June, 1997

Sydney to Cape Town: 40 Days Before the Mast



By Kate Ford

52º south, 95º east

he wind on my cheeks is 55 miles an hour, sometimes gusting to 65. I've tried a face mask, but it takes away my feel for the wind, the only sense I have left in the black night. The closest land is Antarctica, 1,000 miles away. It's 20 below with the wind chill, and my arms burn from steering through the waves.

Rob Chatwin is hunched in the cockpit two feet away -- too far for conversation. A wave crashes down on top of us, white and heavy. He surfs on it until he fetches up against the netting in front of the wheel, there to keep him out of the spinning spokes. Before the water clears, he's digging at the froth, making sure no lines have snaked their way below my feet, where they might tangle in the steering gear. All is normal in the Southern Ocean, as we sail upwind from Sydney to Cape Town in the BT Global Challenge.

Tonight, Mr. Chatwin is the best person in the universe, because he has promised to take my turn cleaning the two "heads," which are as grotty as hall toilets in a Paris garret in the midst of an earthquake. It's my 29th birthday, and I've never had a better present. To celebrate, I'm planning to share one of my seven chocolate bars with my watch, as soon I crawl below.

* * *

Motorola underway

The BT Global Challenge is an around-the-world yacht race, crewed by 14 teams of amateur sailors in identical 67-foot sailboats. It's a graft of adventure holiday and professional, sponsored sports. The crew members pay for the privilege to compete in the 10-month race ($30,000 for those completing the entire circumnavigation), but the boats bear the names of sponsors like "Motorola," "Toshiba," and "Nuclear Electric."

Each yacht has a professional captain, whose job goes beyond navigation. When the fleet left England last September, the skippers were often the only ones aboard who'd made an ocean crossing before. They must nurture a diverse group -- students, executives, machinists, dentists, even an aromatherapist -- into a team ready to take on the worst oceans in the world. They're also salesmen, pleasing their sponsors, putting the boat's name into the headlines, and entertaining corporate guests on muggy, windless "hospitality" days in port.

"At least I'm not paying for this," our English skipper Mark Lodge would say whenever it was blowing a bit on "Motorola." (I learned to speak with English understatement: That it was gusting to hurricane force, I was skidding around on a diesel-greased floor, and we were slamming off waves with the force of a 30-mph car wreck every few minutes was better unsaid.)

Four years ago, Mr. Lodge paid. When he signed on as a "crew volunteer" for the last race, he'd never sailed before. Thirty thousand miles around the world as first mate gave his life an edge he'd been missing, and he quit construction to become the training skipper for this year's recruits. He's proved a capable skipper and, with Motorola's second place finish into Boston on Sunday in the penultimate leg of the race, a fast one as well.

* * *

The BT Global Challenge route from Sydney to Cape Town

Water pours down my ski goggles, and each breath I take is salty and wet. I have no idea how long I've been driving. Ten minutes? Thirty-eight? I'm one of six helmsmen in the crew of 14. We take 40-minute turns, for 40 days and 40 nights, covering 7,775 miles between Sydney and Cape Town.

My shoulders ache, my hands have stiffened into claws, and I can't quite see the compass from behind the stainless steel wheel that stretches from my ankles to my chin. I bang my knee on the whirling spokes; another inch and I might have smashed my kneecap. I snatch my hand away as it slams against the cockpit seat; there isn't enough space between the wheel and cockpit for my two-layer ice climbing glove. There is no med-evac at 52 degrees South, only our crew medic Dale Harrison. Dr. Harrison is a forensic psychologist who normally works with serial killers at a maximum security facility in Brisbane, Australia.

My relief arrives as two yellow blobs appear at the hatch. "Kester on deck!" yells one shape, followed by "Ligia on deck." In our one-piece drysuits, hoods, goggles and nose-high collars we are indistinguishable. Kester Keighley is an offshore oil-rig diver studying for a master's in marine archeology in his spare time; we call him half man/half machine. He's bigger and stronger and tougher than any of us and obsessed with keeping the dish towels clean. Ligia Ripper is a management consultant, working in Brazil and Miami.

I climb down the hatch, water pouring off my drysuit onto the floor. "Egg Woman," says Mr. Lodge by way of hello. I'm wearing a Day-Glo yellow balaclava. I prefer my other nickname -- the Foredeck Queen -- but we've already reduced sail to our violent storm configuration, so no more trips to the foredeck until the wind drops. "Lodgey," whose 20-day growth has given him a Lenin goatee, hates everybody and everything (especially the weather) with infectious good cheer.

Kate on standby aboard Motorola

"What a laugh," he says, as Mr. Keighley drives us straight off a wave. We rise out of our seats, levitating in our yellow spacesuits, until 43 tons of steel crash back down into gravity, and we try not to bite off our tongues.

True to my vow, I brace myself on the wall and climb to my cabin, where my chocolate bars are hidden. The day before we left Sydney, Ms. Ripper distributed the packs, seven each, no contraband sweets allowed. Rationing is supposed to make us a team, hard and minimalist. In reality, there's a futures market circulating by the condensation-covered hull, around the saloon table, in the tainted air of the aft cabins. In six days' time, Mr. Lodge will promise 33 Cape Town beers in exchange for watch leader Mark Baptist's five remaining chocolate bars.

* * *

The race is the invention of Chay Blyth, a white-haired Scotsman whose resume might well be a list of crazy things to do with boats. The short list includes rowing the Atlantic, circumnavigating non-stop and alone against the prevailing winds and currents, and bullying a crew of paratroopers around the world to win the first Whitbread race in 1974. He's long believed in the power of will over experience. He interviews every applicant for the race (3,000 would-be circumnavigators applied for the 300 slots in this race) and remembers most of them.

Motorola on arrival in Cape Town

Before joining Motorola for the Southern Ocean, I sailed from New Zealand to Australia as a "legger" on Courtaulds International. At 1,230 miles, this was the shortest section of the six-leg race and, although the equivalent of sailing from Boston to Miami, considered a sprint by the "all-rounders." When I arrived on the dock after a week at sea, Mr. Blyth turned his head away from a conversation. "Don't leave Sydney," he snapped.

I obeyed, of course. Three days before the race restarted in front of the Sydney Opera House, he spoke again: "Motorola." I agreed immediately.

The race has this effect on its leggers. BT Deputy Chief Executive Alan Rudge, who sailed on Global Teamwork from Wellington to Sydney, explained his participation by saying, "As the 'Godfather' of the race, I felt I could hardly encourage others to do something I was not willing to do myself." Now he's signed on aboard Concert (honoring the BT-MCI venture) to sail the final passage from Boston to Southampton at the end of this month.

* * *

By daybreak, we've hammered our way through the weather front, and the wind is a mere 10 mph, though the waves are still house-sized, breaking down on the bow. We have to change up to the No. 1 headsail. I prefer it rougher, because then the sails are smaller and easier to handle. Half man/half machine drags the heavy end of the No. 1 to the foredeck, and I follow close behind. We sit shoulder to shoulder, as the bow dips into the waves, bringing the ocean to our waists.

I tug at lumps of sail, working it forward to Mr. Keighley who's clipping it to the forestay. A wave picks me up, and my head is underwater; the seal on my drysuit sucks at my neck until I slam against the bow cleat and the inner forestay. Pain, shock and fury make me cry, but no one will notice through the green water. I pull myself and the sail forward again.

It's my birthday, and I'm the Foredeck Queen again.


© Kate Ford, The Wall Street Journal 1997


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