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Canadian Eric Holden on pace to win yachting race around the world

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Eric Holden sails in San Francisco Bay in an undated handout photo released on Thursday July 10, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

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Eric Holden sails in San Francisco Bay in an undated handout photo released on Thursday July 10, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

In early October, about a month after Eric Holden and his crew set sail from London in a race around the world, the Henri Lloyd found itself following a migratory whale route. Whales, Holden said, were "popping up on all sides and not infrequently dead ahead."

It was during Race 2 of the Clipper Round the World yacht race, and the Henri Lloyd, with its 33-year-old skipper from Vancouver, was headed south from France to Rio de Janeiro.

"The crew had an awareness of the potential consequences were we to hit (a whale), which tempered their usual hysterics at seeing any sort of marine mammals," Holden wrote in his blog that day.

It's now been more than 10 months since Holden and his crew left London, and the Henri Lloyd has an insurmountable lead in the world's longest ocean race. Holden will arrive victorious Saturday at the London finish line.

The event covers 16 individual races over 64,300 kilometres with an overall winner in a Formula 1-style scoring system. It joins together amateur sailors — some who'd never even been on a boat before — with an experienced skipper. Holden is the only Canadian skipper in the race.

Over the course of 11 months, it also provides a lifetime of memories.

There was sailing out of Rio and past the Copacabana Beach, waking up to the lush green hills of Papua New Guinea, and the warm welcome they received when they sailed into Cape Town, South Africa. There was celebrating a race victory in Sydney, Australia, in mid-December, popping champagne while dressed in antlers and Santa hats.

"The greatest part of the experience is seeing the crew develop from amateurs, quite nervous and intimidated by what they're getting into, to seeing their growth and seeing how confident and competent they now are as sailors," Holden said. "I get a lot of pleasure and reward out of that. Leaving Leg 1 from London was my lasting memory just because we didn't know each other or what we were capable of. . . a large learning curve for all the skippers, as well as the crew."

Many of the crew members, who are allocated to teams to ensure a similar skill set across the fleet, had no previous sailing experience. They undergo 26 days of training before setting sail.

Holden's crew includes two nurses, two lawyers, a visual effects artist, an interior designer and a software developer. The youngest member of the crew is 21. The oldest is 74.

The Canadians on board are nurse Fiona Garforth-Bies, heavy duty mechanic James Dick, construction inspector Michael Jauncey, recent college grad Morgen Watson, and finance executive Phil Driver.

The race literature warns: "While the crew may be amateur, no one has told the ocean that. The sea does not distinguish between Olympians or novices and if the Southern Ocean, the Pacific or the South Atlantic decides to throw down the gauntlet, the crews need to be ready to face exactly the same challenges as those experienced by the pro racer."

Holden and the Henri Lloyd had an 18-point lead over second-placed Great Britain when they sailed out of Den Helder, the Netherlands on Thursday for the final leg. The Henri Lloyd has 155.9 points, Great Britain has 138, while OneDLL has 127.

The 16th race takes the fleet almost 250 nautical miles to London, where the race will finish in the traditional Parade of Sails up the River Thames.

Holden, who was named Sail Canada's sailor of the month for both April and May, sailed for Canada's national team for five years. He was the weather forecaster for the Canadian sailing team at the 2012 London Olympics.

Holden is proud of how well his crew has fared in the extreme conditions they've faced, saying they've developed a good respect for Mother Nature. They've seen everything from 86 knot winds (160 kilometres per hour) and "mountainous seas" in the Southern Ocean, to lightning, thunderstorms and waterspouts in the tropics, to the dead wind in the Doldrums — an equatorial region known for bringing boats to a halt.

During a particularly challenging stretch between Cape Town and Albany, Australia, Holden wrote: "The team are loving these conditions and doing everything I could ask of them. I don't know how we can be labelled an amateur team any longer, considering all we have been through together and how they have risen to every challenge. Many top sailors will have gone their whole careers and never experienced conditions like these."

The gruelling race was conceived in 1995 by English sailor Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who, in 1969, became the first person to complete an individual non-stop circumnavigation of the globe. Knox-Johnston, who still sails competitively at age 75, was climbing a mountain in Greenland, and he and his mountaineering partner on the trek were talking about the cost to climb Mount Everest.

"I thought 'That's an awful lot of money. What's the sailing equivalent?'" he said. "And (the equivalent cost) is circumnavigation.

"So I did some figuring around on the back of an envelope and came to a conclusion that if I supply the boats, the skipper, training, food and clothing, to people, I could probably get them to go around the world and compete in a circumnavigation for half the cost of climbing Mount Everest. I put an advert in the paper and got 8,000 answers, so I thought 'I'd better do this.'"

Knox-Johnston chose Holden, who has wanted to skipper a yacht since his sister competed in two legs of the 1999 edition of the race, from some 180 applicants to become the race's first ever Canadian skipper.

"He's very focused. And he's a meteorologist, which always helps with ocean racing," Knox-Johnston said on Holden's success. "His crew obviously thinks very highly of him, he's showing very good leadership."

Holden's isn't sure of his immediate plans once the race ends, including whether or not he'll be part of Canada's sailing squad at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

"Offshore yacht racing is what I do for a living, and when I'm not racing, I'm doing weather forecasting for other yachts," he said. "This race has taken up all my energy for the past 18 months, so I haven't had time to look past the end of this race."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version stated Robin Knox-Johnston was the first sailor to complete a solo circumnavigation of the globe. He was actually the first to complete a solo non-stop circumnavigation of the globe.

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