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

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!

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.

Bergt says the Alaska Eagle is constructed of welded aluminum; carries a 78 -foot metal mast; and has four cabins, storage tanks for drinking water, and a huge amount of freeze-dried food. "Our secret weapon," he claims, "is a French chef who has a reputation for making super meals out of this stuff."

Bergt picked his crew from about 100 known sailors from various parts of the world who are experienced in this kind of acting and who are aware of the importance of being competitive at 3 a.m. Of the 12 members, 7 are from the United States, the others from South Africa, Holland, France, Sweden, and England. They will receive expenses, plus a living allowance.

Although some women applied and other boats in the race may have two or even three female crew members, Neil rejected them on the basis that a 200-pound man, needing all the strength he's got to do his job in a storm, is a better risk than a 110-pound woman.

During the race there will be port stops in Cape Town; Auckland, New Zealand; and Mar del Plata, Argentina, before the final leg is sailed back to Portsmouth.

While the Alaska Eagle is in the doldrums, according to Bergt, it may be possible to give certain crew members a day off. Most will probably go below deck and read or update diaries, or, with no shower facilities aboard, take a swim in the ocean.

One of the hardest things for landlubbers to understand about offshore ocean racing under sail is the concept of apparent wind as opposed to true wind.

"Even when mother nature doesn't seem to be disturbing the air, there is always some kind of breeze out there," Bergt explained. "In fact, it is possible for a good drew to get a boat moving in only one knot of wind. After that the boat will generate its own wind, depending on the angle it is being sailed, and we'll have a computer aboard to tell us the best possible angle."

Neil, who grew up in Alaska, made his first real money from a milk route; later he went from bush pilot to Alaska Airlines, where he was a captain at age 23. He gives the impression of being the kind of man who follows other people into revolving doors and comes out first.

Although Bergt has been sailing for only seven years and has never spent more than seven consecutive days on any boat, the idea of 144 days at sea holds no terrors for the chairman of the board of Alaska International Industries Inc. He has been training hard for this race for four months, including riding a bicycle 35 miles a day, five days a week.

Offshore ocean racing is considered a gentleman's sport, meaning that although all these sailing ships have engines, they will be used only in case of an emergency.

The race, which originated in 1973, is held every four years. Bergt has the honor of skippering the first US entry, and the Alaska Eagle will be among those boats favored to win.

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