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A sail race around the world -- for a modest cup

By Phil Elderkin / June 10, 1981



San Diego

This isn't the usual treadmill story about a man and his dream, chiefly because the length of this dream is approximately eight months and will coast Neil Bergt (pronounced Burke) considerably more than $1.2 million!

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Starting Aug. 29 from Portsmouth, England, Bergt will skipper the 65-foot yacht Alaska Eagle in an around-the- world race that will cover 26, 1980 nautical miles in about 144 days, and often in weather that can turn a boat completely over.

The reason the number of days mentioned does not add up to eight months is that there will be three substantial port stops along the route for rest and repairs. Sailing with Neil will be a crew of 11, including his 20-year-old son, Mike.

Although only 17 yachts have officially entered to date, a total of 25 are expected. Among countries already represented are the Netherlands, France, Britain, Finland, Belgium, Italy, Norway, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, South Africa, and Spain, and inquiries have come from the Soviet Union.

First prize (based on the lowest combined handicap time for all four legs of the race) is a cup reportedly worth about the cost of an oil change.

According to the Royal Naval Sailing Association of England (the race's coordinating body), this is an event that tests and stresses people and equipment to extreme limits while providing a degree of adventure seldom found on dry land.

For example, one area that must be met and mastered is the legendary Cape Horn, whose severe winter nights, turbulence, icebergs, and freezing spray have provided numerous ships over the centuries with a personal tour of Davy Jone's locker.

This is offshore ocean racing at its ultimate, requiring months of preparation, special watertight clothing, an uncanny knowledge of water currents and wind directions, a crew that won't make mistakes, and a ship as tough as a rhinoceros.

Should a crew member fail to wear his harness (one that binds him to the ship while still allowing him most of his freedom) while crossing the Antarctic Ocean , waves crashing over the deck would surely sweep him into the sea. Even on soft-weather days, Bergt will have a crew of at least five topside at all times.

"The only way to win this race is to sail constantly on the edge of disaster without actually pushing yourself too far," Bergt explained. "What this means is deliberately going into high wind areas and storms where the weather is punishing but provides the greatest opportunity for speed.

"Remember, this is strictly a sailing race and we'll be carrying 22 sets of canvas, although only two or three sails at a time can be used. On good days we'll probably cover 250 miles. But during that time, when we're in the doldrums [a point about five degrees north of the equator where the air is mostly still] we'll be lucky to make 20 to 30 miles a day."

The Alaska Eagle, which Bergt bought for $600,000 from Cornelius van Rietscheten of the Netherlands and which won the last around-the-world race under the name Flyer, has already undergone $400,000 worth of alterations in a Dutch shipyard. Among other things, the boat has been lengthened to increase its speed, meaning that Neil will now owe handicap time to smaller boats.