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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
Ronaldinho signs the t-shirt of a pitch invader
footballProof they are getting bolder
William Hague
people... when he called Hague the county's greatest
indybestKeep extra warm this year with our 10 best bedspreads
voicesBy the man who has
people... and stop them from attacking people
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
Arsene Wenger tried to sign Eden Hazard
footballAfter 18 years with Arsenal, here are 18 things he has still never done as the Gunners' manager
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?