The Wrong Way Round - Part 1

BT Global Challenge 1996/97

A salty tale of sailing round the world - as told by John van der Hoff aboard "Heath Insured".


It all started with a rigorous selection interview conducted by Sir Chay Blyth at the St. James’s premises of the Royal Ocean Racing Club for a crew place on one of the yachts participating in the BT Global Challenge 1996/97.

Sir Chay: Well laddie, tell me why you want to take part.

Me: Blah blah adventure blah blah.

Sir Chay: And can you afford to pay the fee laddie? (£18,000)

Me: Yes.

Sir Chay: Congratulations, you’re on. When can you pay?

The ethos of the race was to select people with little or no sailing experience and to race 14 identical yachts around the world against the prevailing winds and currents through the Southern Ocean. Each yacht had 14 crew, including a professional skipper and 2 “leggers” who had applied to complete only one leg of the race. The only other professional on board was the medic, either a doctor or a SRN. From a total of 365 participants, 283 male and 82 female, 140 circumnavigated, with the remaining 225 completing between one and five legs. Some of the crew were given additional responsibilities, such as quartermaster, mechanic, comms officer etc. My lot in life was as the sail repairer. I was sent on a two-day course at Hood Sails in Lymington to learn my craft. Much to my consternation, I was informed that sewing machines were not allowed under the race rules, so all repairs had to be done by hand. The sail repair materials we were provided with, consisting of sheets of dacron and double sided sail repair tape proved to be useless. The repairs were carried out by cannibalising material from spinnakers or headsails which had blown beyond repair.

The route was Southampton - Rio de Janeiro - Wellington - Sydney - Cape Town - Boston - Southampton.

Training started about 18 months prior to the start of the race, initially by thrashing around The Solent on charter yachts and later some 4 or 5 day sails on the Challenge yachts far out in the Western Approaches in the middle of winter to get a taste of what was to come. On one such jolly we were, without prior notice, instructed to deploy the life rafts and abandon ship. We spent what seemed like a very long time in the rafts before being “rescued” and reunited with our yacht. You really don’t want to get in a life raft unless absolutely necessary. Even at that early stage some crew decided that life on the ocean waves was not their cup of tea - a sign of what was to come.

Before we set off on the race, I’ll give you a brief tour of the boat and a description of life on board:

The 14 identical yachts were 67 ft in length overall and cutter rigged (two head sails) with the hull and deck built from 4 mm mild steel. Equipped with an engine, generator for powering nav lights, nav instruments , communication systems, water maker, cabin lights, heating etc . There were 4 cabins with 3 pipe cots each + a pilot berth for the skipper. No “personal” space whatsoever but a small crate to carry one’s very limited amount personal gear between cabins when hot bunking.

A storeroom with racks and boxes of spares and food. All food was freeze dried in sachets and the three daily meals were labelled and stowed for each day for the anticipated number of days of the leg.

The galley/saloon area contained the stoves/ovens in an island unit with seating and storage for cooking utensils, pots, pans etc around.

The forepeak contained a huge sail locker. I can’t remember the precise number of sails we carried but there were at least four spinnakers, genoas, yankees and staysails of every description, storm jibs, and try sails. The forepeak was separated from the rest of the yacht by a waterproof bulkhead door in case we hit anything solid, such as an iceberg. Access from the foredeck was gained via a hatch. As the foredeck was awash more often than not, the hatch remained firmly locked shut and all sails had to be dragged down the gangway to the companionway and then back along the deck to the foredeck. The nav/comms station was located on the starboard side forward of the companionway.

The generator room, which also served as a wet locker, was located port side opposite the nav/comms station. The engine compartment was accessed via a trap door in the gangway. One heads/shower cubicle to port and stbd.

Well, you would have thought that with a generator to power the water maker the crew would enjoy the luxury of a nice warm shower every day, wrong!

The water maker worked by forcing sea water under very high pressure through a series of filters (a process known as reverse osmosis). This renders the water maker quite delicate and requiring a lot of maintenance. If the generator were to fail, we could make do with a chart, pencil and sextant for navigation, but without a water maker, we would not survive. So, the water maker was used only to top up the fresh water tanks and the use of water was very strictly rationed. No showers until landfall was made.

Well, what about the heater then? That would be a comfort when coming off watch in the Southern Ocean. No such luck. Steel hull + very low ambient temperature + warm air = condensation pouring off the deck head and hull interior. Not that it mattered much, after a few days in the Southern Ocean everything below decks was wringing wet anyway. Still, the generator room offered a measure of comfort. I discovered that there was just enough room to crawl under any clothing hanging to dry, and squeeze in next to the generator for some warmth when it was running.

As you will have gathered from the title of the race, the main sponsor was British Telecommunications who thought that the yachts were an ideal platform for developing their Inmarsat communications system which back then was in its infancy. The Inmarsat A mobile Satellite communications system provides two way direct dial voice communication, fax, telex, email and data communication to and from anywhere in the word except in the polar regions. The stabilized antenna of about 80 cm in diameter enables it to stay locked onto satellites even in heavy sea conditions. On the Challenge yachts, the Radome containing the antenna was mounted on a frame above the cockpit. The system was trialled during the very early stages of our training, and all went swimmingly until it was discovered that radiation (I think it was electro - magnetic) was “frying” the helmsman’s head so that particular project was abandoned as there was nowhere else to safely mount the Radome.

We set off on the race equipped with Inmarsat C - a two-way store and forward communication system that transmits messages in data packages in ship to shore, shore to ship and ship to ship direction with a much smaller antenna (not stabilized) which could be mounted out of harm’s way. The only voice contact with the outside world was by HF radio, usually via Portishead Radio (operated by BT) which sadly closed in 2000. As far as I am aware, the only remaining HF station in Europe is located at Gothenburg.

Each yacht decided on it’s watch system. We chose a three hour rolling watch:

Three hour Deck watch, on deck sailing the boat.

Three hour Mother watch, below decks cooking, cleaning, maintenance, repair and on standby to assist with sail changes or emergencies.

Three hours Off watch to catch up on some sleep.

The three hour Off watch varied depending on availability of functioning crew and the extent of repairs etc that needed to be attended to.

This system worked quite well until we were deep in the Southern Ocean (59 degrees South), when injuries, illness and the cold took their toll. At one stage the number of functioning crew was down to 7. The ambient temperature was below freezing and the added wind chill factor made it impossible to stay on deck for more than about 10 minutes. There were only two crew on deck at any one time. One helmsman and one to keep an eye on him in case of injury. The rest of the functioning crew were lined up below, fully kitted up, waiting for their turn. So each of us got about an hour below decks to warm up, get something to eat and some sporadic sleep before the next stint on deck. Fully kitted up consisted of two sets of thermal base layers, a fleece lined middle layer, a survival suit and an oilskin jacket over the top, a balaclava, ski goggles, thermal gloves with waterproof mitts over.


Leg 1: Southampton to Rio de Janeiro, 5378 nautical miles, 28 days.

We set off from Southampton on 29th September 1996 in a howling gale and driving rain. One of the Isle of Wight ferries had been chartered by the participants’ families and friends to follow the fleet down the Solent heading towards Hurst Narrows. It was blowing 45 knots, and what with wind against tide and relatively shallow water through the Narrows it was a very lively ride. The ferry got blown off course, collided with several other spectator craft and retired from the fray.

The gale lasted all the way across Biscay, but we settled into our watch routine and the weather gradually improved. There was no high drama on this leg. I mentioned earlier on that we spent a maximum period of five days at sea during training. After we had been at sea for about ten days it was apparent that some crew were not at all cut out for this sort of caper. They gradually became irritable and/or argumentative and/or stroppy, or complained about the food or conditions in general. One crew member jumped ship when we got to Rio. A few bailed out after the first Southern Ocean leg. One crew member hung on for the duration, in spite of being so terrified on the “lively” legs that he became a liability on deck and was compelled to stay below decks.

I digress. An extract from the skipper’s log dated 24th October reveals that:

“We are now less than 300 miles from Rio. After sailing within sight of Ocean Rover for more than a week we have finally shaken off “The Dog” as we call her, Yesterday she was 9 miles astern but seemingly sailing a better angle to the wind and making a knot more than us. This morning, she’s back to within 2 miles of us, It has been the same ever since we went into the Doldrums together, for each time we get her to heel, Rover has a habit of coming back and nipping at our ankles again. We are obviously disappointed that a few of our game-plans for this leg did not work out and left us trailing Group 4 by 200 miles. We have been slowed by a number of factors.

Sail damage: A tear in the main sail during the first 24 hours at sea. Loose stitching and chafe on our much used Genoa, A blown 2.2oz spinnaker which tore beyond repair during a 30 knot gust off the Portuguese coast. Illness; “A” is down with sun stroke. “B” has suffered from a bad arm since the start and still has it in a sling. Generator: We have had various problems with this but overcome by using the engine and transferring the water pump across to it.

It is a blistering hot day. Below decks is like a sauna because we are reaching across the South East Trade winds with green water coming over the decks so not able to have any hatches open. That makes it very uncomfortable below and difficult to sleep. Conditions in the Galley beggar belief. When things are in full swing, there is no health and safety at work here. At 2:00am yesterday, we had to make a sail change which typified all that is good and bad about sailing in the tropics. With the sea temperature around 30 C it was like standing under a salty car wash which was very refreshing. The trouble was that everyone had sodden clothing and wet deck shoes which, when taken below, just added to the dank air. This stuffiness is exacerbated by a problem with the holding tank which has left the boat smelling like a French sewer. Still, just a couple more days at sea and we will be washing the taste away with a few beers on Copacabana’s Strip.”

The tear to the main sail was a 6 inch horizontal split about 9 inches above the foot. The main was lowered down the mast far enough to attach the first reefing cringle to the gooseneck on the mast. The boom was supported with the topping lift, but the sail was not reefed. This left a large pocket of sail under the boom for me to climb into and commence the repair whilst wildly pitching and rolling. I urged the helmsman not to gybe the boat which would have resulted in me being catapulted out of the pocket and into outer space. The sail cloth, being close to the foot, was so thick that each hole for the stitching had to be drilled to get the needle through. I don’t remember how long the repair took to complete, but it held all the way to Rio where the sail was professionally patched in a sail loft and the blown spinnaker was replaced.

So, on 27th October we arrived in Rio and enjoyed the luxury of beer, food, sleep and shower in that order. I expect that our four female crew did that in reverse order. We stayed in a hotel for the duration of our stay while the boat was made fit for human habitation. BT laid on a spectacular welcoming party for all the crews with a sumptuous meal, gallons of intoxicating liquor and a fabulous fire work display all served up outdoors against a backdrop of the Sugar Loaf and the famous statue of Christ. We had three weeks in Rio before the start of the next leg to Rio. Some of the crew went travelling around South America, but the “core” crew stayed in Rio to oversee repairs and to prepare the boat for the Southern Ocean leg. I will describe my stay in Rio as wild and leave it at that …..

To be continued in our next Newsletter,,,