Americans Come of Age at Sea

The contrast between the BT Global Challenge and the Volvo Ocean Race is dramatic. BT sailors pay a $40,000 fee for the privilege of racing upwind around the world, while the Volvo sailors receive a handsome paycheck for racing downwind. ¶There’s no million-dollar prize for the BT’s survivors, but in this age of reality television programming, the BT Challenge could be the ultimate. Since Sept. 10, 2000, 168 sailors aboard 12 identical 72-footers have learned to live with each other, endured two hurricanes, sweated through two crossings of the

equatorial doldrums, and survived two harsh passages in the Southern Ocean. Throughout the ordeal, eight Americans have sailed the whole race. Each has been the only American aboard his or her assigned yacht. In a series of interviews with the American eight, I’ve been fascinated by the growth in their performance on board and enthusiasm for round-the-world sailing. Anyone who has made an offshore passage appreciates the importance of crew compatibility, maintaining a watch routine, and respecting the command chain. At sea, everyone who contributes tends to learn. Most of the eight started out with lesser roles, but have proven themselves and earned positions of responsibility along the way.

John Bailes, a relative newcomer to sailing, is aboard Quadstone (in fourth place after five of seven legs). He never seems to have a bad day and his crewmates say he’s become one of the most reliable members of the team. What does he like about the race? "The coolest thing is match racing in the middle of the ocean," he says. "You see a boat on the horizon, and you just go get them. You’ve got the same exact boat, the same exact sails, same exact training, and when you pass them it’s really great. Of course the reverse doesn’t feel too good." After sailing across the Southern Ocean, Bailes says, "I’m used to three days of bad weather, but in the Southern Ocean it is just continuous. The seas are wild and confused."

When asked to describe the Southern Ocean, Jeff Overfield of TeamSpirIT (sixth) says, "It’s relentless. It just never stops. You get a little break, and then it slams you again. It just keeps coming after you." Overfield started out as a watch leader and soon became the navigator. When asked which he likes better, he says, "I like navigating, particularly the intellectual challenge. As a watch leader, I was on deck all the time, but now I’m below. I’ve come to appreciate both parts of the boat. The mental strain is equal."

Bill Singleton, on BP (third) has been navigating from the start. He says, "This race puts you in contact with reality--out in the middle of the ocean, the wind blowing, the waves cracking over the deck--you’ve got to remain focused in order to survive." He laughs and says, "After spending up to 40 days at a time at sea I’m never going to spend more than a week racing on a boat."

When asked if the experience seems endless, Derek Brennan on Save the Children (12th) says, "Looking back it feels like it happened in a day. Looking forward it seems like it’s never going to end." Describing the Southern Ocean, Brennan is reflective, and says, "Sometimes I feel like I’m atoning for all the mistakes I’ve made in my life." Something about the event really appeals to the 36-year-old, however, he says he wants to use the experience as a springboard to more competitive events, including the Vendee Globe singlehanded race.

Ned Caswell of Compaq (second) is one of the older sailors in the race. He started his career as a coach of the University of Rhode Island’s sailing team. For this race, he’d been a watch leader, but was injured on Leg 5. With broken ribs, he stayed below for 12 days. To help the crew, he took on many small jobs, at first washing dishes and later serving meals. On the experience of being injured Caswell says, "I felt like I needed to help out to get me through the depression of being below all the time. The rest of the crew appreciated my contribution. It made me feel better."

Paul Lynch, who grew up around the America’s Cup in Newport, R.I., is a crewmember on the Spirit of Hong Kong (tied for seventh) who’s gained a reputation as a steady hand at sea. He says the highlight of the BT Challenge is seeing the world at eight knots and experiencing different ports, people, and cultures. When asked if he’d do the race again, Lynch smiles and says, "Downwind sailing appeals to me at this point. But I’ll never forget the bleakness of the Southern Ocean, the huge waves, and the amazing storms."

Bill Cleland, from Mississippi, started the race as the medic aboard Logica (fifth). By the end of the fifth leg he was a watch leader and having a significant influence on strategy. When asked what the most demanding job on the boat was, he says, "Helming. We were short due to injuries and I ended up steering about 50 percent of the time. It took its toll after several weeks." When asked if injuries hurt morale aboard the boat, Cleland says, "They make people think more before they act. Everyone is a little more careful in heavy weather."

Diana Hunt is a slight, 30-year-old schoolteacher from Princeton, N.J., who doesn’t exactly look like an offshore sailor. But she’s been a superstar aboard Isle of Man (tied for seventh). On the first leg, she had very little helm time, but by the Southern Ocean legs, she’d become one of the primary helmsmen. She says, "When I was on the high side in big seas and the boat was heeling, I sometimes wondered if the hull would stand up to the pounding. But when I got on the helm and started driving, my confidence built and I felt like both the boat and I could take anything. When you’re steering, you feel the boat. You’re in tune. My skills have improved dramatically sailing in such a wide variety of weather conditions."

None of these eight American BT sailors will receive the same recognition as an America’s Cup, Olympic, or Whitbread veteran. Nor are they likely to be guests of Jay Leno or David Letterman. But all will have the satisfaction of having passed sailing’s ultimate survival test--a successful circumnavigation under sail.