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Learning the language of the ocean

Matthew Brown talks to Alan Goddard, teacher and adventurer, who is off on a transatlantic yacht race

Alan Goddard is clearly an adventurous type. An experienced climber and mountaineer, he often spends his summer holidays in the Alps. He went to college in the Lake District and counts canoeing, white-water rafting and bungee jumping among his favourite outdoor pursuits. "I just like to do things," he says.

So when he saw a round-the-world yacht race on telly last year, it drew the inevitable response: "Hey, I could do that." There were only three problems - being a teacher he couldn't afford the pound;26,000 fee, or take 10 months off work, and the only sailing he'd done was in small dinghies on lakes.

Yet, thanks to an understanding wife, a well-staffed school, and some hair-raising training in the English Channel, by the time his next Year 6 class returns to Oakthorpe primary school in the London borough of Enfield next term, Alan will be on the open seas on board a 72-foot yacht racing from Southampton to Boston.

He will be one of 16 amateur sailors from all over the world who will crew one of six boats, together with a professional skipper and mate, in the Challenge Transat 2002. "It's going to be an amazing experience," says the 40-year-old.

The transatlantic race, which starts on August 25, is run by Challenge Business, an organisation set up in 1988 by Sir Chay Blyth, the first man to sail around the world against prevailing winds and tides. "He wanted to let ordinary people have the adventure he'd had," says Challenge Business's Rachel Anning.

The company's main event is the BT Global Challenge, in which 12 yachts race over Sir Chay's historic route. It was that race that sparked Mr Goddard's interest. Then, last summer, he was offered a day's sailing, and heard about the transatlantic race. "Initially I was interested in going round the world," he says. "But taking 10 months off work just wasn't an option. So when they told me about this, I thought, 'Great'."

"The next Global Challenge, in 2004, is already full," explains Ms Anning. "This race is designed to fit with an average annual leave, and it's much cheaper." All "crew volunteers" pay nearly pound;5,000 to take part in the three-week race. MrGoddard and his wife, Janet, also a teacher, decided they could afford it if they dug into savings and borrowed. After a short interview, Alan was accepted, but it meant taking six days out of school for training, as well as missing the first two weeks of next term. Luckily, Oakthorpe head Geoff Cumner-Price was "very keen".

"We're a beacon school and a training school," explains Mr Goddard. "So we're well staffed. Absences can usually be covered internally, but I'm lucky the head was so excited."

But it's not all been plain sailing. The race will be tough, and training has been suitably rigorous. Mr Goddard admits to having a few second thoughts when training began in January. Five days in the English Channel being buffeted by freezing cold force nine gales tested his resolve. "The first day I was seasick," he says. "I was a liability, and I did think, 'Am I being sensible?' It was like learning a new language. You realise what a responsibility you have. At one stage I was helming in five metre waves with four or five people I'd never met, thinking if I go wrong they get hurt, along with one-and-half million pounds-worth of boat."

A large dose of medication, plus tons of dedication, saw Alan through, and by the end of his second training sail in March, he was much more confident: "I felt I knew something."

On July 27 he will be at St Katherine's Dock in east London, when the crews will be allocated to captains. The yachts are virtually identical and teams are matched for ability and experience to make it a fair competition. Two weeks of intensive training for the race start on August 10.

"It'd be great credibility to come back to school and tell the kids I've won," he says.

The Challenge Transat 2002 is open to anyone over 21. There are two races - from Southampton to Boston, and back - and a few berths are still available for the return leg. Challenge Business, which is hoping to repeat the venture in 2003, also runs adventure sailing holidays to places such as the Canaries, the Caribbean and Norway, and holds weekend training courses. See www.challengebusiness.com

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