Sailing: McDonald takes to authority with ease

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The Independent Online

Basking in the spotlight as the winning skipper of a leg of the Volvo Ocean Race has been a new experience for Britain's Neal McDonald, but it was in November that his life changed forever.

In a room over the Hildebrand Restaurant in Cape Town's waterfront complex an apprehensive 38-year-old McDonald sat down next to a dejected Roy Heiner. Cameras whirring and pens scribbling, the assembled company was told that Heiner, a South African-born Dutch Olympic medallist was being, in American parlance, "let go."

His place as the skipper of the $20m (£14m) campaign, backed by the obscurely-named Assa Abloy company, to win the Volvo Ocean Race was being taken, instead by McDonald. Assa is big, it owns famous names like Yale and Chubb, and it wants to win.

McDonald was only on the boat because he had decided he had not given his marriage to another Volvo skipper, Lisa, who leads the all-woman team of Amer Sports Too, enough time. He had joined the British America's Cup challenge with a host of skills, but no desire to be anything other than, at times, influential.

That had been the story of his life so far. In a concentrated sailing career littered with impressive achievements he had sought to earn respect, but had never hungered after either power or even responsibility. A team player not a captain appeared to be his niche. He had joined Assa not long before the start of the first leg to Cape Town, was already a watch leader before the fleet streamed out of the Solent on 23 September and now was the skipper of his own boat.

As a young man he had deliberately given up hopes of being at the top of the game to join the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors, earning two degrees as a designer/engineer in naval architecture. "I felt I had given it all up, but didn't know what for," he said.

So he bought an International 14 dinghy, learned to sail it with his brother, Duncan, now an anaesthetist, and won the national championships in 1988. That brought him a ride with Nigel Yeoman on Britain's Flying Dutchman entry in the 1988 Olympics and he then bought two International 14s.

"I spent six years' savings on an all-or-nothing campaign to win the world championship in San Francisco. We went there for three months and did it." From then on he became a jobbing professional sailor, mainly sailing bigger boats in the northern hemisphere summers before going to Australia for the other half of the year to contest the skiff circuit in Sydney Harbour.

He met Lawrie Smith and that led both to a Whitbread Race campaign in 1993-94. It also meant he had met one of the skippers who influenced his own thinking. He met Chris Law, who at the time was Britain's top-performing match racer, and he formed a bond with a man some find difficult, picking up another lasting influence.

For the 1997-98 Whitbread he was back with Smith on Silk Cut and the next year on the 50-foot boat in Britain's Admiral's Cup team. He also met Grant Dalton when in Auckland with the woman he married, Lisa Charles, who crewed on the 1995 all-woman America's Cup boat put together by Bill Koch and again in 2000 with Dawn Riley on the co-ed America True.

"I was taken by Dalton's enthusiasm, incredible drive, and will power," he says. "He has great foresight, can manage people and situations, and is a bloody good guy."

That led to a central place in Dalton's team for the 110-foot catamaran ClubMed, which won The Race, a no holds barred non-stop round the world race which started from Barcelona on 31 December 2000.

It has led McDonald to set his long term sights on multihull sailing, but he knows now that many options have been made more difficult. He won the third leg of the Volvo Ocean Race from Sydney to Auckland and if he is successful in taking Assa Abloy through the remaining six legs, he will have set himself apart from the normal telephone canvas when other skippers or racing yacht owners are looking for a useful man to help run the boat.

Instead of disappearing with the boys into the Loaded Hog pub on Auckland's Viaduct Basin waterside at the end of the eight-day leg, he had to turn his attention to all the administrative and corporate duties which fall on a skipper's shoulders.

Having blown the first leg on which he was skipper only a few hundred miles from the finish, McDonald now has a winner's trophy to put in the sponsor's boardroom. He can see the difficulties his wife faces as skipper – "we both know what the other is going through" – and the strengths she has shown to overcome them. An authority he never sought is becoming a way of life.

McDonald still feels uncomfortable about taking Heiner's job and would like to have a beer with him to talk through a Cape Town experience he sees as "the ultimate sailing nightmare." He is, however, now coming to grips with the wider aspects of the job. He is even beginning to like them.

Richard Brisius, his immediate boss and the manager of the syndicate, has no doubts about confirming him in a job he was given, initially, for only one leg.

"Neal has grown incredibly in just two legs," he says. "Normally, it takes two races to become what he is, a first-class skipper."