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Adventurer to sail solo around world -- backwards

By George Webster for CNN
Steve White will need all his strength to battle the wind and currents as he attempts to sail around the globe in the "wrong" direction.
Steve White will need all his strength to battle the wind and currents as he attempts to sail around the globe in the "wrong" direction.
  • Steve White will attempt to sail around the world the "wrong way" -- from west to east
  • Riding against the prevailing winds and currents has only been attempted by handful of men
  • White, a former jockey, discusses his unusual journey to becoming one of sailing's elite

(CNN) -- Today he's ranked among the world's greatest long-distance sailors, but Steve White's journey to the top has hardly been a pleasure cruise.

Starting out as a jockey before establishing a career restoring classic cars, he barely set foot on a boat before his mid-twenties. The 37-year-old father of four worked for years in a small boatyard and had to re-mortgage his house three times in order to compete in the high-profile races that have since catapulted him under the spotlight of sailing's elite.

Today, he has his sights set on a record only ever attempted by a handful of men: Sailing solo around the globe "the wrong way" -- from east to west -- against the prevailing winds and currents.

The 22,000-mile circumnavigation -- described by a British newspaper as the "impossible voyage" -- will see White single-handedly manning a vast sailboat designed for a crew of 10. The demands of the voyage will mean sleep deprivation -- some nights White may only be able to snatch five minutes.

It's like running up a downhill escalator, but much wetter.
--Steve White

He will also have to face whatever conditions the oceans throw at him, which in some places will mean howling winds and waves that can rise as high as a three-storey building.

"The record is known as probably the hardest and definitely the most grueling record in sailing," White told CNN. So, why even embark on such an ordeal?

"Put simply, it's the adrenalin hit," he said. "As a jockey I was addicted to the thrill of riding an animal over which you have only limited control. The open water is very similar in that respect."

For White, it's the "unpredictability of the sea and the skies" as well as the skill of handling such a "big and complex craft" that motivate him. "These are the things I find so alluring about long-distance sailing -- and the record attempt is the ultimate representation of that."

The majority of round-the-world solo trips are made from west to east because, as White says, "you're just carried by the wind and the waves." However, the British sailor will be battling in the opposite direction. It's a bit like "running up a downhill escalator, but much wetter," he said.

White will be traveling across the Atlantic to the tip of South America, then heading west across the southern Pacific and Indian oceans before finally returning to the Atlantic.

"It's that stretch along the Southern Ocean where I'll start thinking to myself 'Good grief, what on earth am I doing here sailing the wrong way' -- because that's really one of the roughest and most desolate places on the planet."

White is pragmatic about the dangers: "The fact is I could be 500 meters outside Portland harbor, fall out the side of the boat and still die. You have to be a little bit detached about these things."

It's that stretch along the Southern Ocean where I'll start thinking to myself 'Good grief, what on earth am I doing here sailing the wrong way.'

The only thing that scares him, said White, is failure: "I don't have endless financial backing or a big professional management team behind me at the moment -- so there's a lot of friends and family with high expectations. The thought of letting everyone down is terrifying."

The current "westabout" solo round-the-world record was set in 2004. It is held by Frenchman Jean Luc Van Den Heede who made it in 122 days, 14 hours and four minutes.

White endured a daunting and grizzly learning curve in the years before turning professional.

"I ended up teaching people how to sail the Atlantic -- often in winter -- for over four years, during which time I personally sailed more than 100,000 miles. I just threw myself into it; I'm a very obsessive person in that sense," he said.

In February 2009, after enjoying success in a handful of smaller races, White put everything on the line -- including the family home -- in order to finance his entry into the Vendee Globe, the only solo non-stop circumnavigation race in the world.

"I didn't sleep a wink the night before the race," he said. "I was still making last-minute arrangements. I wasn't even sure if we'd have the money to compete. By the time I reached the start line I was already exhausted."

Despite these setbacks, and despite competing in a field of 29 better-funded and more established skippers, White emerged as a surprise front-runner, ultimately finishing in eight place after 19 competitors dropped out mid-race.

It's this sudden emergence from relative obscurity to the forefront of his field that distinguishes White, and earned him a reputation as an "everyman" in the rarefied world of long-distance, solo sailing.

Follow Steve's record attempt over the next year at