SOUTHAMPTON, England - Picture this: a pitch-black night on an ocean strewn with icebergs. Waves the size of houses buffet a graceful yacht, as a water-drenched, sleep-deprived crew struggles to remain on course, sailing with a howling, bone-chilling wind.
This is the lore and magic of the Whitbread Round the World Race.
Sailing's great challenge - and adventure - begins today in Southampton, as 10 boats with 12-member crews embark on a nine-leg race spread across nine months and 31,600 nautical miles.
The Whitbread is a test of survival and endurance, as men and women take on the sea.
They'll navigate through the North and South Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, the South Pacific and an area known as the Southern Ocean, a frigid, wind-swept sea encompassing Antarctica.
They'll cross the equator twice. They'll cross the international dateline.
They'll pass the two great landmarks - and burial grounds - of shipping: the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa and Cape Horn on the tip of South America.
And they will touch five continents on their voyage that is due to end back in Southampton on May 24.
For the first time, the race includes an entry from the Baltimore-Annapolis area, Chessie Racing. And for the first time, the Whitbread fleet will come to Maryland for a scheduled arrival in Baltimore on April 22. The fleet will then leave Annapolis on May 3, bound for La Rochelle, France.
L But geography alone doesn't tell the story of the Whitbread.
The competitors will steel their nerves for 30-foot waves, sharing the ride of their lives as they reach roller-coaster speeds - and plunges. They'll strain their muscles as they rig sails that are larger than tennis courts.
L They'll bake in the tropics. They'll freeze near Antarctica.
"You hate it and you love it," says Ross Field, the America's Challenge skipper, who is embarking on his fourth Whitbread. "It's nine months of torture. You survive on three or four hours of sleep a day. You're wet all the time. In really, really rough weather, you lash yourself to the boat and go for a ride.
"In a lot of ways, it's like a normal yacht race," says Field, born in New Zealand. "You have enjoyable days. Nice breezes in the tropics. Nice weather. But it goes on and on."
In 25 years, the race has come a long way, from a strictly amateur event to a high-stakes enterprise crammed with professional competitors, corporate sponsors, computers, tiny television cameras and high-tech sailing gear.
In the old days, the crews wore sweaters, drank beer, strummed guitars and got their weather reports the old-fashioned way - with barometers, thermometers and looks at the sky.
Today's crews are outfitted in foul-weather gear, survive on a diet of freeze-dried meals and vitamin pills and receive their weather updates off satellites.
No one would dare bring a book, a guitar or even a Walkman aboard one of these boats.
There's barely enough room to bring a change of underwear.
On the outside, the Whitbread 60s are things of beauty ' sleek, elegant yachts built to withstand the stresses of the world's roughest seas. But below deck, they're grimy places, jammed with 12 bunks, a sink, stove and single toilet. Those over 6 feet tall have to stoop in an area that is more like a seagoing cave than a home.
Nobody takes a shower on the legs that can last 30 days.
Despite the professional veneer, this race still stands as a reminder of the days when explorers hopped aboard vessels and circled the globe.
Leah Newbold, a New Zealander who is part of the all-women crew aboard EF Education, speaks almost poetically of the places she saw in her previous Whitbread race.
"The Southern Ocean is magical," she says. "It's so far away from everything. You feel so vulnerable, because few people have ever been there. Yet, it's a special place, with special life, filled with albatrosses and dolphins. And when you see the icebergs, it's beautiful. There is a glow in the water around them. But where there are big ones, there are little ones, too, and they're dangerous. If you ram into one of those, you'll be in big, big trouble.
L "And it snows. You think, 'I should be skiing, not sailing.'
"Around the equator, it can be frustrating. You can be stuck with no wind or with a wind that changes. And there are other places, you're on the deck, you get hit in the face with water and it's like being hit with ice.
"And, through it all, you go through times so low that you can't even imagine how you will pick yourself up. But you do. There is always a light at the end of this tunnel."
The pace is fast, as the boats ride one wave and careen into another. In the Southern Ocean, they can top 30 knots, nearly 35 mph.
But this is not like some car ride along a highway.
"It's like taking the boat and putting it on a crane and lifting it - and then cutting the line," says Christine Guillou, the French-born skipper of EF Education. "You hear a crash. And then, you go on to another crash. I think it can make you crazy if you are not used to it."
Newbold says that when the boat is really moving, "it feels like everything is about to bust at the seams. You've got big waves and a lot of noise. "
Steve Hayles, the British-born navigator of Silk Cut, says there are times when it seems like the boat is going 200 mph.
"We've taken Formula One auto racers on these boats, and they've been impressed," he says.
"You're trying to control an awesome amount of power," Hayles says. "Everything is loaded. The water is breaking all around you. And the boat is surging ahead. At that point, it's not you against the sea, it's you against yourself. Can you keep it going? Can you push the boat hard enough?"
It's a magnificent ride, the stuff the pros live for. But mixed with the exhilaration is fear, an ever-present factor that nobody likes to discuss.
"Charging through the night in the Southern Ocean, you feel like you're in the lap of the gods," Field says.
Hayles, who fell overboard in the Atlantic during the campaign leading to the Whitbread, remains respectful of the sea.
"You can get into some indescribable situations," Hayles says. "Blowing winds, huge seas, the boat going fast, you're wet, you're tired and you have to change sails.
"Even the most experienced will not think that this is an easy ride. That's why we do it. We're pushing ourselves and our boats to the limit."
The payoff comes when land is sighted and a race leg is completed.
Yet for nine months, there's always a new challenge and a new course to be conquered.
"With the Whitbread," Hayles says, "you can be guaranteed one thing: It's going to be nasty."
Pub Date: 9/21/97