Before joining the 2007-2008 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, Yan Xinmin had never spent even a minute on a boat. However, when she spotted an advertisement recruiting crew from all walks of life for the biennial ocean-racing event in a copy of the Guardian in a London subway last March, a wild idea popped up in her mind.
"I want to be one of them."
Yan is not new to adventure. As a lover of travel, she has covered 26 countries and once found herself 6,000 m above sea level during a media trip to Mount Qomolangma (or Everest as is known in the West) in 2003 while working for China Central Television.
Still, sailing was by far the craziest idea to hit the 30-something Beijinger. She knew nothing about the sport and is not even a good swimmer.
The advertisement just stopped her in her tracks. An additional attraction was that during one of its stopovers, the fleet would touch Qingdao, East China's coastal city which is less than 1,000 km from her hometown.
"Since my trip to Mount Qomolangma, I had been dreaming of another outdoor adventure. But I was not keen on going for a familiar activity," she says. "The possibility of sailing excited my curiosity."
Before the race, she underwent a three week-long intensive training session that included a three-day 378-km testing race on the North Sea from Amsterdam to Wilbeforce, Britain.
It gave her a taste of what it would be like to spend the next 40 days on the sea: She had to share a 10-sq-m smelly room with 15 people, wear sodden clothes and socks forever and endure days without a shower.
Rotating between work and rest every three hours, she could catch barely any sleep as she was thrown off her bunk frequently. On many occasions, she had to sit in the pouring rain with other crew on the tilting boat for hours and hours or rush to the deck in the middle of the night to change the boat sail weighing more than 80 kg, on a wild sea.
"I thought of quitting many times. There was a time when I tried to think of something nice to distract my attention from the hardships. A big, dry and comfortable bed was the one image that kept appearing in my mind. I can't imagine how I got over that difficult time," Yan says.
However, when she got onboard the 68-foot (21m) yacht "Qingdao" in Fremantle, Western Australia on New Year's Day and headed to Singapore, she soon found that the most difficult thing to deal with was neither the wind nor the waves, but people.
She was the only Chinese in the all-British crew that included the skipper, solicitors, engineers, a student, a civil servant, and even a postman.
"It's been interesting to learn how to work with people from different cultures, even down to doing the washing up and cooking - we all do it in different ways," Yan says.
It was not until much later in her adventure that she realized that those differences could turn into disasters, especially in tough conditions.
After a smooth 18-day trip from Fremantle to Singapore and then an eight-day stopover, the fleet headed to Qingdao, where two more Chinese crew, Du Fei and Gao Jun, joined in.
Unfortunately, Du, a 25-year-old dinghy sailor, got a fever even before getting onboard and soon her condition worsened.
To Yan's surprise, no one took it seriously, not even the skipper. Du was unable to stand up for herself because she couldn't speak English.
"The Westerners just left her alone because I think they don't like to interfere in other people's affairs. But we Chinese always like to offer a helping hand."
Yan says the crew became more and more impatient with Du and started to alienate the timid Chinese girl. They were even mad with Yan who was always trying to help her sick compatriot. "We just think in different ways," she says.
Things went worse when the temperatures began to drop as the boat sailed from tropical days into the chilly early spring near Taiwan and the Yellow Sea.
The food shortage proved the proverbial last straw. The crew had to dip into the five-day back-up supplies as they were almost a week behind the other boats. Everyone started to battle for a slice of chocolate, a bowl of rice or even a cup of hot tea.
"It was just like the Big Brother show," Yan says, referring to the popular British reality TV show noted for putting participants under intense pressure and recording their reactions under "no privacy" cameras.
As Du's fever reached 41 C, the crew realized they needed to do something. Just when they planned to send her to hospital, Du began to recover after taking the medicines given by the skipper.
However, the incident made them lag further behind the other boats. The skipper then decided to use the engine for the remaining 600-nautical-mile race to the finish. Finally, they arrived at Qingdao on February 17, almost three days after the leader "New York".
Although Yan did not continue with the fleet which is now heading to Hawaii on its full circumnavigation, she has learned a lot.
"Sailing is not all about the skills and techniques. Teamwork is equally important," she says. "Every tiny thing can be amplified when the whole world is just a boat on the sea.
"Communication, patience, cooperation and adjustment are needed, unconditionally."
She says her trip has made her a better person, just like the race founder Sir Robin Knox-Johnson, the first person to sail around the world single-handed non-stop, told her.
"He told me everyone should go sailing once in his or her lifetime and one's life will change in a positive way," Yan says.
"Now I realize what he meant.
"I already miss the days on the boat. I plan to go back on board soon."
(China Daily March 10, 2008)