Long after Britannia ruled the waves, a crew of British soldiers is hoping to at least master the 2,975 nautical miles of ocean between Newport, R.I., and southwestern England.
British Soldier, a 40-foot sailboat crewed by — no surprise here — British soldiers, set out Sunday in the Trans-Atlantic Race 2011.
Skippered by Lt. Col. Nick Bate, the nine-man crew is on break between tours of duty or training commitments. Most have served in Afghanistan or Iraq; some have served in both.
They have the smallest boat in the fleet of 30 that will leave in staggered starts for Lizard Point in South Cornwall.
"People say, 'Why is the army sailing?' I think it's what the army should be doing," said Bate, 48, who is trained as a tank commander and has completed tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo.
"It's about putting a team together. You take a bunch of guys, form them together as a team and they have to work together in a potentially arduous, demanding circumstances," Bates said. "That's how they work on operations, whether it's on a tank crew or armored personnel carrier. The crew has to work together. It's along the same ethos, really."
The soldiers have varying degrees of sailing experience. All have enough that Bate is confident they'll get through one of sailing's classic races in good shape.
"Everybody on the crew has sailed and done a fair bit of racing. This is the first time they've all sailed together," he said.
Some are doing it on army time, some on leave. It all depends on their superiors. The boat belongs to the Army Sailing Association and is supported by private donations.
"When people back in England say, 'Oh, are our taxes paying for this?' I'm confident they're not," Bate said.
By the end of the season, a total of 77 soldiers will have sailed on the boat.
One crew sailed it to the Canary Islands for a November start in the Atlantic Rally to the Caribbean. Another crew sailed it in a race in the Caribbean, then different crews raced it to Miami and then Annapolis.
Due to the various classes and sizes of the 30 boats entered — ranging from 40 to 289 feet — there will be three separate starts: Sunday, Wednesday and July 3.
While trans-Atlantic races have traditionally left from New York, this is the first to go from Newport. The boat that finishes with the fastest elapsed time will set the benchmark from Newport to Lizard Point, to be ratified by the World Speed Sailing Council.
Since British Soldier is the smallest boat entered, Bate is hoping to win the race based on corrected time.
"Each day I run the program it tells me another thing," Bate said. "I'm guessing 18 days, plus or minus three. We're hoping for a good strong breeze from behind for the first week, and then have the other boats that start a week behind start in no wind at all."
After British Soldier returns to England, it will compete in the Fastnet Race from Cowes around the Fastnet Rock on the Irish coast and back to Plymouth, and then in a race across the Bay of Biscay.
By then, Bate estimates British Soldier will have sailed 13,000 miles, or the equivalent of 4 1/2 Atlantic crossings.
It was Bate's idea to campaign British Soldier in the inaugural Atlantic Ocean Racing Series.
"I told my boss, 'This is the kind of thing we should be doing,'" Bate said. "He liked the idea. He asked, 'How much will it cost?' and I said, 'No more than running the boat anywhere else we race."
Bate has extensive sailing experience, including three legs of the 1989-90 Whitbread Round the World Race aboard British Defender before having to return to duty.
Racing across the Atlantic is an adventurous way to get back home.
"I only came on a one-way air ticket, so I have to sail back," Bate said.