Page last updated at 12:31 GMT, Wednesday, 7 May 2008 13:31 UK

Sailors on course for ocean prize


Alex Bennett gives a tour around his 40ft yacht, Fujifilm.

by Jonathan Morris
BBC News

Some of the best sailors in the world are gathering in Plymouth for the Artemis Transat race, a single-handed sprint to Boston, USA.

Among the fleet is the 12m (40ft) yacht Fujifilm, sailed and built by Devon sailor Alex Bennett.

Bennett, 32, is arguably Britain's brightest hope in ocean racing.

And he is aiming to be the winner or at least on the podium after the finish, about 21 days after the boats leave Plymouth on 11 May.

Alex Bennett has a determined look on his face as he prepares his yacht Fujfilm at Sutton Harbour in Plymouth.

The view Alex Bennett hopes most of his competitors will have

Bennett started sailing at the age of seven in dinghies in his native Yorkshire.

Turning down a chance to become a professional rugby player, he became a professional sailor at the age of 19.

A few months later he entered a youth team in the Fastnet race from Cowes to the Fastnet Rock in southern Ireland and back to Plymouth and came second in his class.

He followed that with a third in the round Britain race and in 1999 he came fifth in the Mini Transat, sailing the Atlantic single handed in a boat not much bigger than a Ford Mondeo.

Now he faces his toughest challenge yet, sailing solo 2,800 miles across the Atlantic.

The Artemis Transat route takes the fleet in a northerly arc, with yachts facing the danger of collisions with icebergs and fog as well as the danger of falling asleep.

Alex Bennett
Alex Bennet in the "cuddy" where he will sleep for 40 minutes at a time

The world's first solo ocean race began in Plymouth 48 years ago on the toss of a coin - a bet between Plymouth sailor Sir Francis Chichester and Blondie Hasler.

Chichester, sailing Gipsy Moth III, went on to win the race and become a West Country sailing hero.

Bennett said: "In Formula One racing drivers risk their lives for two hours, but for us it is 21 days.

"But the thrill of achievement and professional satisfaction is unrepeatable."

Body sores

Bennett manages to get by with never more than 45 minutes sleep at one time, taken in a "cuddy" in the cockpit, just forward of the twin tillers, ready to grab hold of in emergency.

Designer: Owen Clarke LLP
Build: Composite Creations
Length: 12.18m
Beam: 4.3m
Downwind sail area: 256 sq m
Launch date: August 2007
And while he dozes an array of radars and other navigational aids with alarms can alert him to dangers ahead.

His food is all freeze dried which he cooks on a camping-style burner to save weight on the boat.

Hygiene is dealt with mostly by wet wipes to fend off body sores caused by the salt water.

So life is hard on board, but Bennett hardly has time to think about it, as he makes sail changes - there are eight sails on board - tracking other competitors, and watching weather charts for the fastest route round the "race track" as he calls it.

"You really do have to be a jack-of-all-trades on a boat like this," explained Bennett.

"You have to be an electrician, a tactician, a navigator, you have to know how to cook well in order to keep yourself alive.

Fujifilm at Sutton Harbour in Plymouth where race boats are gathering

"Then you have to think about getting up on deck and racing the boat and keeping her on what we call the boil - keeping the boat going fast day and night."

And when he is feeling down, there is nothing like a blast of the Rolling Stones or U2 on his iPod lift his spirits.

He could even download tunes from the internet with the computer equipment on board which will relay his every move, including his own footage, to the race website.

Bennett has ambitions to enter the Vendee Globe, the race that made Ellen MacArthur a household name.

And a good placing in the Transat will open up the backing he needs to support that embition.

He said: "It's my holy grail since being a small boy.

"Every day has been about moving me closer to that dream, I know I can do it, I have the ability."

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