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Racing around the world

By Marcus George
BBC World Service Reporter

Mike Golding on the extreme conditions of the race

On Sunday, 30 skippers will set sail for the start of the 6th Vendee Globe race. The most prestigious event in the sailing calendar, it only takes place once every four years.

The course is very easy, Mike Golding tells me, with a playful grin.

"It's straight out into the Atlantic, turn left down to the Cape of Good Hope, turn left again, keep going round until Cape Horn comes up, turn left again and back up the Atlantic."

This weekend he will be setting off on that journey aboard his racing yacht, Ecover 3, to compete in the world's most challenging non-stop, round-the-world yacht race.

It is described as the Everest of the Seas and ranks as one of the ultimate endurance tests known to man.

Twenty-eight thousand miles, 90 days at sea and a crew of one. This is the Vendee Globe. This time the four-yearly race has attracted 30 yachtsmen to compete for the glory it has bestowed on all who have completed it since its inception 19 years ago.


And the spectrum of results could not be more contrasting. Legacy or tragedy, and a fine line in between.

Mike Golding personifies the stereotypical steely skipper attracted to the challenge. A mental and physical toughness is hidden by his quiet, laid-back manner. But ask the former fireman about sailing in the southern hemisphere and he gets very animated.

"There's 20 percent of the time when it's pretty damn scary. You're in very bad conditions, you're geographically very isolated, there are all sorts of risks, not withstanding gales, huge waves and icebergs.

"Often you're sailing at night and at very high speeds. So you have all the normal problems plus a whole new layer of risk, he says.

"So, it's pretty stressful."

Map showing route

Those "normal problems" consist of managing what are highly technical boats.

Dozens of on-board sensors will provide skippers with critical data for them to decide the most efficient course ahead.

Just making a turn on the boat is a whole other problem.

"There's half a tonne of kit on the boat other than sails and so on. In an average manoeuvre at some point you'll be moving it across the boat.

"So you don't want to be manoeuvring too much."

Then there is sleeping and eating. The participants will live off freeze-dried food, and depending on conditions at sea they will only be able to snatch up to an hour's sleep at a time.

Will to win

If things go drastically wrong, these sailors will have to act as their own engineers, technicians or even surgeons.

Most of them will be happy just to finish the epic race. But Mike Golding, who is entering his third Vendee, is "on a mission" to win.

Each entry is several years in the making and it can cost millions of dollars to find the right boat, test it and fit it with the requisite technical equipment

On his first attempt, he finished in seventh place, despite having to restart the race. Second time around, he was closing in on the win before being beset by technical problems.

"I'm not here to clock up another round the world race. I'm here to win. But I temper that with the fact that the calibre of the entrants is so very high."

Ahead of the start line lies an intensive preparation schedule that only the most dedicated of professionals can commit to.

Each entry is several years in the making and it can cost millions of dollars to find the right boat, test it and fit it with the requisite technical equipment.

The big names, like Mike Golding or the 2001 winner Michel Desjoyeaux, have long since secured big sponsorship agreements that have enabled them to participate.

Dangerous challenge

But for others, like British entrant Steve White, sponsorship fell into place only last week. Without it, the yachtsman would have lost his house. Both his boat and his Vendee dream would have been left in tatters.

The Vendee Globe has been the pinnacle of off-shore yacht racing for many sailors since it was conceived in 1989 by the maverick French sailor Philippe Jeantot. He was dissatisfied with the stopping format of other round-the-world races and said sailors needed a greater challenge.

Mike Golding
Mike Golding is facing 90 days of tough physical and mental challenges

The challenge turned to tragedy in the second Vendee in 1992. Bad weather conditions plagued the start and within four days the British sailor Nigel Burgess drowned after reportedly being knocked overboard.

Four years later another entrant, Gerry Roufs, was lost at sea in a bout of bad conditions in the Southern Ocean.

Both deaths contributed to the tightening up of regulations concerning boat safety and stability, which were introduced for the 2000-01 race.

In addition to the physical danger, the psychological pressure is another ultimate test of the Vendee sailor.

Despite the thought of being alone for three months and under intense physical pressure, Mike Golding is characteristically unperturbed.

"I have a wife and a young son and of course I'm going to miss them dreadfully.

"But the reality is that this is a very important race in our calendar and we're on a mission to do the very best we can."

see also
Mike Golding
02 Nov 04 |  Other sport...
British hope suffers Vendee blow
17 Oct 08 |  Other sport...
Vendee Globe race gets under way
07 Nov 04 |  Other sport...

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