Don's diary

October 4, 1996

THURSDAY. Last hectic week of training for the BT Global Challenge, the year-long round-the-world yacht race. I am a crew member of the yacht Commercial Union. Spend hours trying to empty office and tie up loose ends - tax, banks, long phone calls from relatives, a couple of research projects, a huge number of things to be sent out to me en route. Meeting to confirm arrangements for keeping in contact with the university - satellite engineering experts will come in useful here.

FRIDAY. Final discussions with university's communications department. We discuss PR opportunities in Rio de Janeiro, Wellington, Sydney, Cape Town, Boston. We plan receptions, visits to students, talks at British Council offices and links with overseas university departments. We agree I may also fit in visits to two of our students on professional training placements in Australia and Africa. We discuss the research projects fellow academics want me to carry out for them during the 30,000-mile voyage.

We are investigating methods of water sampling to test for pollutants across the oceans. I have to check we can accommodate all the testing equipment. I am also instructed to weigh the entire crew regularly for a nutrition diary, recording data linking diet and energy levels, to be used by our school of biological sciences. How will I fit these activities in with sailing a boat at full tilt 24 hours a day over 170 days? Will crew members want be weighed when they are cold, wet and dying to sleep? Visions of chasing them across deck, brandishing scales.

SATURDAY. Everyone is moving to Ocean Village in Southampton today for the final preparations. There are 14 identical 67-foot steel cutters each with a crew of 14, most of them amateurs. The skippers at least are professionals. With the start just days away, the doubts creep in. Are we fit enough? Have the months of training battling high waves and sea sickness paid off? How will we manage to stay in racing mode for such a long time? Lesson on the intricacies of meteorology and navigation. The on-board computer carries a wealth of modern data but the sextant and barograph still have their place.

SUNDAY. Another heady round of readying the boat, allocating tasks and trying to stay sober at the mass of pre-race events. Heart-rending farewells from family and friends. Faxes come through at a rate of knots, confirming talks and PR events at the ports of call. Marvel at how Chay Blyth, who inspired the Global Challenge, could have done this 25 years ago - all by himself. Sort out the sails, checking where they need to be strengthened as the slightest fray or tear can spell disaster later. The sails are our engine and must stay in good shape.

MONDAY. Assess the betting odds. The bookies have the Commercial Union as second favourite to win. The serious business of packing equipment for 14 people into a very small space has begun. Apart from sailing gear and a few clothes, I have room for two tapes, a book and my slide-talk on the university. This was delivered in person today by a colleague lured to Southampton by the excitement of the race but slightly dazed by the organised chaos which met him on deck. He also brought valuable advice from a colleague in mechanical engineering on how to overcome a propeller problem which could prove troublesome.

TUESDAY. Check with the university that they will arrange shipment of brochures and publicity material to Rio. The next time I speak directly to the university may well be via live satellite link to guests gathered for a special lecture introduced by Chay Blyth in aid of Save the Children. Settle down into getting on with crewmates who comprise journalists, engineers, an actor and an advertising man. I am the only academic and one of the oldest at 53. Long and merciless bouts of seasickness have bound us together - the Fastnet race was particularly gruelling. I have even thrown up over the side in perfect harmony with a colleague. End the day by making contact with a Surrey graduate who is a crew member on another boat. Arrange for him to join me at the Surrey reception in Rio.

WEDNESDAY. Preparation is nearly over and the build-up is now on for the big start on Sunday. All the Challenge yachts will cross the starting line at Gilkicker Point and scythe through the Solent out past the Needles. Tasks allotted to me include sorting weather faxes, sail changes, operating cockpit winches, taking weather reports from stations in Germany, Spain and the States, weighing the crew, hoisting the spinnaker and attempting to turn freeze-dried powders into something edible each evening. Huge challenges are penned nonchalantly in my diary: "October - cross Equator" and "December - round Cape Horn".

For a brief moment I am taunted by visions of attentive students in safe lecture theatres, the quiet of the library. I dream of navigating icebergs.

Dip into Joshua Slocum's diary Sailing Alone Around The World, first published nearly 100 years ago. He strikes an encouraging note: "You must know the sea and know that you know it, and not forget that it was made to be sailed over".

Trevor Corner is senior development officer at the University of Surrey.

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