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Scoop Feature: A taste of the testing BT boats

Sailing the wrong way around the world might not seem like a lot of fun to everybody, but for others it's a thrill ride worth paying $80k for. Karl Ferguson gets first hand experience of the all-conquering BT boats.

On Sunday, facing a pretty gentle 27km southerly the fleet of BT boats that have become such a familiar sight in Wellington's Queen's wharf basin, set sail for Sydney.

Their departure was not without drama however. Of the twelve boats, only 10 left harbour after a collision between Save the Children and Quadstone disabled the two boats, delaying them for a week. Save the Children’s skipper is unlikely to return to the boat after being seriously injured.

The high-seas drama only added to the spectacle for the thousands of Wellingtonians who lined the coast or took to their boats to farewell the fleet. It was this intense interest that led me to jump at the chance to go for a media sail during a gorgeous summers day last week.

Goodness knows who turned down a place for me to be invited but they do say you should never look a gift horse in the mouth so I dutifully turned up kitted out in the appropriate attire ready for a crack at the big time.

The crew of TeamSpirIT dutifully welcomed us aboard, though Captain John looked a little weary as he took in the designer clothes of some of my business journalist colleagues.

He quickly engaged Spence – a friendly Londoner in his twenties – to give us a tour of the boat while he and the rest of the crew busily arranged to set sail. There are two things you notice as you head below deck; one is the surprising spaciousness of the cabin, while the other is the complete lack of personal items. Spence tells us that different captains have different rules about what you can bring onboard. Some allow up to 2kg of personal items like walkmans while others – like Captain John – allow none.

While the crew mess appears pretty comfortable, the rest of the boat is all function. The unadorned bunks are narrow and Spartan while the ‘head’ – which doubles as a shower – does not look a likely place to escape the ravages of the southern ocean. Spence remarks that because of water shortages a shower using only two to three cups of water is not unusual. Surprisingly, this doesn’t seem to worry him at all, though the rest of us can’t help but cringe.

The technology on the boat is impressive and takes up a good proportion of the communal living space just behind the dining area. While I can’t recall any of the details, suffice to say it sounded like it would do the trick.

While each of the twelve boats is identical, some have little quirks that others do not. Spence says that TeamSpirit suffers from a badly leaking cabin just over the crew mess. He says the problem will be fixed by the maintenance crew but any changes they make must be made to all twelve boats whether they need them or not!

On deck, Captain John briefly demonstrated how to operate a lifejacket as we slowly motored into the harbour. He then informed us in no uncertain terms that the crew was officially on holiday and we would be required to sail the boat. Some of my colleagues looked a little green but I was elated. There is nothing like a little sailing experience to give one misplaced confidence…

I was quickly assigned the task of hauling up the mainsail, a task I have done many times before on smaller boats. Another journalist was plucked to assist, and together we put our backs into it. We managed to get it halfway up the mast before seriously running out of puff. It is difficult to describe how heavy this mainsail was. In the end, it took nearly ten of us and a couple of winches to get the thing all the way up!

To my relief, a couple of other unsuspecting media types were selected to hoist the jib, or front sail, so before long we were speeding into the harbour. Compared to some of the boats I have been on, TeamSpirIT feels like a cruise liner. It slices majestically through the water accelerating to an easy 10 knots in no time at all. The huge sail area is easily trimmed and once we pass Point Jerningham and experience the full effect of the southerly wind, I really am impressed.

I can’t help but think how small this boat would feel in a three or four metre swell though. In the middle of the ocean, with no land in sight, I imagine it would seem very small indeed. Which makes me wonder why people want to do it?

Taking a perch by the ‘keyboard’ (where all the ropes are controlled) and letting the others worry about helming the boat, I have a chat to Spence. Far from being daunted by the challenge of sailing around the world against the prevailing winds, he seems relaxed and happy. An accountant by profession he says all the preparation – up to four years before, and all the training – up to two years – was all worth it to escape a desk job, albeit for only ten months.

He looks slightly nervous when the subject of Cape Horn comes up and admits that the leg from Sydney to Cape Town could be pretty challenging. Considering that some of the worst weather in the world happens in this stretch of water, he has every right to be. Keep in mind too that some of the crew on the other boats are in their 40’s, 50’s or even their 60’s!

Meantime, we perform a drama less tack and head back towards port. With many of our ‘crew’ chatting on cell phones and the remainder basking in the sun, the chances of much more serious sailing looks remote. My plaintive cries to Captain John for a spinnaker run fall on deaf ears.

Before long, the sails are safely stowed and we are tying up against another BT boat at Queen’s Wharf. We might have only had a taste of what it is to sail a boat as impressive as this, but it was a valuable experience nonetheless. I can’t help wondering where I might be in four years time when the BT boats come through Wellington once again. Will I be as desperate as Spence was to escape a desk job – so desperate that I would sign up for a big boat adventure? It’s hard to say but my little sail round the harbour certainly didn’t put me off the idea. A big wave crashing across the bow though and it could have been a completely different story….


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