The wife on the ocean waves

Stephen Brenkley talks to a couple who spent their Christmas nearly a world apart
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The Independent Online
Helen Bentley cooked for 14 on Christmas Day. They sat down for lunch somewhere in the south Pacific Ocean and had a high old time. It was a sunny afternoon and most of the guests wore shorts and T-shirts. The meal was traditional and they wore paper hats and played party games. If it was slightly cramped in the galley of the yacht it did not diminish the seasonal spirit.

"It was an outstanding Christmas," Helen said. "Two of us largely did the lunch of turkey with all the trimmings. I suppose I was the main chef but that task was eased because a lot of the meal was pre-prepared. After we ate one of the games we played was to guess what various small parts of the yacht that we'd wrapped up were. It was a really happy day."

All that was missing was Helen's husband Ronald. She and the other 13 seafaring revellers are the crew of Nuclear Electric, one of the 14 craft of equal design and dimensions taking part in the BT Global Challenge. Each has a professional skipper; the rest are all volunteers who had to pay pounds 18,750 for the privilege of sailing round the world and spending Christmas thousands of miles from loved ones.

"Of course I missed Ronald, but no more than usual," the hospital ward sister said from the yacht last week. "It's an ongoing thing. I miss him all the time, every single day but I know it won't be long now before I see him again. That's what I look forward to."

The reunion, albeit temporary, will take place in Wellington, New Zealand towards the end of January. That is the next port of call for the Challenge competitors, finishing point of the second of the race's six stages some time in the next few days. They embark from there for Sydney on 9 February and then go to Cape Town and Boston before returning to Southampton in July.

There is a long, long way to sail but with some 11,500 miles behind them they have already confronted many of the perils and inconveniences the sea has to offer. Another of the bright spots of Christmas was that the harsh weather relented.

For days, if not weeks before then, as Helen Bentley related it, the crews and their surroundings were perpetually damp. Clothes have been changed rarely, showers have been sparse as water makers have come under strain. Ronald is not all with which she is anticipating re-acquaintance. "I haven't washed my hair for a month now," she said. "That's probably the first thing I'll do when we reach dry land. But what you must do out here is stay aware of the obvious, that everybody's in the same boat."

There has been the added pressure aboard Nuclear Electric of under-performing. Having been imperious in the pre-race trials, she was swiftly installed as favourite to repeat the victory she managed in the first Global Challenge four years earlier. Before the start, the crew seemed to be responding well to expectations and were talking not simply of the joy of competing in such a race but of the importance of winning. As it is, they are languishing in the middle of the field and if their chances have not quite plunged to the bottom of the ocean bed no neutral observer now expects them to win.

"We are disappointed but there is a long way to go," said Helen, who was 44 around the time Nuclear Electric rounded Cape Horn earlier this month. "A lot of things can happen in the next 17,500 miles. We're still all very fit and none of us has fallen victim to illness or serious injury. Yes, we'd like to be in the leading three but nobody on board has given up hope."

It is perhaps significant to the latter ambition that relations on board are still happy. On a 67ft-long yacht with two or three people to a berth - a strange way of life for all except the skipper Richard Tudor - the potential for dissent is obvious. According to Helen there has been irritability but little more. Occasional rows have been quickly patched up.

So, it was not only on Christmas Day when all was sweetness and light aboard Nuclear Electric. But all the crews must wonder what it will be like when they encounter once the families they left behind. Will their singular achievement have changed them? Will they have become accustomed to being apart?

"It's hard to answer," said Helen. "I fully expect to go back to the same situation. I'm certainly not apprehensive at all about seeing Ron next month. We'll have plenty to talk about. I can hardly wait."

Before the Global Challenge fleet sailed out of Southampton in early autumn Ron Bentley mentioned how close he and his wife were. He and Helen shared a lot of time together.

She was reluctant for him to go on cricket tours and once she even talked him out of accepting a job because it would have meant two nights a week away from home.

"I have had to get on with things without her," he said. "She was very keen that I ate properly and I've done that. Fortunately, there have been no domestic crises, though I can't find a set of wedding photographs which were lent to us and I'm having fun with the garden fence, which keeps blowing down."

He spent his Christmas Day with two close friends in Brighton and had several other invitations. Usually, he and Helen celebrate together.

"It's not actually always precisely on Christmas Day because we've both been shift workers. But we always have our Christmas Day, always make it special by dressing up for it."

The first week after Helen left was probably his worst. "A pretty low time," he called it.

He clearly misses her and has tried to ease matters for himself and other Nuclear Electric families by writing a monthly newsletter for those left behind, the people he calls the survivors. There have been some compensations.

"I play indoor cricket and it's the norm for one of the team to have to umpire another match after you have played. It's not something you dash to do. But I've got nothing to go home to. I've volunteered every time."