Golding's lone venture into daunting territory

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The Independent Online

A Briton is widely tipped to win the world's most demanding ocean race.

A Briton is widely tipped to win the world's most demanding ocean race.

It claimed the life of Nigel Burgess soon after the start eight years ago and Gerry Roufs four years ago. It put hearts in mouths four years ago when Tony Bullimore survived four days in his upturned yacht and was rescued in front of a worldwide television audience.

It made a hero of the former marine Pete Goss in France, when he completed a Boxing Day battle against the gales of the Southern Ocean to rescue Raphael Dinelli, who was slowly freezing to death on the hull of his upturned yacht.

It is also the defining moment in the sailing career of Mike Golding, one of a quartet of British competitors taking on the French at their own game of single-handed ocean racing. The Vendée Globe is back, bigger than ever, more professional than ever, and still holding the most authentic claim to being the toughest ocean race of all.

Racing anti-clockwise 28,000 miles non-stop around the world maintains 24-hour pressure on the skippers for more than 100 days and nights. For the solo sailors there will be no let-up once the start gun goes on Sunday, no one to hand over to as they race in 60-foot yachts that are their best friends and most cantankerous adversaries.

The British contingent comprises Ellen MacArthur, who won the single-handed transatlantic race in the summer, Golding, Josh Hall and Richard Tolkien. The 45-year-old Tolkien, whose grandfather's cousin was J R R Tolkein, author of The Lord Of The Rings, has been given a sabbatical from being a managing director in the corporate finance division of banking giants HSBC, but that is all. The race is costing him about £300,000.

MacArthur, at 24, is the youngest competitor and one of only two women - the other is the highly experienced Catherine Chabaud - in the fleet of 24. She is also one of the best-funded. The top campaigns have all spent about £2m bringing their boats to the start line and their sponsors have probably matched that in additional promotional activity. The oldest skipper is Pasquale de Gregorio, a 59-year-old lawyer from Rome.

For MacArthur it is the launch into the big time with the backing of the Kingfisher Group. For Golding it is the culmination of more than 10 years of work, dreams, more work, thousands of miles and thousands of hours of preparation.

"All the successes along the way have been geared to this," says Golding sitting on his immaculately prepared Team Group 4. He is one of the three favourites to win - Michel Desjoyeaux and Thomas Coville are the others - and he is happy with that. "Far better than not being a favourite," he says. But he is haunted by seeing a commanding position in the Around Alone Race slip away in 1999 on New Year's Day, when a few moments of error saw the yacht run aground rounding the northern tip of New Zealand.

But his biggest fear is the hand which the weather can deal him "and there are 100 days in which that can manifest itself", he says. Having been round the world three times he knows what to expect.

Golding feels that everything on his yacht has been tested exhaustively. The boat has been tuned for performance downwind and toughened to take the worst that the sea can throw at it.

It is this combination that gives Golding the confidence to smile at being seen as a threat by the French. "As long as the boat doesn't break, or I do not break it, then I will be in the race. The others know that Team Group 4 has an impressive turn of speed. They have to worry," he says. "That is how I rev myself up, force myself on deck in the middle of the night; it is almost a cocky feeling that I am not slower than the next guy."

But it will be hard from the start. The Bay of Biscay is showing signs of living up its reputation for nastiness. "You only have to look at the weather over the last few days and a little voice inside you makes you stop and think: 'Why am I going out there to do this again?' But you know why. This is a pinnacle event. This is it. There isn't a bigger course." And there are some highs to counter the slog. "These are big, powerful boats. They give you a real buzz. When they get into top gear they really go."

The little French port on the Vendée coast, which hosts both the start and the finish, has been thronged with people anxious just to see this strange breed of sportsmen and women and their yachts. Up to a quarter of a million people are expected to make the pilgrimage.

However much support there may be ashore; however close the radio makes a friendly voice; there is no one to help when a sail needs changing, a broken piece of gear needs repairing, or an alarm says it is time to go back on deck again.

"All the time there are moments when you swear you won't expose yourself to this again, and sometimes you then have to learn the game all over again, get yourself into the right frame of mind," says Golding.

"Partly you are doing it for the things you still don't know, partly for the adventure. But this is the first time when I have gone off on a race without knowing what lies beyond it, what the next step is. Everything has been leading up to this."