Phileas Fogg on autopilot

For pounds 18,500, you can bounce around the world, writes James Fergus son
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"The final great challenge of the sea," the blurb on the mailshot calls it - "a once in a lifetime opportunity for the sea lover and adventurer who wants to join a unique world record attempt." A company called Transoceanic Adventures Limited, based in Hampshire, is offering a dozen places on its Cable and Wireless-sponsored speedboat with the aim of circumnavigating the globe in less than 80 days.

All very Jules Verne, except that each place on the boat will cost the successful applicant pounds 18,500. For about the same price, and in considerably greater comfort, you could do the same trip on the QE2. You might even have time for a proper look around the ports of call. The Cable and Wireless crew won't be stopping anywhere for longer than 48 hours.

However, Transoceanic reports that some 300 hopefuls have applied, including a mother of four who has told them she is prepared to re-mortgage the house in order to pay for the ticket. "A lot of people have this Everest in their minds," says Damian Byrne, the project's technical co-ordinator. "They want to sit in a rocking chair at 65 and be able to say, 'I did that'."

But is sitting in an 80ft motorboat for a couple of months really an Everest of the mind? This isn't sailing, after all. There'll be no reason for the crew ever to get wet, even. Once the autopilot has been set in the right direction, what are all these people going to do?

"There'll be plenty," says Byrne. "Cooking duties and engine maintenance and weather and sea temperature-monitoring. There will be a cameraman on board, too, and an editing suite." Phileas Fogg it ain't. And at pounds 231.50 a day the experience certainly won't come cheap.

Yet the Cable and Wireless boat doesn't need a crew of 16 at all. Four people could do the job just as well. The rest,as the organisers cheerfully admit, are there because of their wallets.

The market for this kind of trip is big; many are inspired by the yachtsman Chay Blythe. His annual round-the-world yacht race is crewed entirely by members of the public, who pay about pounds 15,000 each for the experience. When Blythe first proposed this scheme, the yachting fraternity laughed its head off. These days, his race is regularly oversubscribed by a factor of 10, and there are many others. Robin Knox-Johnson, for example, is currently on the homeward leg of a round-the-world sail with nine yachts whose owners have paid for the privilege of travelling in the safety of a group.

"Are we all frustrated Christopher Columbuses? Do people lead such boring lives? I've asked myself these questions a lot," says Damian Byrne. The Cable and Wireless project is led by Jock Wishart, who last year led 10 fee-payers 400 miles across the Arctic to the North Pole - the first ever polarised walk to be televised.

This October, Wishart will compete in the first ever transatlantic rowing race from Tenerife to Barbados, a distance of 3,000 miles. Now that's a real adventure. At least his round-the-world crew will get to listen to his stories when they embark next April n

Transoceanic Adventures Ltd 01794 368997