PORTSMOUTH, England — Fifteen yachts from 10 nations are racing around the world in a contest that remains the ultimate high seas challenge despite the use of high-tech gadgets.
The fourth Whitbread Round The World Race, held every four years, began last month in this southern English seaport from where Admiral Horatio Nelson helped Britannia rule the waves in the 18th century.
The Whitbread is for single-hulled yachts with crews of up to 24. There are two yachts each from Britain, Switzerland, New Zealand, Belgium and Holland and one each from Denmark, Spain, France, Finland and the United States.
The U.S. entry, Portatan, is skippered by South African Peter Kuttel, 47, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
As they circle the globe in four legs, a total of 27,000 miles, each yacht has at least six radio transmitters or receivers covering communications and distress frequencies.
These include single-band radio, VHF radio, a receiver activated by an automatic alarm signal on the international distress frequency, a portable single-band radio able to transmit from a life raft, two emergency position-indicating radio beacons and a transmitter that sends a signal to two satellites that circle the earth.
The reason for all this: three people died in the first Whitbread race in 1973-74, nine of the 29 boats in the third race in 1981-82 lost their masts, and skippers tend to lie when giving their positions by radio.
The 1985-86 race, which began Sept. 28 and whose first leg ends in Capetown, South Africa, in early November, marks the first time the boats are tracked daily by satellite.
"To have the boats report in by radio alone is not enough, especially when they near the Antarctic region where the weather can be foul," said Retired Rear Admiral Charles Williams, race committee chairman.
"In the past, we found the boats radioed in the wrong positions. They cheated and that is dangerous in case of an accident and we need to know where they are.
"This race is sailing's equivalent of climbing Mount Everest," he said.
Each yacht carries an inviolable position-indicating beacon that is checked by satellite several times daily.
This is especially important on the second and third legs of the race to Auckland, New Zealand, and Punte del Este, Uruguay, when the yachts must round Africa and South America.
On those legs, the boats face ice-strewn waters, freezing temperatures and howling winds that build mountainous seas in areas known as the "Roaring 40's" and "Screaming 50's"--a reference to the latitudes.
"There is little in the conditions racers meet in a normal offshore event to compare with what they find in the Southern Ocean," said Cornelis van Rietchoten of the Netherlands, the Whitbread winner in 1977-78 and 1981-82 who is not competing this time.
After his 1982 win, van Rietchoten described the conditions in the area:
"As each white-crested roller picks up the boat, it is as if a giant hand has suddenly grasped the hull and thrust it forward down the wave.
"First the boat starts to hum like an electric train, the vibrations running from stem to stern before the bow curls up into a tunnel of spray that drowns out all other noise. . . . "
Organizers expect the first boat to reach Capetown on Nov. 3, Auckland on Jan. 3, Punte del Este on March 12 and Portsmouth on May 7.
Stopovers in each city for repairs and rest last about a month.
The race is conducted according to the International Offshore Rule, which has divided the 15 boats into three categories: seven maxis, including the American entry, ranging in length from 77 to 82 feet, four mid-sized boats of 57.7 to 65.5 feet, and four small craft of 49.2 to 57.8 feet.
The IOR is fine-tuned every November and sets the rules for handicap racing.
The eight mid-sized and smaller craft race on handicap against the maxis. The handicap rating is a complex mix of overall length, shape of the hull, keel draft and total sail area.
The IOR bans a winged keel such as the one used for the first time by Australia II, the surprise winner of the America's Cup in 1983. The IOR is not applied to the America's Cup, which one British sailing purist disdainly called "a free for all."