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The BT Global Challenge—Halfway Around

On the surface, the BT Global Challenge appears to be the perfect race-adventure combo.
If you were in Sydney, Australia, yesterday, March 11, you’d have been able to witness the start of Leg 5 in the BT Global Challenge—the wrong-way, around-the-world race staged on board 12 identical 72-foot yachts with crew members who have each paid the near equivalent of $40,000 for the privilege. Chances are, had you been there, you might have been privy to more than just the light-air action of the start. Since September, when the race began in Southampton, UK, this globe-girdling adventure has certainly seen its share of behind-the-scenes drama. After Leg 2, less than halfway through the race, almost two dozen "crew volunteers" abandoned the event, and now two paid skippers have walked away. A flurry of protests plagued the start and finish of Leg 4 from Wellington, New Zealand to Sydney. And then there are the collisions, one just two days into the race, and the most startling one shortly after the beginning of Leg 4 in which two BT Global Challenge boats hit one another and were forced to retire for repairs.

Though this odyssey may not be turning out as many of the crew volunteers expected, it no doubt has the makings of a true seagoing adventure. In Leg 5, the crews face their most daunting challenge. Measuring 6,200 miles, this stage is the longest segment of the race. It stretches from Sydney out through Bass Strait, across the vast reaches of the southern and Indian Oceans and up to Cape Town, South Africa. Meteorologist and former Challenge skipper Chris Tibbs (quoted on the event’s website), says of this stretch: "The overriding thing about this leg is its length….It's huge, and nearly all of it is in the Southern Ocean."

Leg 5 from Sydney to Cape Town is likely to prove the toughest yet.
As the BT Global Challenge enters this critical leg, its 11-year evolution is entering an equally critical chapter. The brainchild of Sir Chay Blyth—himself a distinguished ocean-going adventurer—this event came to life as more a man-against-nature than man-against-man contest in its first iteration (as the British Steel Challenge) in 1992. Subsequent editions of the Challenge have seen it mature, creating in the process a sophisticated organizational structure, two fleets of ocean-going vessels, a substantial talent pool of skippers, and a waiting list of would-be crew volunteers. The training that the participants undergo has evolved as well, but there’s no escaping the fact that the participants themselves—by and large—begin as novices when it comes to ocean-racing experience. This creates the defining dynamic of the event—amateurs undertaking a serious quest, which for some is a race and others an adventure. Imagine that the NFL opened a new franchise, hired a capable quarterback, and then filled the roster with paying novices who had trained off and on for two years, and you get the idea here.

According to the event organizers, nearly three-quarters of the Challenge participants are complete novices when they sign on. "There's very few of the crew that have done ocean racing before," says Tibbs. To their credit, Sir Chay and his team have their customers undergo numerous sessions of "sail training," and "team building," which presumably offer them the fundamentals, but there’s not much opportunity to get accustomed to the kind of competition that they ultimately see in the field. According to Tibbs: "You get very little opportunity to race," (prior to the start). He elaborates: "When you're training, you tend to do everything consecutively. You do something, then you do the next, then the next. But when you're racing everything has to happen together. Change the sheets, change the leads, while you're changing the headsail, all at the same time You can't wait—you’ve got to get it all going at once," he says.

Erstwhile Challenge skipper Alex Phillips. Was her style too aggressive for the event?
"When we look back, we realize we'd done no race preparation," said crew volunteer Tina Williamson in story on the event’s website after her boat, TeamSpirIT, finished last in Leg 1. "All our preparation as a team has been all about getting the boat ready." However, when erstwhile Challenge skipper Andy Dare abdicated his role aboard TeamSpirIT a few days later, his complaint was that the event was more race than adventure, and his tastes ran to adventure. And just recently Quadstone’s skipper Alex Phillips became the next team leader to leave the Challenge. By all accounts, very popular with her crew and the Challenge management, Phillips chose to leave the event because she felt her aggressive racecourse demeanor pushed the race element too far when she caused the collision that temporarily forced both Quadstone and Save the Children to abandon the event.

This race-adventure schizophrenia of the BT Global Challenge deepens when you discover that no actual racecourse training appears to happen until after the starting gun goes off. Anyone who has spent time racing knows that simulating the rapid-fire nature and intensity of true racing is difficult if not impossible in practice situations. Sailors need actual competition to learn how to shift gears and adjust their mental states.

The business end of a 72-foot BT Global Challenge racer.
So what do the Challenge Business principals make of this situation? The event organizers don’t miss a chance to emphasize the comprehensive training that the crew volunteers endure before starting. Furthermore they say that the defections the current event has seen can be interpreted in just one way: "It’s really just reemphasizing the fact that this is the world’s toughest yacht race," said BT Global Challenge spokesperson Tom Manger in an article in Soundings newspaper. It shows, says Manger, that "it’s more competitive and much more intense than people thought." And, says former skipper Tibbs, each successive event has seen improved competition.

Judging by mere statistics, the fact that 180 out of 200 participants (using rough estimates for the crew volunteers involved) appear to be content with the event indicates that all is well in adventureland. And if so, it’s a good thing because the trial-by-fire approach to ocean racing may just be the best way for these crews to endure what’s in store for them on Leg 5. We certainly wish them the best of luck, and we’ll stand by to follow their progress as they move down the track.

The BT Global Challenge is being followed by a worldwide television audience in Germany, the UK, Portugal, France, Egypt, New Zealand, Spain, South Africa, and a few other countries, including the US. The next broadcast in the US will occur on March 25 on ESPN2. Check your local listings for appropriate times.

Suggested Reading:

BT Global Challenge—Adventure for a Price by Dan Dickison

BT Global Challengers Hear Their Fate by SailNet

BT GLobal Challenge Skipper Resigns by SailNet

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