"We were on a liquid roller coaster and waves were turning the cockpit into a swimming pool," writes a Global Challenge crewmember on March 3 this year - day five of the 40-day trip from Sydney to Cape Town. "By 4pm we had taken down our staysail and had put a third reef in the main. In short, we weren't laughing anymore. The blue skies and sun had disappeared. We were thoroughly wet and hanging on tight."
Ocean racing can be a brutal sport. And for the 205 sailors taking part in the Global Challenge yacht race - billed as the toughest circumnavigation in the world - the ticket to ride costs nearly ￡30,000. While the skippers are paid professionals, the 17 other crewmembers on the 12 participating boats have paid for the challenge. And up to 70% of them have little or no sailing experience.
"The way I see it, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to take part in what will no doubt be a life-changing event," explains Ron Van Eck, who sailed on the Cape Town leg of the race aboard Barclays Adventurer. "I have done a number of extreme events and this will be the icing on the cake." Van Eck is a Barclays banker and was selected from a list of hundreds of employees to sail on one leg of the yacht race. His day job is head of property for Barclays Africa, based in London.
Van Eck and other "leggers" were able to sign up for the adventure because Barclays is a sponsor of one of the teams in the 2004 Global Challenge. The race started back in Portsmouth on October 3 last year and is set to finish on July 16 after covering 29,000 miles of monumental seas and crossing the equator twice (see race course). The reason the race is considered tough is because it goes the wrong way around the world - against prevailing winds and currents. The fleet of identical 72-foot yachts are competing for the Princess Royal Trophy but they are also raising money for the Save The Children charity
Private Capital caught up with the Barclays Adventurer crewmembers in Sydney, just prior to the start of leg 4 - the longest leg by time. Days later the boat was rounding the bottom of Tasmania and was hit by gale force Westerly winds of around 30 knots that gusted up to 40 knots at times. Race organizers said this leg produced some of the roughest and most awkward seas yet encountered in the race's history. Conditions were so bad that the boat in second position, Spirit of Sark, carried a fully reefed mainsail, the smallest yankee and a storm staysail for over 36 hours. The yacht, Imagine It Done, sailing in eleventh position, came down off a giant wave and dipped the top of its mast in the water - an almost unknown phenomenon on a Challenge 72.
Barclays Adventurer arrived in Cape Town in seventh position. The boat held a comfortable position in the top three for the first half of the leg but then fell back after hitting some technical problems. Andy Glendenning, another Barclays legger, told Private Capital before setting sail from Sydney that he expected the journey to be "rough and tiring". In Cape Town he said it was much like he expected, but "you can never be fully prepared for the cold, the wind and just being wet constantly. There were times when I thought 'Why am I here?', but I don't think I ever wanted to get off," he said. "Had I have had the choice or opportunity at any point, I would definitely have stayed on board."
The brutality of the leg meant that on occasions there were as many as seven or eight headsail changes in a day and the main reefed or un-reefed five or six times. Van Eck said coping with the physical work took a lot of mental stamina. "It's freezing cold and the wind is howling through the rigging and you're looking at the wind knowing you've got to do a headsail change and you've got to get yourself on to the foredeck; you're crawling along and the waves are coming over the bow - there were times when I said a couple of prayers." Van Eck said he was disappointed that the crew didn't see any icebergs. "But we had the cold, the remoteness, the hostility of the ocean; it was all there."
Towards the end of their journey, these leggers also experienced how exasperating ocean sailing can be. After 38 days of howling winds and rough seas, the fleet hit a wind hole just 35 miles from Cape Town. Barclays Adventurer moved only 10 miles in 12 hours, then started to go backwards due to the shifting tides. So after a boisterous passage, the boats eventually limped over the finish line.
The last few minutes of the race were particularly vexing for the crew of Vaio. Like others, the boat was becalmed as it headed for the last marker and was eventually carried over the finish line by currents. These currents pushed the bow of the boat onto the finish buoy - a mistake that led to its mandatory dismissal from that leg of the race.
The Challenge 72 class is five foot longer than the boats used in the first two Global Challenge races in 1992 and 1996. The extra length was added in 2000 when the boats were redesigned to ensure maximum safety in extreme conditions. The boats are heavy and equally matched, travelling at an average of only six to eight knots. That means their performance on each leg depends on the skill and tactics of the crew. The sailing of uniform craft makes for a nail-biting race. "We want to get to the next port safely, but we also want to get their first," Jonathan Waeland, another Barclays legger, told Private Capital in February. "Our progress is charted on a live web page, and the first thing we do when we wake up for our next watch is check how we are doing against the other boats. We take the race very seriously."
The Challenge fleet often arrives at the end of a leg with just minutes between the leading boats. And during the days at sea, rival yachts are often visible on the crests of the waves. The last leg of the race, set for mid-July between La Rochelle and Portsmouth, is a short leg to ensure that the boats arrive at the finish line in close formation. The homecoming is one of the biggest events in the UK yachting calendar with thousands of well-wishers cheering from the shore. Avid sailors who like their adrenalin with a pinch of salt will need to wait another four years to take part in the next challenge scheduled for 2008/09.