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Old 09-06-2000
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Dan Dickison is on a distinguished road
BT Global Challenge—Adventure for a Price

According to the song, only "mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun." If the creators of musicals were writing about sailing exploits these days, they might resurrect those lyrics for a ditty about the BT Global Challenge. This odyssey, the third edition of which begins this weekend in Southampton, UK, is a seven-stage, amateur adventure/race around the globe against the prevailing winds and currents. Basically, the course is almost entirely upwind. That in itself would seem reason enough to steer clear, but add on the nearly $40,000 that each of almost 300 participants has paid for this privilege, and the whole situation prompts incredulity.


During their 10 months at sea, crew volunteers in the BT Global Challenge should see their share of time on the rail.
 

The BT Global Challenge, which will be staged aboard identical 72-foot steel cutters, is the brainchild of Sir Chay Blyth, the British adventurer-cum-entrepreneur who first distinguished himself among maritime aficionados in 1966 by rowing across the Atlantic in an open dory with Captain John Ridgway. Ridgway ended up with most of the accolades, but Blyth went on to turn heads when he solo-circumnavigated the globe the "wrong way" in a 59-foot ketch called British Steel four years hence. Thirty years and a knighthood later, Sir Chay sits at the helm of a private company that bills itself as the "organizer of the world’s toughest events," specializing in pay-to-play maritime adventures.

 
After weeks at sea, champagne is always appropriate. Sir Chay (right) celebrates his successful venture.
 
Blyth and his associates at the Challenge Business have come a long way since 1989, when he inaugurated his venture with a small announcement at the London Boat Show, saying he was looking for 120 adventurers who would ante up roughly $30,000 to sail around the world. The response was off the charts—thousands of people wrote and called in, and the concept stuck. Even more remarkable than someone wanting to pay that amount of money to bash upwind around the globe is the fact that almost 70 percent of the initial clients had no sailing experience. You read that correctly—no sailing experience. One of his central objectives, says Blyth, was to open up sailing opportunities for anyone of any background. For his scheme to succeed, he knew that he and his team would have to adequately prepare these adventure guinea pigs so that they would not only make it around the globe, but ultimately become his emissaries—walking, talking advertisements for the Challenge Business. Suffice to say that this year’s event sold out three years ago, and the company’s next venture, the New World Challenge (2002), which begins and ends in San Francisco, is nearly sold out now.

Because Blyth and company put such a strong emphasis on training during the two-plus years prior to the race, this is when the participants truly get their money’s worth. For the initial British Steel Challenge, Blyth hired capable, seasoned sailors to train the would-be mariners and skipper the boats. Pete Goss, now the skipper of Team Philipps (the 120-foot catamaran that’s scheduled to dash around the globe this winter in The Race) was one, and Mike Golding, who has since kept his name in the news with various solo-sailing exploits, including setting a record for sailing east-west, non-stop around the world, was another. Now, under the tutelage of such experts, the "crew volunteers," as the participants are called, have actually gotten sufficient sea time and experience to ready themselves for the current race.


The bulbous satellite communication modules on each boat's transom represent the ability to send updates shoreside at any time from almost any place.
 
For the past two years, participants in the BT Global Challenge have been cross-training—preparing themselves by way of a variety of activities, along with substantial time spent on board their purpose-built, Rob Humphreys-designed steeds. In what the organizers call "teambuilding events," some of the 12 17-person crews have been to sea-survival school, while others have competed aboard Sydney 40s with would-be Admiral’s Cup competitors, while still others have taken a course in their own physiology. For Helen Armour, who is one of the crew aboard Team Logica, dinghy sailing figured into her training. "Most of our sailing experience has been limited to the Challenge yachts," said the 37-year-old marketing manager recently. "It became evident that the best-equipped among us are those who started out sailing on dinghies." Armour described getting together with her teammates to spend a weekend sailing out of the UK Sailing Academy in Cowes on a variety of dinghies and small keelboats. "I discovered that, while I knew what to do, my helming lacked that touch of precision that is necessary to keep on course. The small boats amplify every movement, and mistakes you would get away with on a large yacht are very costly here."

Bill Singleton, a 41-year-old mechanical engineer from Newton, MA, who is registered to sail the entire race aboard Team BP, says his lifelong dream has been to engage in such a ‘round-the-world adventure. "Even though I have been sailing and racing boats in earnest since college, I am in no way close to being a professional. So, there was little chance of me getting to sail in, say, the Whitbread, but now, thanks to Blyth and his unique sailing philosophy, I have the chance to participate in ‘the world's toughest yacht race’ around the world." Says Singleton, this is "quite simply, a dream come true."

 
Participants in the '96-'97 Global Challenge prepared for the actual event by way of the Fastnet Race.
 
Making dreams come true, it appears, is the business that Blyth is in. That said, his events haven’t been trouble-free. In the first edition of this race, several of the 67-footers lost their masts due to faulty rigging, and there was even a suicide aboard one boat—Heath Insured. Nonetheless, our hats should be off to Sir Chay; not only has he taken an obsession and turned it into a very profitable business—like Billy Banks and tae-bo—he has made it possible for nearly a thousand people to experience the joys of sailing. And, with 20 of the crew volunteers in the current race carrying US passports, it’s clear that the BT Global Challenge is not just for mad dogs and Englishmen anymore. (You can follow the progress of the event via news items on SailNet.com, or log on to the Challenge Business website at challengebusiness.com)

The Vital Statistics

The BT Global Challenge begins on Saturday, September 10, in Southampton, UK, and will span 10 months, taking the racers first to Boston, then Buenos Aires, Argentina; then Wellington, New Zealand; then Sydney, Australia; then Capetown, South Africa; then La Rochelle, France, and back to the UK next June. Here are some of the attendant numbers:

16,500,000—number of dollars the Challenge Business spent to run its first event in 1992

480,000—number of dollars participants hope to raise for charity (Save the Children)

40,000—number of dollars each participant has spent to participate

30,000—number of miles all told in the BT Global Challenge course

300—number of crew volunteers who will participate in the adventure

29--number of Challenge Business boats launched to date

17--number of crew on each boat in the BT Global Challenge

12—number of identical Rob Humphrey’s designed 72-foot vessels that make up the fleet

2--number of boats built in China for this event

2—number of scheduled broadcasts on ESPN2 (Oct. 22 and Dec. 17)



 

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