Twelve identical 72-foot, steel-hulled yachts are slicing through the western Atlantic today en route to Buenos Aires from Boston on the second leg of a wrong-way round-the-world race.
The east-west circumnavigation follows a course against the prevailing winds and currents, giving this race, the BT Global Challenge, its claim to being the world's toughest ocean race.
But the deliberately adverse conditions aren't all that make it unique. The $1.1 million yachts are crewed by amateurs, each of whom paid $40,000 for the chance to sail round the world. Only the 12 skippers, selected from 186 applicants, are professionals.
The crews include doctors, teachers, police officers, students, company directors, and project managers. One is a ballet dancer.
"Sailing with an amateur crew is a very interesting thing," said Conrad Humphreys, 27, skipper aboard LG FLATRON, currently third in the 5,840-mile second leg. "In their daily lives, they are absolutely professional, so all I have had to do is adapt them to a few sailing skills, stuff that is not rocket science or hugely difficult to get across. And because they are professionals, they do it without any problem."
Elizabeth Hurst, 36, left her job as an information technology consultant in Hong Kong to sign up in January. She borrowed her English parents' mobile home and moved to a field outside the coastal town of Plymouth to be near the boat.
"My parents are very supportive," she said. "But I'm sure they don't understand. I'm sure they would find it easier if I was living near them with kids and dogs and some children. But I have four sisters who are doing that."
Instead, after completing the 3,200-mile first leg from Southampton to Boston, she is heading for the Southern Ocean, which the fleet will cross on the 6,020-mile third leg of the race between Buenos Aires and Wellington, New Zealand.
"That's going to be one of the exciting bits," said Hurst. "It's one of the bits you could never sail in any other way. There aren't many people who get down there. Probably, I won't remember the terrifying bits."
Skipper Humphreys, who crossed the Southern Ocean from east to west during the 1993-94 Whitbread and will be one of only four sailors to have circumnavigated both ways if he completes this voyage, said: "It's really what this whole shooting match is about."
With the Challenge boats designed for upwind performance, going against the conditions, he said, should be safer, if more arduous, than sailing downwind.
"When you are surfing at high speed downwind, you have a tendency to lose control of the boat," he said. "Going into the wind and waves, you can see things much slower as they come toward you. You can pick your way through the waves."
It's a prospect that Tim Ballantine, 32, a New Zealand engineer who saved for three years to pay his way on board LG FLATRON, finds somewhat unnerving.
"Coming across the Atlantic, I wasn't particularly apprehensive about what it could throw at you," said Ballantine, who drives the boat when he is not handling the sails. "This leg, I think will be interesting. ... I don't fear it at all, but the Southern Ocean - definitely."
Before rounding Cape Horn, though, the fleet will enjoy some brisk sailing through the trade winds, then suffer the withering heat and calm of the Doldrums, where the temperature inside the steel hull could top 110 F, making sleep all but impossible.
It's all part of the ride.
When you stop to think about it, the opportunities for completing a circumnavigation these days are still few and far between. Generally, you either have to be sufficiently wealthy to finance such boundless wanderlust on your own boat or be competent enough to be recruited for the Volvo (formerly Whitbread) Round the World Race.
Facing the ultimate challenge remains way beyond the pockets and the wildest dreams of most folk. But these sailors have found the way to do it: link up with veteran British ocean racer Sir Chay Blyth, who runs the BT Global Challenge.
In 1989, he founded his UK-based Challenge Business to create, manage, and promote epic events and give ordinary people a chance to do extraordinary things.
His first proposal came out of his own 1971 experience as the first person to sail non-stop round the world the wrong way. He proposed a similar circumnavigation with the costs shared between corporate sponsors and amateur crew members. The first race was the British Steel Challenge in 1992-93.
"I thought if we could spread the cost as far as possible, we could participate round the world," said Blyth before this third Challenge's boats left Boston Sunday.
His first race sold out in three weeks, mainly to European sailors. By the time the second race was sailed as the BT Global Challenge, Blyth realized that in an era of commercial globalization, he needed to widen recruitment. This year's crews are from Europe, Australia, Africa, Asia, and the United States.