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Travel: Any port in a storm, please

Clive Tully shares the frustration as a gale foils an attempt on the round Britain and Ireland speed record
Oh dear. What becomes apparent as I surface from my sleeping bag is a drastic change in noise and motion. Instead of the constant whine of the Spirit of Portsmouth's 240hp turbo-charged Yamaha diesel engine, all I can hear is the wind. An eerie low-pitched moaning whistle. And the constant bone-jarring thud of the boat battering through waves has been replaced by a stomach-churning swirl as if we're being flushed down a very large drain. Metaphorically, not too far from the truth.

"Last night's bad weather turned into a force eight gale," admits skipper Alan Priddy, "so I decided to heave to and ride it out." I lift my head to the windows. As we descend into the troughs, the horizon vanishes from sight, and the forbidding steel-grey Atlantic waves tower over us like apartment blocks.

This trip is our second attempt on the record for the 1,800 mile circumnavigation of the British Isles. In July, we came to a sticky end off Lizard Point when the boat's outdrive was ripped off with an enormous bang. We had suffered the nightmare dreaded by sailors the world over - hitting a semi- submerged container. So we ended up being towed ashore courtesy of the Lizard lifeboat.

I've heard several describe my crew-mates Priddy, Lloyd and Falkowski as "absolutely barking mad". They're probably right. On calm seas, the Spirit is capable of 35 knots, although Priddy much prefers to keep it cruising at around 22 to 24. At that speed, it scuds across the surface with a regular bouncing motion which is almost tolerable. As the seas get more choppy, the movement becomes more punishing, the boat smacking into the concrete-like water with sickening thuds. In heavy seas, you drive up large waves never knowing what to expect on the other side. Sometimes you simply coast down again; on others, the boat hits open space. There's a moment of weightlessness as it plunges like a stone. When it crunches into the sea after a 10-foot drop, even the experienced members of the crew groan. And when it happens hour after hour, it's nothing short of brutal.

After making an impressive start from Cowes the day before, and excellent progress westward as far as Land's End, we're now stuck. A hundred miles off the south coast of Ireland, roughly halfway between the Scillies and the fabled Fastnet Rock, and it looks as though that is as far as we are going to get. Apparently the weather forecasters failed to predict this one.

But even if the record attempt is looking dodgy, we do at least know we're safe. The Spirit of Portsmouth is as close as you'll ever get to a four wheel drive on water. A 10m RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat), it's been built with the ultimate view of making the fastest circumnavigation of the world, which it will attempt in 2002. The current record for the 26,000 mile trip is just under 75 days, established last year by the Cable and Wireless Adventurer. Prior to that, the record had remained unbroken for 38 years, held by the American nuclear submarine Triton, with a time of 83 days. Alan Priddy reckons he can crack it in 50.

If you set eyes on the Spirit of Portsmouth, you won't forget it. It's bright yellow, with a blue inflatable collar, that enormous Yamaha engine concealed under the aft deck, and state of the art Raytheon electronics you'd be hard pressed to find in your average chandlers. It has differential GPS to give precise positioning, and screens which provide both electronic chart plotters and radar displays. There's a remote control which allows you to steer the boat at the touch of a button from anywhere within the cabin, and other gadgets include a thermal imaging nightsight for possible rescue situations.

It handles, says Priddy, like no other boat, and in fact is capable of driving itself. With the course programmed into the autohelm, it's simply a case of doing as most airline pilots do these days, keeping your eyes on the instruments and peering through the windscreen.

Except that today things aren't working out. The only record for cicumnavigating Britain which exists has been held for the last five years by the American millionaire Steve Fossett, and that was a journey taking just under six days in a sailing trimaran. We're hoping to do it in three and a half, which will put us in the Guinness Book of Records. But it's proving elusive.

The hours tick by. It's 11 o'clock in the morning, and the boat has been drifting without power for seven hours, wallowing in the mountainous swell. The others are dozing fitfully, and I switch on the radio to see if I can pick up some music. Classic FM obviously know we're out here. They're playing Shipwrecked, from Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.

By midday, the gale still shows no sign of abating, and we discuss the situation. The problem is one of arithmetic. In good conditions, Spirit of Portsmouth burns around 1.25 litres of diesel per mile. We started out with 1600 litres, but for several hours before shutting down, we were using four times as much, and only making a pathetic 10 knots, with the likelihood of the same conditions all the way along the south coast to the point where we turn north. That wouldn't get us to our refuelling stop in Scrabster, and facilities on the west coast of Ireland are sparse. We've been drifting in the wrong direction for eight hours, and with time lost that we can't hope to make up, the record is no longer within our grasp. There really is no other option - we have to turn back.

Two failed attempts at a record is something new for Alan Priddy and his crewmates. Priddy is as important a figure in boating as Chris Bonington is to the mountaineering world. Over the last 10 years, he's been instrumental in developing the concept of long distance cruising for RIBs through his company Offshore Expeditions, and he organises a number of RIB races. He already holds the record for the fastest separate circumnavigations of Britain and Ireland, along with the record for the fastest run from London to Monaco.

Two years ago, an earlier Spirit of Portsmouth, an open 7.5m RIB, made the first (and quite probably the last) crossing of the North Atlantic via the Arctic Circle in an open boat since the time of the Vikings. It took them 260 hours, contending with icebergs off Greenland, and major storms which flooded the boat. The yachting and powerboating fraternities don't always see eye to eye, but that achievement won the Spirit of Portsmouth crew a nomination for Yachtsman of the Year, proof of the universal admiration felt for a remarkable feat of seamanship and endurance.

By the time we tie up at the marina in Falmouth six hours after turning tail, the sea is calm, and the sun blazing. Spirit sticks out like a sore thumb among the gleaming white yachts and cabin cruisers, and it certainly attracts the looks. Admittedly, it lacks a few creature comforts. The toilet for number ones is simply a "bucket and chuck it" approach. Weightier matters, so to speak, haven't been addressed at the moment. By the time the boat tackles the longer expeditions, a special toilet will have been installed.

But now, after two attempts at the round Britain and Ireland record, we hear of someone else going for the same record within the next week or so, in a petrol-engined RIB. We wish him luck. He'll certainly need it, and if he does establish a powerboat record for the circumnavigation, we'll be looking to take it away from him when we try again in October.

My credentials in the barking-mad department obviously shone through, because I have been officially elected the fourth crew member of the Spirit of Portsmouth. Interestingly, the last man from Norfolk to make it big in Portsmouth was Lord Nelson. When Spirit of Portsmouth travels around the world in 50 days in 2002, I'll obviously have to be there.

Further information: http://www. rib.net/offshore). Alan Priddy's Spirit of Portsmouth will be on display throughout the Southampton Boat Show, which runs 11-19 September.