Sailing: Golding plots 'cool' course to beat gales and rivals

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The bottom of the Bay of Biscay is a place sailors always tried to avoid, so to start a yacht race from there, especially with the promise of early gales, should provide a particularly rugged send-off for what is already the longest single stage of any individual sports event in the world.

The intrepid competitors leaving Bilbao in the Five Oceans Race tomorrow will next set foot on land 12,000 miles and six weeks away in Fremantle, Western Australia, in early December. Six yachts will set out, with New Zealand's Graham Dalton not starting until Tuesday after snapping his mast. An eighth, skippered by the American Tim Troy, who has mortgaged his house to take part, is making last desperate efforts to meet all the race rules.

The second leg begins in the new year and takes the boats to Norfolk, Virginia, - an even further stage of 14,500 miles. The sprint back across the Atlantic to the finish in Bilbao should be a breeze by comparison.

There is a trio of relative youngsters in the field: Britain's Alex Thomson is 32; Japan's Kojiro Shiraishi and local hero Unai Basurko de Miguel, who has stowed a dozen large bottles of red rioja, are both 33.

But, after that, the grey hair becomes increasingly prevalent with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, appropriately backed by Saga Insurance, at 67 the only one eligible for a bus pass. Racing solo in the harshest of conditions, 24 hours a day, is not everyone's retirement dream.

The race is expected to centre on three of the Open 60 class yachts as two Brits, Thomson, cutting a dash in Hugo Boss, and Mike Golding, green to his fingertips in Ecover, try to topple the title holder, Switzerland's Bernard Stamm, who will be smoking his way through the Southern Ocean in Cheminées Poujoulat.

It promises to be a war of attrition, regardless of what any of them says about sailing prudently. For Golding, there is the added spur of this being the only event he has failed to finish in his professional sailing career.

"How hard do I push?" he asks. "Enough and no more. I have some thoughts about being the aggressor and I'm certainly not going to hang behind the first boat. I absolutely have to maintain control and the best place to do that is from the front. Second place isn't cool. The coolest place to be is first."

Thomson agrees: "I prefer to control from the front," he says, having previously said that the most important thing is to complete the course. "But that puts more pressure on me."

Stamm takes a different tack: "I prefer to push the opposition. It's easier to do. You have to be able to improvise tactics when considering how your opponents will manage their races. So it will be a combination of tactics and attrition. There could be cracks appearing very early in any boat that hasn't been thoroughly prepared."

The approach to the race has been the same as if they were doing something like the Vendée Globe singlehanded, non-stop, round-the-world race.

As both Golding and Thomson have that in their 2008 diaries in new boats, there is a lot of data to be captured. But first they have some more hard miles to endure.