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Solo Sailors Sprint Around the Globe

A 27,000-mile race tests courage and endurance; the food isn't great, either

AHOY! Here's a sailboat race that has everything: Sleep deprivation: After his autopilot and self-steering device failed, English contestant Josh Hall slept a total of 12 hours over 10 days.

Moments of terror: Isabelle Autissier's boat crashed off a 20-foot wave at 2 a.m., snapping its main mast. By daylight, the wind was blowing at near hurricane force, and Ms. Autissier recalls the boat was rolling ``horribly.'' On Feb. 20, South African John Martin, the leader of the first two legs of the race, had to abandon his yacht after he hit an iceberg. As he left his boat for countryman Bertie Reed's yacht, the wind was near hurricane force.

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Self-sacrifice: For the past six years, Paul Thackaberry has lived at his parents' house, saving every dollar he earned so he could compete in the race.

The race driving Hall, Autissier, Thackaberry, Martin, and 14 others is the BOC Challenge, the Mt. Everest of sailboat races. It takes the competitors on a solo trip from the comparatively sheltered waters of Newport, R.I., across the Atlantic to Cape Town, South Africa. Then, sailors head east across the stormy waters of the Indian Ocean to Sydney. Early last month, the racers left for Cape Horn and the next port of call, Punta del Este, Uruguay. (The first boat is expected to arrive any day now.) From there they will race back to Newport. By the end of the race, they will have logged 27,000 miles over the course of eight months.

This is the third BOC race, named for the BOC Group, a British-based international industrial and health-care company, which is the main sponsor. The race was the idea of a group of sailors who met in Newport in June 1980 and decided to organize a round-the-world sailboat race for solo sailors. It is now held every three years. The first finishers will be back in Newport in early April. Sailors are competing for $250,000 in cash and prizes.

Just getting to the starting line, however, takes more time than the race itself. To earn the money, Robin Davie, racing ``Global Exposure,'' worked two years on a tugboat salvaging tankers in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war. Mr. Thackaberry, an electronics systems analyst from Oxford, Mich., says in a dockside interview that he worked 12 years to build and design his boat and save the money.

One of the original racers - and the winner of the first two races - is Philippe Jeantot, who sails ``Cr'edit Agricole,'' named after his sponsor, the largest bank in France. Mr. Jeantot recalls that he decided to race around the world at age 15 after reading a book written by another Frenchman who raced around the world nonstop.

``I read it twice in the night and in the morning I said to my father, `I'll do it once.' He said, `Sure, OK.' One week later I was in a sailing school and sailing is something important to me from this day,'' says Jeantot in a dockside interview.

Jeantot, who plans to retire from single-handed global races after this one, says he enjoys the sensation of sailing. ``I am listening to my boat and listening to the noises, so it is something very different when I am sailing.'' He also loves the thrill of sailing his 60-foot boat fast. In one five-hour stretch he averaged 17.5 knots per hour, actually surfing his boat at 23 knots.

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ONE of the racers, Jack Boye of New York City, is sailing his ``Project City Kids'' to help publicize his philanthropic project - bringing sailing to inner-city children. At each stop, he invites street kids or underprivileged children to come aboard and see the boat. ``Sailing teaches self-sufficiency,'' he says.

Interviewed before his collision with an iceberg, Mr. Martin said he was in the race for the challenge and because he wanted to win. Martin, sailing ``Allied Bank,'' sponsored by a South African bank, said sailing has brought him great fame in his country: ``I have fantastic support from people back home.''

The rewards, however, are not without sacrifice. Martin gave up a naval career and a normal family life (he blames his rigorous sailing schedule for his divorce). When he's racing, ``I live like an animal. I don't live anything like a normal human being.'' He eats enough to keep his energy level up and sleeps four hours a day - ``just enough to keep your brain together.'' He wears the same clothes for almost the whole trip, and sleeps in his sea boots.

Once at sea, say competitors, there is no set routine. The idea is simply to make the boat go as fast as possible to the next port. One of the keys to this is understanding weather systems. American Mike Plant, interviewed aboard ``Duracell,'' named for the US-based batterymaker, estimates he spends three to four hours a day studying the weather maps that are faxed to him. He also picks up satellite images beamed down to him of the weather in the region.

Once in the southern ocean, weather changes occur quickly. Mr. Plant estimates weather systems change every three to four hours. This means competitors are constantly making adjustments to their sails.

At times the weather changes are violent. Mr. Hall, sailing the ``New Spirit of Ipswich,'' has had his boat knocked down five times in the race.

Most of the competitors admit there are moments when they are scared. Martin says the worst times are going through iceberg areas in the fog or snow. Jeantot says there are times when the winds are too strong (60 knots or more) and the waves too high (over 40 feet). ``You wonder if you will lose control on the next wave,'' he says.

WITH danger a constant factor, sleep can be difficult. Plant, like many of the competitors, gets most of his sleep in 30-minute naps. ``This is the most you can do without making adjustments in your sails,'' he explains. He ends up sleeping in his navigator's chair, a large bucket seat with a high back.

Food is not the high point of the trip. ``Most don't want to spend the time cooking,'' says Jeantot, who eats specially prepared canned food.

Most of the competitors just open up a can of spaghetti or soup and warm it over a primitive heating unit. Thackaberry praises canned goods mixed with instant rice. ``You don't need heat, and the rice keeps things from sliding off the plate,'' he quips. Plant says that potato flakes have similar culinary attributes.

There is little question that the sailors miss the comforts of home. Autissier, the first woman to compete in the race, says she would love a hot shower on the trip. Most of the racers don't bathe very often, or just rinse off with cold water.

Jeantot says he misses his family. Once he comes ashore, Jeantot says he wants all the things he can't have on board. ``I spend hours talking to family and friends. I eat a huge T-bone steak, have a good shower, and spend the night in a dry bed.''

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