Earthrace: the green machine
Holidaymakers can take the helm on this futuristic boat before its record-breaking attempt. Charles Starmer-Smith joins the crew.
Earthrace had arrived here during a European tour aimed at drumming up support ahead of the attempt to break the record next March. Given Portugal's roll-call of ocean-going explorers such as Vasco da Gama, Bartholomeu Dias and Ferdinand Magellan, I feared that trying to wow the locals with maritime boasts would be like telling Italians how to cook pasta. But, judging from the crowds already lining the harbour at Vilamoura, even they seemed impressed by this futuristic-looking vessel.
Earthrace is not your standard petrol-guzzling powerboat. Its jaw-dropping looks have already earned it the unofficial mantle of the world's coolest boat, but it is also one of the greenest. Fuelled by biodiesel and made with environmentally friendly products, it has on-board recycling and all its carbon emissions are offset. But forget images of sandal-wearing sailors and lentil soup. This boat's performance in the water is what turns the petrol heads on. With its 13,000-litre fuel tanks it can travel halfway round the world at speeds of up to 40 knots.
Set back on its haunches like a lion preparing to pounce, the Earthrace made the hundreds of gleaming gin palaces and lavish yachts moored in the harbour behind appear to belong to a bygone era. I half expected the boats to turn their prows away in disgust at the attention lavished on this newcomer. And it will continue to be this way as Earthrace spends the next six weeks touring Spain, France and Italy before heading to Valencia for the start of the race on March 1.
Unlike most record-breaking endeavours, Earthrace is open to anyone. Just turn up at any of its ports of call, pay £3.50 and you'll get a full tour of the boat with one of the crew. For less than £30 you get a rip-roaring journey out at sea or, for the ultimate adventure, you can fork out £5,000 to join the four-man crew during one of the 12 legs of the actual race.
"It's not every day that you get the chance to enter the record books and earn bragging rights for life," says Erangey. "Circumnavigating the globe represents the pinnacle of powerboat challenges."
For all the talk of records, what quickly becomes apparent is that the crew is serious about spreading the green gospel. After working for years as an oil exploration engineer in the North Sea, the ship's New Zealand-born captain, Pete Bethune, is well aware of the paucity of oil resources.
Despite a lucrative offer from Sir Richard Branson to sponsor the boat and provide its fuel, Bethune refused to compromise on his biodiesel. What better way to prove the viability of "green" fuels that produce 78 per cent less carbon emissions than by smashing the decade-old record set by Britain's Ian Bosworth, who circumnavigated the globe in 75 days on the diesel-run Cable & Wireless boat?
Although the enthusiastic Earthrace team tirelessly bang the environmental drum, it is the boat's design that really draws in the crowds. Its arrow-shaped hull and twin "skis" enable it to cut through oncoming waves and surf down any that hit it from behind. It can travel faster in rough seas than any other vessel.
As we arrived, Bethune was busy regaling a group of children on the jetty with swashbuckling tales of being shot at by pirates in Colombia, chased by dolphins in Mexico and water-skiing on Loch Lomond. Behind him, the Maori tattoos that adorn the silver-and-black hulls of the boat leave you in no doubt as to where it was built. Bethune re-mortgaged his house to keep his dream afloat, while sponsors have put in around £1 million. The rest comes from donations - the fuel from biodiesel companies, the twin engines from Cummins Motors, translation services from Push International and invaluable help from volunteers the world over.
"This job doesn't pay but I'm working on something I believe in and living the dream," said Bethune. But, as I took my first tentative steps down into the cramped, airless cabin, dream was not the word that sprang to mind. It quickly becomes apparent that little of the £3 million has been lavished on the interior. It may boast state-of-the-art navigation equipment and a ground-breaking design, but the cramped interior makes a Yotel room look like a suite at a Shangri-La hotel. This boat was built for speed, pure and simple.
For all its sleek looks, it was only when the engines started up that you realised the raw power of Earthrace. And the noise. One passenger likened the deafening din of the engines reverberating around the carbon-fibre cabin to standing by the speakers at a Led Zeppelin concert.
"It averages about 85 decibels at cruising speed. Without earplugs the crew would go deaf," Bethune explained matter-of-factly.
I had taken a seat in the cockpit in front of a vast array of GPS controls, gauges and other boating mod-cons, just in time to see us pass a bronze statue of an old fishing captain on the harbour wall. His large weathered hands gripped a wooden tiller as he stared wistfully out to sea, looking out for fish, fair winds and, perhaps, the future as the shape of Earthrace cruised by. As if on cue, the boat slammed into overdrive. Bethune pushed the throttle forward, the guests fell back, and the boat hungrily ate up the water, spewing it over the back of the boat as everyone huddled in the cockpit. In a flash that very British enclave of Vilamoura had all but disappeared.
It is hard to imagine how you stay sane living in this cramped cabin for days on end, with the deafening roar of the engines and mile upon mile of ocean ahead. It was just then that I spotted the axe.
"Ah, yes, that," Erangey chuckled. ''That is something we hope not to use. If this boat were to flip over, it wouldn't sink, but there is also no way out. That's where the axe comes in - just make sure the hole is big enough for the life raft as well." How comforting.
As Bethune eased back on the throttle (to 20-25 knots, the speed that Earthrace will need to maintain to beat the record) I took my chance to jump down from the cockpit to have a look around. I soon realised I had left the most comfortable place on the boat.
In the pencil-thin galley, where foodstuffs are packed away alongside a wok, toaster and kettle, space is at a premium. The only luxuries are a few photos and a dartboard on the back of the door. "I'll challenge anyone to even hit the board during 40ft waves," said Erangey.
Next door were six simple bunks - four for the crew, one for a guest and the other containing the emergency life raft. The team operates a hot-bed system when racing. Working in pairs, they spend two hours at the controls and two hours off, when they try to sleep wherever they can.
Sign up for a race leg and you'll be expected to perform the same duties as the crew. The only requirement, Bethune says, is that you have some guts - just not of the beer variety.
Any doubts about Bethune's commitment were dispelled when it emerged that he recently had liposuction and converted the extracted fat into biodiesel. However before you think that cosmetic surgery might save the planet, it only produced 100ml of fuel.
What the crew lacks in space is made up for in support. Almost every inch of the walls are covered with good-luck messages in dozens of languages. "When things take a turn for the worse, it's surprising how these comments can keep you going," says Bethune.
I was laughing at one of the messages when I got a taste of what life on the high seas might be like. We hit a wave - minuscule by Earthrace standards, but enough for the boat suddenly to dive under water, defying all the logic of a normal vessel. Water roared overhead, the windscreen was totally submerged and for a split-second we were engulfed in darkness. Bethune wore a maniacal grin while guests first yelped, then giggled with relief as the boat emerged back into sunshine.
"Now imagine what it's like in 40ft seas. A bombardment of the senses," said Bethune.
As we returned to harbour, a nine-year-old boy took a turn at the wheel, his sockets straining to hold on to his eyes as he manoeuvered this metallic beast back into port under Bethune's guidance. The grins of the adults on board told the same story.
"It is mind-blowing," said Chris Pearman, 57, from Essex. "I know this sounds unpatriotic, given that it's a British boat that currently holds the record, but I'll be praying that these boys do it. I just need to save up a few pounds to take part - and lose a few to fit inside the boat. It's for a good cause too - I hadn't really thought about this environmental stuff before. And being in the record books won't half sound good down the pub."