Oceans of learning

10th January 2003 at 00:00
When Graham Dalton set sail on a solo round the world yacht race, he was fulfilling a lifelong personal ambition. He was also launching thousands of school pupils on an online odyssey and charting a new world of opportunities for children from Cape Town to Brazil. Rod Savage reports. Photographs by Sam Friedrich

Apart from a loud ripping sound, there was no warning. One moment it was plain sailing, the next only quick reactions saved Graham Dalton's life. It was early morning on October 10, 2002, and the skipper of the 60ft mono-hull Hexagon was just settling into the second leg of the round-the-world solo yacht race, Around Alone. Only a few days before, he'd been in the dockyard at Torbay, Devon, checking equipment and giving local school children guided tours of the boat.

The wind had picked up to about 25 knots and the sea was choppy. Mr Dalton was steering at the windward wheel - the yacht's autopilots were playing up - contemplating the long journey ahead to Cape Town. The ripping sound was the top of the carbon fibre mast - 96ft above deck - tearing away. As he dived out of the way, the mast and rigging hurtled past him and smashed into the wheel. Then, as he was cutting away the rigging to let it and the top of the mast fall overboard, his foot got caught. "About a minute, if that, after I cut my foot free, the whole thing went over the side and sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic," he says. "I suppose I could have gone down with it. It wasn't a good way to wake up."

It was a lucky escape for Mr Dalton, 50. He motored Hexagon to Brest in France, had her repaired, then continued on his way. Such are the perils of solo yacht racing around the world. Constantly exhausted and hungry, the lone sailor must always be alert. Yet Mr Dalton is not tackling this challenge entirely alone. As well as friends, family and his shore support crew, thousands of school children from around the world are following his global quest on the internet and writing him messages of support. The site www.education.hsbc.co.uk receives an average of 11,000 hits a week.

Students can email Mr Dalton while he's out on the ocean, send him jokes and ask him questions. Mr Dalton replies to as many messages as he can and writes a log that's posted on the website and automatically emailed to registered users - his "virtual crew". The site can be used by teachers and students in their schools, with modules of work posted regularly that relate to Mr Dalton's journey and the key stage 2 curriculum.

Mr Dalton says messages from students as far away as Nepal help him through the lonely times. "There have been so many very special messages," he says. "There was a little girl of five, I don't recall where she came from, who wanted to know that, as I was going to be out on the ocean (on December 25), how was Santa Claus going to find me?"

Perhaps Santa used the latest satellite technology, for Hexagon is a state-of-the-art boat. A bulbous satellite communications device sits at the stern, allowing Mr Dalton to surf the internet and use his two telephones. He has three computers in his tiny cabin, one of which has a picture of his seven-year-old daughter Katie as desktop wallpaper.

"One of the main things I notice through the emails is the kids saying, 'Graham, we want you to win but have fun'," he says. Fun is not quite the word to describe what Mr Dalton and 11 other sailors, including the only woman in the fleet, 28-year-old Briton Emma Richards (sponsored by Pindar, the print and electronic publishing company), are attempting. After the 6,880 nautical mile second leg from Torbay to Cape Town, the solo competitors tackle 7,125 nautical miles of the rolling Southern Ocean to Tauranga in New Zealand. Then round the Cape Horn at the base of South America to Salvador in Brazil and, finally, in the fifth and final leg, to Newport, Rhode Island. Those who finish - and it is unlikely that all 12 yachts will make it - can expect to drop anchor for good some time around May 5. In all, they will have covered almost 30,000 nautical miles in just under eight months.

That's a long time to be alone at sea. Conditions are cramped - Mr Dalton's bed has no headrest and is barely long enough for him. He snatches perhaps three hours' sleep a day, in 20 or 30-minute batches. He hates the food - mostly freeze-dried noodles that are boiled for 10 minutes. Creature comforts are virtually non-existent, with his only indulgence being a built-in stereo that belts out everything from the Eagles to Beethoven. Crossing the equator, it was too hot to stay "underside"; freezing conditions in the Southern Ocean will make it difficult to spend long periods "topside".

The courage, determination and willpower required to attempt the Around Alone race, which is in its 20th year, are qualities Mr Dalton passionately believes can inspire children to achieve. It was his idea to build an international education programme around the race, but while his vision was vivid, his bank balance was blank. So he put together a marketing plan, and travelled to London to talk to a potential sponsor, the HSBC bank.

The bank's chairman, Sir John Bond, chief executive officer Sir Keith Whitson, and the chief executive of its education trust, Dame Mary Richardson, didn't get a smooth chat-up. "I said to them, opening line, if you don't go with the education side of it, I don't want your money," says Mr Dalton. "We will leave now." His blunt approach worked and HSBC not only put up the money to sponsor his bid but created a new brand, the Global Education Challenge, which will continue with other projects after the race has ended.

Born in NewZealand, Mr Dalton, a professional sailor, and former sail-maker, journalist and sports magazine publisher, says sailing around the world has been his dream since he was a boy when Sir Francis Chichester did it in 1967. He's been actively working towards his goal since 1982, when he heard about Around Alone. It's taken that long to secure a place in the line-up, and to raise the finances.

It is not simply through the internet that Mr Dalton's education vision is being achieved. Some form of practical education event has taken place or is planned at each of the five stopovers, the most ambitious of which is in Cape Town, South Africa. A convoy of vans has been making its way over four days to schools in the area, ranging from Boston primary school in the well-off Bellville suburb of Cape Town, to the Walter Teka school in the poverty-wracked township of Nyanga, about an hour's drive north of the city. Graham Dalton and Emma Richards are the star attractions, but other skippers have given up their time to make guest appearances.

The roadshow aims to stimulate ambition by telling children the sailors'

stories and of dreams coming true. Nowhere has the effect of this simple message been more obvious than at Walter Teka school. In the middle of an "informal settlement" - shanty town - of 1.7 million people, the perimeter fence of Walter Teka is topped with razor wire and the main gate is guarded. Schools in the area have classes of up to 60, and if it wasn't for a donation of 20 computers by a South African retail chain, and a single ISDN line permanently installed by HSBC, there wouldn't be a computer for miles around.

Before the roadshow begins, the mood is upbeat, with a DJ and MC keeping the children entertained, but some of the teachers are unsure as to why they are here. Buyiswa Mkhanyiseli, a teacher from a township school, asks:

"What is this HCB? What does this all mean? What are the children going to get out of today?" She is protective of her students, wary of them being exploited. Yet the roadshow wins her over.

Graham Dalton talks to students about the power of following dreams, of trying to be all that you can be; Emma Richards echoes his words with tales of courage on the high seas. She, too, has had her scary moments, the most dramatic when the halyard (used to hoist the mainsail) snapped at the top of the 80ft mast and she had to climb, inch by inch, to the top to fix it. It took her more than four hours and, when she returned to deck, she collapsed through exhaustion.

There's a short video from a British school, Thomas Telford in Shropshire, with students describing their school lives. After watching the video, the township children are asked about their ambitions - "I want to be a soccer player"; "a marine biologist"; "a journalist"; "a singer" - and there is a question and answer session with the sailors.

Ms Mkhanyiseli's doubts have disappeared. Beaming, she says the roadshow is "all very worthwhile" even though her students, unlike those at Walter Teka, have no computers and can't follow the race via the internet. "But it may make them search out that access, to try to go to a library, to persevere. It will be tough for them, but at least they know it's there and what it can do," she says.

The vice-principal of Walter Teka, says her students will take "so much" away from the roadshow. "Even just basic education - they now know about the word 'yachting' and what it means; they're encouraged to speak English to an audience; they've shown great courage getting up and talking and asking questions. They just don't get these sorts of opportunities and the transformation in some of them is amazing."

All of this, of course, looks good on HSBC's report cards, but Mr Dalton is not complaining. "You could argue that HSBC is trying to be seen as a good corporate citizen. Well, that's great. Crikey, I don't see any conflict in the work they're doing. It's giving young people opportunities."

And it is this passion for giving young people a chance that is driving Mr Dalton towards the finish line. "If someone had a magic wand and said, 'Graham, you can win the race or you can have a positive influence on the lives of perhaps tens of thousands of young people, what would you take?'I" He sips his coffee on the Cape Town waterfront before answering his own question. "Perhaps I wouldn't have said this when I was younger, but I would choose to have a positive influence on young people. No contest."

Next week in TES Teacher: free Around Alone poster to help students follow the race, plus a practical guide to using it in the classroom

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