Sailing: Golding chafes at new safety net in the toughest race of all

Some are heroes, some inspire love affairs, some recreate the spirit of Robinson Crusoe, and all three breeds are essential in the fleet of adventurers contesting the Vendée Globe, a singlehanded, non-stop round-the-world sailing race which starts off the west coast of France today.

Some are heroes, some inspire love affairs, some recreate the spirit of Robinson Crusoe, and all three breeds are essential in the fleet of adventurers contesting the Vendée Globe, a singlehanded, non-stop round-the-world sailing race which starts off the west coast of France today.

But the romance and adventure are under threat. Civil servants and lawyers operating under the compensation and duty-of-care culture which increasingly governs every aspect of everyday life are not the greatest fans of free spirits. And they do not come much freer than the 18 men and two women who devote their time, money, energy, dreams and considerable emotional capital into what would pass with no trouble any entry test for extreme sport.

When Michel Desjoyeaux won last time, it was a tour de force. When Ellen MacArthur followed home in second place there was a huge outpouring of affection. And when Yves Parlier stopped in Stewart Island, off southern New Zealand, to construct a ramshackle rig after being dismasted, and lived off foraged shellfish because he was so determined to complete the course, he wrote himself into sailing folklore.

But now, according to at least one competitor, we are seeing the "nannification" of the race. The fear has been triggered by the announcement that the fleet will be required to go off their normal, fastest course through the fearsome Southern Ocean and instead sail north and pass through waypoints nearer to the safety and sanctuary of Australia, following an official request from Down Under.

"It's a political move," says the young British competitor Alex Thomson. "I think there's got to be some waypoints to stop people going too far south, but to set waypoints that take us up to Australia is complete rubbish."

The reason, says the race director, Denis Horeau, is simple. "The time when you could organise things freely without considering others is over," he says. "We cannot ask for help from the Australians when we need it under the terms of the 1914 convention agreed in London after the sinking of the Titanic and at the same time say we don't care about your opinion."

When in the 1996 race Britain's Tony Bullimore was rescued from his upturned yacht 1,200 miles off the coast, some Australian politicians and public complained about the taxpayer having to pick up a hefty bill. But the Australian navy and air force, and the Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre, knew that it had been the perfect exercise, had cost less than the training exercises they have to organise anyway, and had brought the invaluable bonus of worldwide acclaim and publicity.

Since then, weather information has become better, communications are better, and tactical planning has improved with a much-enhanced data base. "I think the person in Australia making this decision has no concept of the Vendée Globe," says the British race favourite, Mike Golding. "Waypoints are really there to avoid ice. These new ones are only to facilitate search and rescue.

"I was surprised they are taking us up to 47 degrees south," he adds. "It could add 300 miles to the course, perhaps more than a day. It's a shame the Australians feel a need to impose on the race at all, and that they do not see the event for what it is in terms of human endeavour. There is someone sitting in some government department somewhere who doesn't see the race as we do.

"The real mistake," he concludes, "was that the course rule was arbitrarily inserted less than a week before the start. Another problem is that it could force you to sail through a storm instead of avoiding it."

French opinion is largely, though not entirely, in agreement. "I find it ridiculous," says Hervé Laurent, who feels the move contravenes the original spirit of a race in which the competitors could do what they wanted. But Patrice Carpentier is less concerned. "It distorts the race a little, but that's how it is," he says. "We will have to bend."

But will they? So far there is no penalty system, so perhaps this will prove to be a case of the French agreeing that rules are required but not always agreeing that the rules should be rigorously applied.

Golding is in an uncommonly relaxed mode, though he will have thousands of cigarettes aboard to sustain him through the stress of the next 100 days. He is one of three glaouches, as the Bretons disparagingly refer to the British, and his main rivals are all French, Roland Jourdain principal among them, even though the race has attracted competitors from Switzerland, Austria, Canada, Australia and the United States.

But the broader threat is to the very spirit of the competition. The seas may be free, but the creeping tentacles of regulation are threatening to strangle that precious, if dangerous, freedom.

Single-minded: Three to watch round the world

Jean-Pierre Dick

France, Virbac

A tall, genial veterinary scientist who has turned his back on the laboratory to become a professional racing sailor. He undoubtedly has one of the fastest boats. Virbac is the only Open 60 in the fleet which comes from the Annapolis-based design studio of the hugely successful New Zealander Bruce Farr, but Dick has twice, through no fault of his own, been dismasted.

Roland Jourdain

France, Sill et Véolia

Vastly experienced, vastly respected and a great favourite of the public, the 40-year old Breton was third in the last race, having been closely in touch for most of the event. His new boat, Sill et Véolia, has had some teething problems and is a handful, but the diminutive "Bilou" is confident that he has a powerful enough yacht to maintain French dominance with their fifth straight win.

Mike Golding

GB, Ecover

When the French regard an Englishman as the favourite, then the 44-year old former fireman may be forgiven for thinking his time has come. An open-hearted operator whodrives himself to the limit while devoting prudent care to a boat which, in addition to the sponsors' name of Ecover, also carries the name of his son Soren. He will hope he has covered every eventuality.

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