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Wednesday, 28 January, 1998, 11:40 GMT
Brutal hard work is the name of the game
Round the world yacht races present a daunting challenge to a sailor's stamina and skill. Not all those on board the racing yachts are the hard and seasoned professionals that the sailing world calls "gorillas".

The BT Global Challenge which, unlike the Whitbread, goes round the world the "wrong" way (that is against the prevailing wind and tides) specialises in taking amateurs and training them for what they will expect in the notorious southern oceans.

The BBC's Michael Buerk took part in this year's BT Global Challenge. The training was a shock to the system, as he describes:

"It was only when I got to my bunk that Saturday night that I realised I had lost my fingertips. The chocolate spread someone had put in my tuna sandwiches was playing havoc with what was left of my digestion. I was shacked up for the night with a girl I had only just met, in a bedroom four feet wide that was rocking around like a drunk on an escalator.

"It is hard being a yachting hero, even a trainee one.

"This was day three of the training course for crews taking part in the BT Global Challenge. If there is one thing I have learned after 30 years reporting all over the world it is to run for cover when I hear the word" challenge".

"It usually means something uncomfortable, unpleasant and probably dangerous, that you can boast about afterwards. But the idea of a yacht race is so seductive, the beauty of the boats, man against the elements, that appeals to the Hornblower in us all.

"Lying there in my bunk, braced nervously against the force seven gale whistling up Plymouth Sound, it occurred to me that this was baloney; that ocean yacht racing was a masochist conspiracy, and I was its latest victim.

"For three days we had been charging up and down the Western approaches, pulling on ropes and wires with names I could never remember, and purposes that remained obstinately obscure. It all looks so serene from a distance, but it is actually such brutal hard work. You begin to realise why, in the real days of sail, they could only get people to do it through slavery or the press gang.

"You had to use all your strength, all the time. At first, the only way I could manage was to approach each task in a blind fury. When it was done, and I was looking for somewhere to lie down, they wanted it to be made tidy. There were a hundred different ways of doing this, all requiring craft skills of a high order, but only one would do for each task, apparently. They were very patient.

"I was very slow. This was partly because the only thing I HAD learnt was that as soon as I had finished, it would start all over again.

"One sail looked much the same as another to me, particularly as each weighed the same as a small bus and had to be dragged on to the deck, through a hole the size of Claudia Schiffer's waist. Yet they were never satisfied. Any tiny shift in the wind, and they would have us scampering across the dripping, diving deck, wrestling with enough sailcloth to make a marquee.

"Three days of this had reduced my fingers to stumps (my fingerprints had completely gone), my back was in spasm, I had bruises all up my left leg, and one foot had started to rot.

"My colleagues were a hearty bunch, all pretending quite convincingly, that they were enjoying it. They had a keen sense of humour, which expressed itself in the daily tradition of the rogue sandwich. A vomit-inducing combination - treacle and fishpaste, say - was buried at the bottom of the bucket of sandwiches made each lunchtime.

"I always seemed to get it, but the aching hunger that made me greedy enough to fall for the rogue sandwich, also meant I barely noticed that it was any different from the others. This seemed to make the joke even funnier.

"It was all laddish stuff. We were not all lads, as it happened. There were two attractive girls amongst the trainee crew who, inevitably, proved tougher and more resilient than the men.

"The sleeping arrangements had been carefully thought out. In the enforced intimacy of cabins the size of children 's wardrobes, the girls each shared with the two oldest men, presumably on the basis that, even if their thoughts did stray, their bodies would be too ruined to do anything about it. Which was why, as my Patrick O'Brian novel slipped from my mutilated fingers through the lee cloth that Saturday night, the last thing I heard was the rhythmic purring snores of my lady shipmate.

"I woke Sunday morning wondering why anyone every thought the words "luxury" and "yacht" go together. This one, like all the others, smelt of stale people, mildew and bad drains. It was almost a relief to get out into the bitingly cold November air for the next "challenge".

"It was well before dawn, and we were ordered to row ashore and go on a three- mile run. This was, we were told, not just to improve our personal fitness, but to help us to "bond". The skipper would have loved to come with us, he said, but he felt it his duty to remain behind to make sure the anchor did not drag. His great experience enabled him to do this without leaving his bunk.

"We were now in the hands of the mate, a man who appeared to have stepped straight off the back of a sardine tin. He ran us up to the top of the hill, and down again. Then, unbelievably, he told us to get our clothes off and get in the sea. Even more unbelievably, we did.

"I began to feel quite good a few hours later, at the time I would normally be getting up. It must be something to do with submerging all common sense, all ideas of comfort and even self-preservation, in the interests of some greater ideal - God help me, a "challenge".

"That was only the training. The real thing was worse. Much worse."

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