Do you have what it takes?
Feb. 4, 2006 12:00 PM
For your next charter, how about being swept the length of the deck by a 60-ft. wave, struggling to put a reef in the mainsail in a Force 9 gale and then enjoying your supper of a freeze dried meal before strapping yourself into your bunk for no more than three hours sleep at a time? If this doesn’t appeal, try another perspective – how about taking the biggest adventure of your life, breaking the boundaries of everything you thought you were capable of and experiencing the most natural and untamed edges of the world?
One of nature’s last bastions, the sea is amongst the few remaining places where it’s still possible for human beings to encounter life-threatening, uncontrollable danger. And that’s one of the very reasons people want to go there, because as well as testing you physically to the limits, it stretches your mind and touches your spirit. Imagine the feeling of slipping the mooring lines at dawn and pointing the bow towards the horizon, beyond which lie thousands of miles of ocean and, eventually, a foreign shore. No airline ticket, no traffic signs, no stopovers but the promise of a life-changing experience. As author Michael Calvin says in his book Only Wind and Water: “The Sea imposes hard truths. Anyone who ventures out into it cannot hide, from Mother Nature or their fellow man. It strips characters bare.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking there’s no way that your average man or woman could ever participate in something so specialized; surely it’s for the hardened professionals, people who’ve been sailing all their lives. Not so. Kevin Wick is a 49 year old, family man from Manchester, England who until recently had never set foot on an ocean going yacht, even though he’d wanted to sail around the world ever since he was a schoolboy. In September 2008 he’ll be joining a professional skipper and 16 other amateur crew aboard one of twelve, identical 72ft. yachts and leaving his wife and three children at home whilst he races around the world in the Global Challenge.
The race was established in the early nineties by Sir Chay Blyth, an Englishman who was the first person to sail non-stop around the world against the prevailing winds and currents; or the “wrong way” as it’s often described. An adventurer with a mission to encourage others, he set up the Challenge to break down the barriers associated with international yacht racing, enabling ordinary people to participate in a way that had never previously been thought possible. Against his initial detractors, he proved that if you gave individuals the chance, they could find hidden depths of skill, endurance and tenacity; so much so that the experience would change them forever. More than half of Kevin’s fellow crewmembers and competitors have never sailed before they sign up; some have always wanted to but never had the chance whereas for others the race provides the impetus to do something extraordinary. The start of the 2008 race coincides with Kevin’s retirement after 30 years in the police force. He’s followed each of the previous races and always promised himself he’d take part one day: “If I died without doing it they’d have to label me ‘returned unopened’” he says, adding that he’s most looking forward to sailing in the extreme conditions of the Southern Ocean, even though he knows it’s going to be “Scary and uncomfortable!”
The 30,000-mile course starts in Portsmouth, England and heads south across the Bay of Biscay, down the coast of Spain and Africa before turning west to traverse the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro. The second leg sees competitors rounding Cape Horn and entering the Southern Ocean on their way to Wellington, New Zealand. From Wellington it’s the Southern Ocean again all the way to Cape Town, South Africa and from there the penultimate leg heads back north to La Rochelle, France. Finally, there’s a brief romp back to a hero’s welcome in Portsmouth, match racing all the way. Just like that! In reality it’s up to four years of preparation, ten months away from home and 150 days living aboard in conditions which can be, as one crewmember neatly summarized, like being in a Moulinex blender.
From day one Chay realized that if you are going to allow people the chance to stretch themselves to their limits, you have to do everything you can to keep them safe. Famous for their seaworthiness, the Challenge yachts are steel built and designed to keep sailing – and racing – through the very worst conditions. This is a distinct departure from other racing yachts which are typically built for lightness and speed at the expense of their ruggedness. The Challenge’s safety record is exemplary; testimony not only to the equipment but also to the preparation and training of each crew member as well as the organization of the event itself.
However, the inherent danger of sailing over the open ocean cannot and should never be underestimated. Indeed, having the opportunity to confront real danger is part of the thrill and the element that is such a powerful catalyst for the psychological dimension of the experience; you can’t stop the yacht and get off when you get scared. As professional yachtswoman Ellen Macarthur succinctly put it: “...when you’re in a big storm you just have to deal with it; there is no way you can get out.” When Challenge crewmember Naomi Cudmore stepped ashore six months ago having completed the 2004/05 race, one of her most overwhelming feelings was one of relief that she and her fellow crewmembers had not suffered any serious injuries. The other was the love she felt for her family and friends who were waiting on the quayside and had supported her throughout the journey.