Solo Magellans Take On the World

Round-the-planet sailboat race requires lots of courage - and a laptop computer

MARK SCHRADER, the race director of yachting's BOC Challenge, says he doesn't believe the singlehanded around-the-world race belongs in any boating event's wake.

As a result, he's been popping into newsrooms across the United States and even overseas to make sure the challenge doesn't get lost in the swells created by the America's Cup or other established international sailing competitions.

The starter's gun won't be fired until Sept. 17 in Charleston, S.C., but Schrader figures he has to plant his message early.

So with the crewed Whitbread Round the World Race ongoing and the America's Cup looming in 1995, Schrader has been making house calls, accompanied by a trusty public-relations attache.

He recently dropped by the Monitor on a snowy day fit for a sled dog. The conditions were reminiscent, he said, of what BOC Challenge entrants sometimes face in the Southern Ocean.

Several dramatic rescues have been performed there in past years, he says. (See story, next page.) Even so, a good wintry storm can be a welcome challenge to the soloing salts entered in this sailing marathon.

`It's like you're surfing'

``Most people who've competed before want to go back to the Southern Ocean, because the swells can be huge,'' he says. ``When you're in a 50-foot boat it's like you're surfing. It's exhilarating.''

Speeds of 20 to 25 knots are not uncommon, and even 30 knots is within reach when the boats drop down almost sheer walls of heaving water. America's Cup yachts, by comparison, are flying when they hit 8 to 10 knots.

America's Cup offshore racing has the history and the glamour, but Schrader is convinced that the BOC Challenge, still wet behind the ears after only three races, intrigues people, and not simply ``on-the-water folks.''

A former Nebraska farm boy who now lives in Stanwood, Wash., he gives many slide shows and lecture presentations to inland audiences and says they are the most enthusiastic. ``They are excited by this event,'' he says, ``because it is different, unusual'' - an adventure story and sports competition all in one.

The race bears the name of its title sponsor, The BOC Group (a multinational gasses and health-care company based in England) and is billed as the ``longest race [27,300 miles] on earth for an individual in any sport.''

The origins of the race, Schrader explains, grew out of conversations a handful of yachtsmen had after finishing a transatlantic event 14 years ago. They decided to launch a singlehanded around-the-world race that would start and finish in the United States. A similar race, which began in England, existed briefly during the 1960s.

A small ad was placed in Cruising World magazine. Sixteen boats entered the inaugural 1982 competition. French entrants have dominated the quadrennial event, which was also held in 1986 and 1990.

Generating interest in an around-the-buoys race is one thing, but cultivating a following for an event sailed largely out of sight of land is quite another. (After leaving Charleston, S.C., the racing fleet makes three stops - in Cape Town, Sydney, and Punta Del Este, Uruguay - before returning nearly nine months later.)

``Most of the stories written about this race are done on the people in it,'' says Schrader, who competed in the 1986 race and began his tenure as race director in 1990. ``So if Tim Troy of Annapolis, Md., gets one story [about his participation] in the Annapolis paper, he will get 100, because they're going to want to know what he's doing all the time'' in the race.

High-tech tracking

Tracking the progress of the boats, therefore, is very important. Five people will staff a control center in Charleston that will maintain contact with the fleet.

In the past, high-frequency radio communication has depended on atmospheric conditions. This year, Schrader says, the latest in tracking equipment will avoid this complication. Each skipper will have a laptop computer on board, and even if he is asleep, race headquarters will be able to get a position reading. An electronic mail system will also facilitate an exchange of messages.

To capture the event's essence, however, requires something more. ``There's the whole emotional side,'' Schrader says, ``and before now, we haven't done a terrific job in telling the dockside dramas.''

That is likely to change. Lazlo Pal, an experienced adventure-sports documentary maker has been hired to produce a 90-minute public television program.

The cooperation of various skippers will be enlisted, partly to start the remote-controlled cameras (there will be several hours of tape in each camera and several cameras on designated boats) and to talk into the cameras occasionally.

Because competitors sail alone, they have limited opportunities for such sharing, but their thoughts and insights are considered central to the retelling.

Based on his experience in the 1986 race, Schrader says that the first leg of race will be the most difficult. Not because of high winds, but because of the absence of the same. ``I had a four-day period when I went a total of 15 miles,'' he says, recalling being stuck in the doldrums. ``The boat rocks, it's hot, and you're frustrated, and the frustration builds and builds.'' Worse yet, he adds, ``you're thinking that everyone else is zooming along.''

The skippers, after all, are pitted not just against the elements but themselves.

But how competitive can a months-long race be? Very. A case in point, Schrader says, was the first leg of the 1990 event, which began in Newport, R.I. At the finish of the opening 7,000-mile leg to Cape Town, six boats finished within an hour of one another.

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