Sailing: Greenhalgh returns to a different world view

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The Independent Online

The call came in August 2004 and it was to change the life of the British sailor Rob Greenhalgh, then 26. The Olympic classes and skiff specialist had done a little time on bigger boats, but on the line was Mike Sanderson, putting together ABN Amro's challenge for the round the world Volvo Ocean Race.

"It was the break I was looking for and it was the best decision I made in my life," Greenhalgh says. And some. Twenty-one months later, he is sailing back across the Atlantic and looking forward to storming up his home waters and into Portsmouth as a winner in one of the sport's biggest events. "Black Betty", as ABN Amro One is affectionately known, has been the dominant boat in a fleet of seven since the race started in Spain last November. After leaving New York on Thursday, she is again leading on leg seven, six miles ahead of Neal McDonald, back as skipper of Ericsson and 11 in front of Paul Cayard's Pirates of the Caribbean.

Greenhalgh was in matter-of-fact mode as he prepared for another stint of 24-hour-a-day racing pressure. "This is the race everyone wants to win." he says. "It is the highlight of any CV, so winning is going to be a big achievement. This is the first really big success in my career."

The early days on what was then an entirely new class of boat, an Open 70, had been a thrill just because of the speeds it could reach, but that feeling has evolved as the race has progressed. "Speed is what we do normally," he says. "Racing is when I get my thrill now."

He also has to be a man who can turn his hand to anything that needs doing to get the boat to go faster. "I trim the sails, steer the boat and do some of the cooking." But it has also been an adventure, something which critics say has been lost in the all-professional era. "At the end I am going to look back and say 'that was awesome'," he says.

Racing these monstrously powerful craft requires a massive physical effort as well, and Greenhalgh needed to bulk up from his dinghy-sailing optimum weight. "My aim was to put on 10kg. I started at 76kg and now I am nearer 90," he says. Which may mean a down-sizing regime if he goes back to the International 14 in which he was world champion - he is due to return in Los Angeles in September.

This week, when he returns to home and friends, will be a time to celebrate, but it will also be a time to look forward to racing in the Solent again. Despite this adventure, he still loves skippering his own craft and the seat-of-the-pants feel of smaller boats.