About one week to go to the end of the BT Global Challenge. After sailing over 30,000 miles around the world I shall arrive in Southampton, wind willing, aboard yacht Commercial Union. My job for the University of Surrey has been to call at educational and commercial points in the stopovers around the world (Rio, Wellington, Sydney, Cape Town and Boston) and find out more about how the global network of educational systems is faring and develop academic and business contacts. It has been an enjoyable and exciting task, from a simple but animated primary school in a South African township to the lush pastures of Vermont University.
Now here I sit on a 67-feet steel boat spinnakering my way through the North Atlantic Gulf Stream - though not very quickly. Minimal wind in recent days has meant painfully slow progress of late. During the night our sodden spinnaker hung limply in the damp air like recently washed linen on the line. All are watching and expecting a change in the weather at any time. Should allow the yachts to resume their more familiar speeds - we have only covered a third of our normal distance in the past 24 hrs.
Message received from a Surrey student on placement in Australia, she's plotting our progress on the World Wide Web. Access to the Web gives anyone the ability to check the position of our yacht every six hours no matter whether we are in the Southern Ocean or the Solent. When our emergency beacon was washed overboard by a giant wave in the Roaring Forties south of Australia, the Australian Rescue Service picked up the satellite signal before we had realised it was bouncing around some miles behind us in those tumultuous seas. Life on board, particularly after the thrashing of the Southern Ocean, has been more calm of late. Since Boston, after an exhilarating start, witnessed by hundreds of spectator boats out past Cape Cod, we have been pushed by a westerly wind towards the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Care is needed here as we know there is a trail of icebergs floating down on the Labrador Current and the fogs in this part of the world are notorious.
It was past the Keguelen islands that we tackled the biggest seas of the whole voyage. An unexpected wave crashed through the cockpit, washing overboard much essential equipment including our radio antenna. Maintaining crew morale then was a struggle. I am reminded again today of the disconcerting lack of wildlife sighted during this trip. Sure enough there has been the glorious sight of dolphins weaving and diving around the bow, the looming tail of a grey-back whale smacking the water as its huge bulk dives below our path, and the graceful swoops of the albatross as it shows us how to navigate through hurricane force winds. Many of the small oceanic islands we sail by, such as the Keguelens, St Helena and Gough island are becoming nature reserves, but this is the ecological equivalent of closing the stable door after many of the horses and other species have bolted.
Make contact with the university to discuss programme for my return; schools to visit, presentations to give, multimedia and curriculum-related materials to develop. Hard to focus on this amid the pressures of the race. Winches, steering and all sails require man/woman handling so that two groups of the crew are needed to operate the boat, day and night. We have adopted a five-shift, two-watch system which means getting up and going to bed three times a day (and night). Sleep becomes precious and snatched in short periods of two to three hours. The main relief from this is working in the galley for 24 hours providing makeshift meals from dehydrated packages.
As the race reaches its climax, reading the weather is vital. The stronger the wind, the rougher the sea, the better the speed. It may not sound a lot to a landlubber, but the exhilaration of riding on a yacht surfing at 15 knots in the dark of the night takes some beating for sheer thrill.
It is something of a conundrum that global communication and travel is now relatively easy yet educational exchange is getting more difficult. I guess ideas travel better and quicker than people. However, nothing beats personal contact in building fertile relationships. Maybe British universities should enter a yacht in the 2000 Global Challenge and call it University Challenge.
Not long now to Southampton, the Solent and the mayhem of the finish. There will be parties, publicity and reunions. I am now a "Cape Horner" and promoted my university in the far corners of the globe in the process. Now back to reality and the day job.
Senior development officer at the University of Surrey.