rate will average 140-160 beats a minute, rising to 200 in moments of extreme tension, which puts him in the same category of stress as a marathon runner or a Tour de France cyclist. He is wedged in a tiny cockpit, yet no amount of discomfort must affect his levels of co-ordination or concentration.

It is the ability to balance extreme physical exertion with logical thinking and delicate manoeuvring that Shrosbree is trying to drill into his new sailing recruits. It is what he calls total body conditioning. "When you haven't had any sleep and you're trying to do the most basic task like making a cup of tea for the crew," he says.

Being sailing fit, Goss calls it. "You will lose weight because the cold and the sea grinds it out of you. You need power and a bit of padding and you need to be supple. You're static for long periods and then you take explosive exercise, pulling down a sail or whatever. This is good because it's making us think about our fitness. This boat is a real man- eater and it ain't going to wait for us."

Visualisation is another technique favoured by Shrosbree. "Being able to see what might happen can help you focus when you're tired," he says. Fisichella's powers of visualisation are so acute he can sit on the ball, turning an imaginary steering wheel, working the pedals like a child at play and, in his mind's eye, lap Monaco to within two seconds of his true qualifying time last season.

Under pressure, Goss's crew will have to react no less instinctively than Fisichella. "We're going to be leaping off a wave at 40mph in pitch black in the Southern Ocean and no one can afford to freeze mentally," Goss says. Merely steering the boat requires the sensitivity of a racing driver. "It's going to be a matter of discipline, strong team- work, openness. We've got no room for egos. Everyone is going to have a bad day and it will be up to him to talk about it and up to the rest of us to dig deep and lift him. Understanding your limits is half the battle."

When the boat hits the water for the first time at 7.30am on 12 January and starts its journey down the River Dart, the spotlight will switch from the drawing board to flesh and blood and the pace of the project will quicken. "I can't wait," says Goss. "I just want to get on the boat and get out to sea." Somewhere, at least, where Bernie Shrosbree's fitness regime will be out of sight, if not out of mind.