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Friday, August 18, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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STEVE KELLEY

Engineer finds new profession after answering call to high-seas adventure

Times staff columnist

Some people look at the world as a frightening place. They never take a chance. Never accept a challenge.

Some people look at the globe with dread in their hearts. But others, the people who really live their lives, look at the globe and see its endless possibilities. They look at the world with wonder, not fear. They refuse to think of life as ordinary.

They believe in the power and the magic of their dreams. They aren't afraid of the unknown.

In 1989, Simon Walker was home watching British adventurer Sir Chay Blyth on the BBC talking about a yacht race he was promoting: the BT Global Challenge. A group of 12 identical, 72-foot racing yachts, crewed by ordinary people, would sail around the world "the wrong way," against the prevailing winds. Blyth was looking for volunteers.

Walker thought about the dangers. The rolling, mountainous whitecaps that would wash across the bow of these sturdy yachts. The icebergs that would loom dangerously in the morning mist. The lack of sleep and the winds that would chill him to his marrow.

He could have made a list of reasons not to go that would have stretched across the English Channel. He would be away from home for 10 months. He would have to raise a whopping $40,000. And, oh yeah, he wasn't exactly Ted Turner at the helm. He was an engineer, not a sailor.

"In modern life, what is out there that can stretch you?" Walker said about his decision. "And the thing about offshore racing is, it stretches you in so many ways. It's testing physically and emotionally. You're leaving your friends and family behind. You get scared. You get exhilarated. It's very much a roller coaster. I just thought it all sounded fantastic."

Like most adventures, this first race transformed Walker's life. A hobby became a lifestyle. A lifestyle became a profession.

He was named skipper of the Toshiba, the yacht that finished second in the 1996-97 BT Global Challenge. Like a player-coach, he did everything he asked his crew to do.

"The captain's job is very much to come up with a culture and a way of life that will lead to great performances from his crew, but will also get you through the really hairy moments," Walker said. "For instance, when you're down in the southern ocean, what are you supposed to do when it's freezing cold and you're soaking wet? It's absolutely horrendous conditions, but you have to stay competitive no matter the conditions.

"When we first got together, nine months before the (1996) race, we talked for about four days in a house in the woods. It had nothing to do with yachts at all. We were trying to find out, as individuals, what we were trying to achieve here. Life's not simple. There are complex environments out there, and things go wrong. We had to come up with a personal commitment from everyone in the crew to perform."

Six months into the race, the Toshiba was in the southern ocean. The water temperature was below 40 degrees. The winds were blowing at about 75 knots. Crew members stayed on deck for four-hour shifts. They were wet and freezing and probably wondering where the nearest beach was. And they knew conditions were going to stay this nasty for at least the next 48 hours.

"Morale's not high at this point," Walker understated.

Finally the four-hour shift was done. They went below and had four hours to rest before the next shift. Wet, tired, bruised and shivering, it takes a half-hour to get out of their survival gear. It will take another half-hour to put it all back on again, so the off-time really is about three hours.

They climbed into their sleeping bags, which at this point in the race smelled liked the insides of a linebacker's shoes in the fourth quarter of a rain-soaked game in Palo Alto. Still, it felt like heaven. Until they heard the knock.

One of the rules of sailing in icy waters is, you sleep on the high side. If, during your nap, the boat has to tack, the knock comes from the deck and the sleeping sailors climb out of their bags and shuffle across the boat, then get back in their sleeping bags. The drill can be repeated several times during this four-hour shift.

Think about these sailors the next time an NBA team complains about a road trip.

"They did it watch after watch, and never once did I, as a skipper, have to ask them to do this, to move to the other side of the boat," Walker said. "They did it willingly, and it all came down to the work we did a year before in that house in the woods."

Walker, the CEO of Challenge Business, is putting together crews for another race: The New World Challenge. The race will leave from San Francisco in May 2002, sail against the prevailing winds, around the world, across the Bering Sea to Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Cape Town, and Buenos Aires, before returning to San Francisco in the spring of 2003.

Each boat will have a crew of 17, plus a professional skipper. Walker estimates 30 crew positions remain open. One of the training yachts is moored through tomorrow, at the Seattle Boat Show at Shilshole Marina. The professional skippers are looking for a few adventurous men and women.

"The race is not for everybody, but that's life," Walker said. "We're not looking for ace sailors, or rich kids. Many in our crew have no sailing experience at all before they do their basic training. What we're looking for are great, extraordinary, ordinary men and women, who really understand what they are letting themselves in for. We're looking for a certain spirit and lightness and vitality that will get them through this.

"These people aren't superstars. They aren't rock stars. That's what makes this race special. But they are achievers. They have a tremendous amount of personal pride and self-belief and confidence."

They are the lucky ones. They ingest life. They don't fear it.

You can contact Steve Kelley by voice mail at 206-464-2176.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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