Totnes, a prim English town nestled down by the River Dart in the County of Devon, is the sort of place given more to speculation about the price of wool than to wild flights of fancy. But residents stumbling home from the pub might be forgiven the impression that the ghost of Jules Verne's Phineas Fogg is alive and well on Saint Peter's Quay. Here, inside a cavernous shed at the Baltic Wharf Boatyard, a team of 25 aerospace engineers, naval architects, and former Indianapolis 500 car designers is completing a passing strange contraption. When the ungodly thing is assembled sometime next month, it will boast twin masts that tower 136 feet over the water; two narrow, 120-foot wave-piercing hulls; an accommodations pod for the crew of five; and a theoretical top speed under sail of almost...50 miles per hour. That's not a typo. Five-zero. Nearly three times as fast as the fleetest America's Cup racers. "It looks wacky, like a boat set on razor blades," admits its skipper, Englishman Pete Goss. "We're a bit out there, I think."
A bit out there, indeed. But Goss is working to beat some seriously high-tech competition—including a giant catamaran (shown on these pages) built by billionaire thrill-seeker Steve Fossett. Both men, along with a few other world-class long-distance sailors, are entering the one-year countdown to a sailing race being billed, reasonably, as "the most extreme circumnavigation in the history of sailing." Conceived in a moment of mad inspiration by French sailor Bruno Peyron after he became, in 1993, the first to sail nonstop around the world in under 80 days, the event is known grandly in France as The Race of the Millennium. To the rest of the world, it's simply The Race. With stubborn Gallic logic, the start will take place off the Straits of Gibraltar at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 2000 (purists insist that's when the next millennium really begins). And as with every other millennial event, there's no shortage of treacly BS in the higher concept. ("To conciliate high technology with the environment, sports with culture, competition with dialogue," proclaims the event's promotional packet.) But none of that can obscure or diminish the brutish appeal of the core idea: a nonstop, no-rules, no-limits, round-the-world drag race pitting the fastest—and potentially most dangerous— sailboats ever built against the world's most violent oceans. "When it's wide open, it's not always a good test of sailing, because it can become more a test of who's crazy and who's not," observes Michael Carr, a professional marine forecaster. "Skippers will have to ask, 'How badly do I want to win, and do I care if anyone dies?'"
The race instructions are disarmingly simple: Make a beeline for the southern oceans, keep the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, and Cape Horn to port, and then finish. Fastest boat around this track at the bottom of the world wins. But with no design limitations—other than a rule that almost everything on board has to be powered by human muscle alone—the world's top multihull-design engineers are sketching boats that defy comparison to any existing sailing craft. The Goss Challenger, for example, models itself after a series of high-speed motorized attack craft—known as VSVs, for Very Slender Vessels—that architect Adrian Thompson originally designed for the world's elite special forces units, including the U.S. Navy SEALs. Instead of pounding into waves, VSVs pierce them, reducing shock loads and allowing higher average speeds. Goss expects the bows of his semi-submersible boat to plunge 14 feet underwater through the swells. To prepare for the experience, he and his crew recently entered a wind tunnel that spat 40-knot gales, driving rain, and five-degree temperatures at them, and topped it off by jumping 15 feet into a freezing pool to simulate a man overboard.
In contrast, Steve Fossett's PlayStation, a 105-foot catamaran designed specifically for The Race, will simply try to outmuscle the sea with 11,000 square feet of sail. Launched last December in New Zealand, the vessel was barely out of the box before it broke the 24-hour distance record, traveling 580.23 nautical miles (668.19 statute miles) at an average speed of 27.83 mph and reaching top speeds of 41.45 mph. Fossett thinks PlayStation can go even faster; at press time he and his boat (along with Fossett's former ballooning buddy, Richard Branson) were readying themselves for an attempt at the nine-year-old record for crossing the Atlantic from New York Harbor to the English Channel—six days, 13 hours, three minutes.
All told, 19 challengers are now officially registered for The Race. The vagaries of fund-raising and construction schedules will prevent a number from making it to the starting line. But Fossett and Goss could be joined by up to five new maxi-multihulls (including a secretive French affair, christened Code Zero, that is a few feet longer than PlayStation), several existing deep-ocean multihull racers, and possibly a super 150-foot monohull being designed in the United States. Adrian Thompson, for one, revels in the competition between designers. "It would be boring if all the boats looked the same," he says. "Only one of us will be proved right."
But the race may carve a fine line between winning form and disaster. Crews will risk mechanical failure, capsizing, and pitchpoling, in which the boat's bow digs deep into the back of a wave and somersaults. ("Our insurance policy is a pair of fire axes to cut the main sheets," deadpans Goss.) Skippers will be tempted to try a shortcut through the high latitudes surrounding Antarctica—a region notorious for ice and foul weather. "It's going to be fairly easy to get these boats in trouble," predicts Bob Rice, a meteorologist who has helped route round-the-world racers to record finishes. "The odds are quite high that they will see '60/60'—60-knot winds and 60-foot seas."
To enjoy the privilege of facing these conditions, an entrant must sail one of four designated transoceanic passages and post a time that comes within 125 percent of the record existing in December 1998. So in the coming year, everyone from the crews to the governments that might have to rescue them will get a realistic preview of this madness. And once The Race kicks off, in addition to television coverage, up to ten remote cameras aboard each boat will enable World Wide Web users to experience the ordeal live. Offshore yacht designer Robert Perry believes that will make for a pretty mesmerizing, if potentially gruesome, contest. "These vessels generate such gargantuan loads that when the shit hits the fan, it is a lot of shit hitting a huge fan," he explains. "They are probably about as unsafe a boat as you could possibly go to sea in. But this is an extreme sport—so asking how safe the vessels are is just not relevant."