All Hands On Deck

Ever wanted to compete against professional sportsmen? Now you can, by taking part in one of the world's classic sailing races

"Perhaps the hardest part of the actual racing was the three-hours-on, three-hours-off shift system. There was no chance of recuperation. You suffered from sleep deprivation, day after day," says Neil O'Hara, who admits that as a father of young children, it was a situation he was at least slightly familiar with. O'Hara, a senior executive in the energy industry, is not a professional sailor. "I've been sailing since I was five years old," he says, "but it was recreational - inshore sailing boats and dinghys." Yet at the age of 37, he found himself on a Sunday morning in August last year about to start one of the world's classic ocean races - the biennial Rolex Fastnet Race - as part of Formula 1 Sailing's Farr 65 Hugo Boss team.

O'Hara recalls how in 2001, "I'd entered mid-life, started a family, was heavily strapped to the corporate mast. At a time when work was showing signs of easing off I was contacted by some business contacts, who asked if I was interested in taking part in the Fastnet. I knew that the Fastnet, along with the Sydney/Hobart race, are the Himalayas of amateur sailing, and I knew this was something I may never get a chance to participate in again."

Even to get to the start of the race was a Herculean effort. For the next nine months, as well as getting physically fit and training, the team had to raise sponsorship for what is an expensive sport.

It's also clearly a very dangerous sport. "It can go horribly wrong," says O'Hara. "We did a huge amount of safety training, life-raft training in the dark at the Royal Naval College." The team trained intensively on several different boats, identically kitted out and the same length as the Farr 65 they would eventually sail. "We would do routine after routine, to get them perfect. The thing about ocean sailing is that every time you come to do something, you face a new variable, like weather conditions changing."

As a predominantly amateur crew, a lot of the preparation was about just getting to the starting line. "Everything's a race against time. We were, after all, just a bunch of office boys." Of the 22 crew, 18 were fee-paying - O'Hara reckons on about £2,000-£3,000 each. The professionals on board included the skipper, 27-year-old Alex Thompson of Formula 1 Sailing, who recently took the record for Open 60s in the Vendée Globe, and his brother, David, also a professional sailor.

"On these big boats, if you can learn and understand, you don't need the experience. Over nine months you can learn a helluva lot," says O'Hara. "It is so intense, both physically and mentally. You can't stop for a moment. We were racing absolutely to win - and a lot of that is down to the skipper and team manager. Alex made us constantly strive for perfection and become totally focussed."

While all the training was being undertaken, a search for sponsorship was underway: Hugo Boss became the principal sponsor of the boat, and supplied the team with state-of-the-art technical sailing apparel. "When we were all wearing the same kit it made us more professional and was very good for team-building."

The team were at Cowes Week in the days before the race. "Everyone was weather-watching," recalls O'Hara. "We were a heavy weather boat - we wanted a strong blow. The Farr 65 Hugo Boss is a stunning boat. It is the only one with black carbon sails, and we were very conspicuous, very high profile, and it felt like everyone was waiting for us to make a mistake."

Around 250 yachts took part in the Rolex Fastnet Race last year. The 600-mile course takes the fleet from off Cowes on the Isle of Wight, down the Solent, past The Needles and out into the English Channel. The headlands along the south coast - Anvil Point, Portland Bill, Start Point, The Lizard, Land's End - must be weathered on the way to the open ocean and the leg north west to the Fastnet Rock off the coast of southern Ireland. The return leg to Plymouth, via Bishop Rock lighthouse on the south side of the Scilly Isles is just as demanding. The fastest boats manage the demanding course in three days; the slowest can take up to five or six.

"We were first across the starting line. One boat had problems and didn't make it. But we got becalmed going round the coast. We were stranded. As you watch the other boats go by there's nothing you can do. But no tempers got frayed - that's thanks to the nine months' training. And clearly a lot to do with our respect and trust in the skipper." But at Land's End it got windier, with 10 to 20 foot waves, and the Hugo Boss started overtaking the competition. "That was what we'd come for. Not for a comfortable cruise, but to test the boat and test ourselves. We got so much satisfaction from getting through it together and facing situations as a team."

On the return leg in the Irish Sea fatigue had set in and the team were running on adrenaline. "By the time we reached the south coast it was blowing hard and the boat was going beautifully. The speed under sails was up to ten knots. She could have gone round the world; she didn't hesitate. We had complete faith in her. It was then that we overtook one of our competitors with a crew of Olympic sailors - all professionals. It was completely satisfying."

O'Hara recalls crashing along the south coast at night and finishing just before 1am. They came fourth in class and had taken about three and a half days.

"Once it was over, it left a huge void in all our lives. Though not for my incredibly supportive family. I've now taken up horse-riding, which we can do together. But I suspect I won't be competing at Badminton any time soon." That, says O'Hara, is the joy of taking part in the Fastnet. "There are very few times in your life you can participate in that level of sport - like overtaking a boat crewed by Olympic sailors. You can do it because you're part of a team."

For information on taking part in the Fastnet Race 2005 or on access to high performance yachts for corporate events or leisure, contact Formula 1 Sailing on +44 (0) 2392 522388; www.formula1sailing.com

By Joanne Glasbey

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