Sailing: Bulkeley the island boy sets sail for gold

Most members of the Great Britain Olympic sailing squad trace an affinity with their sport back to the coastal waters around these lands. Mark Bulkeley looks back fondly to a childhood in Yakusu, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), where he would spend carefree days paddling a dug-out canoe on a nearby river.

"When I wasn't at school, I loved messing around on the water," he recalls. "We would spend a day on an island in the middle of the river. My parents never had to worry. It was really good fun and got me into the way of an outdoors life. Adventuring really."

And, no doubt, it encouraged him to consider the importance of stability - a science which he could not have imagined then would become so critical to his future career. It was that or a mouthful of dirty river water. "That, too," agrees the 25-year-old, who is now based in Southampton.

It may be a long way from that most fundamental of craft to a technically highly sophisticated Tornado catamaran, the swiftest of the 11 Olympic sailing disciplines. He will crew the British boat in Athens, with Leigh McMillan, 23, at the helm. But from within mighty tree-trunks talented yachtsmen sometimes grow.

Together, the pair, who can entice speeds of over 30 knots from one of these six-metre long craft in a class that requires both a sturdy backbone and a high degree of tactical acumen, represent the youngest men's partnership in the British squad. But what is most remarkable about the gold medal aspirants is that they first forged their partnership only three years ago.

Bulkeley began sailing at the Marconi Sailing Club, near Malden in Essex. His family - his father, Lyn, is a doctor, who specialises in tropical medicine and was head of the hospital in Yakusu; his mother, Carol, was formerly a nurse - had, by the time he was 12, moved back to England and Chelmsford. "I started in a 420 dinghy with my four-year older brother, Paul, who was the driving force initially. I was, sort of, dragged along. He bought a boat with my dad, and I was told that I'd crew for him. Who was I to argue? I just did what I was told."

He adds: "We actually progressed pretty quickly and won everything going at our club. Paul then went off to university, but by then I was hooked. I was still only 14, and seven or eight stone, and I did not feel I could sail on my own, so I started crewing catamarans."

He first met McMillan, who had progressed to the two-hulled discipline from an eight-year-old who had sailed with his family in a clinker-built dinghy on picnic outings in Newtown Creek, while both were studying at Portsmouth University. Bulkeley, though, left to get "a proper job", as a finance broker in Kingston.

"Then one Friday, Leigh rang up and asked me to take the following week off to go to an event in Germany. I thought about it for an hour or so, and then handed in my notice."

He adds: "If I don't win a gold this time, yes, I'll be disappointed, but not because I'll look back at that decision to leave work and be thinking: 'I could be earning 100 grand a year now and have a nice house, and be driving around in an expensive car.' I don't need to justify leaving work by getting a gold medal. If tomorrow my sailing career ended, I'd go back and get a job somewhere. I'd be a better employee having done what I've done."

Victory against the best in the world at the Spa Olympic Class regatta in Holland in May last year, was followed by a silver at the World Championships in Cadiz, only two years after they got together. It ensured they were selected for Athens.

"It's like running a small business, because you have to deal with everything from the logistics and planning side, chasing the sponsors, ordering boats, making sure they're in running order, learning about the technical side of things, development, you name it," says Bulkeley. "You are pushing yourself to the limit every day, but that's fun. It is quite easy to get up each day with that to look forward to."

Both sailors will concede "lack of experience" when questioned about their greatest weakness in sailing. Yet, to a degree, they have circumvented that problem. "The top guys have been to a couple of Olympics and been in the class for 10 years before really starting to get on top of things, so we are really breaking that mould," Bulkeley says. "We have started training with two foreign teams, Mitch Booth [Holland] and John Lovell [United States]. We share all our technical info with them. That has meant that we have almost leeched experience and bypassed a lot of the learning process. You are sitting there having a coffee, have a great idea, put it to them, and they say 'we tried that 10 years ago and it didn't work'. You say 'Oh, right. Thanks, guys'."

He adds: "We're talking tiny percentages, which can make all the difference. You can, say, spend two weeks working on one sail, and by the end of it you can perhaps pull out one boat length in a five-minute run. That's classed as a successful couple of weeks' training. You get quite a buzz out of that. It's surprising what such a seemingly small gain will mean in terms of speed on the race course."

Some contrast with those halcyon boyhood days back in Africa, when the only rush was to make it home in time for tea.