More than just a life-saver

Stuart Alexander talks to Pete Goss, who will be given a hero's reception when he returns today to Plymouth after his epic round-the-world race
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The Independent Online
Plymouth has seen some famous comings and goings in centuries of seafaring history, but for those gathered on the Hoe and at Queen Anne's Battery marina today, the return of Pete Goss will be an occasion like no other.

The 35-year-old Cornishman does not like the description of himself as a "British hero". But if ever a sportsman deserved that accolade it must be Goss, who can expect a suitable reception as he sails back into his home port. The French certainly regard Goss in that light. More than 50,000 turned out to greet him when he sailed into the Atlantic port of Les Sables d'Olonne last weekend. In May, President Chirac will present Goss with the Legion d'Honneur and he has already been made a freeman of the Vendee region. The last foreigner to have been given the latter honour is thought to have been Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Goss was welcomed as the first Briton to complete the French-run Vendee Globe single-handed non-stop round-the-world race. That in itself would not have meant much in Les Sables d'Olonne: the race had been won in record time last month by a Frenchman, Christophe Augin, while the Australian Navy rescue of another British competitor, Tony Bullimore, had also made headlines. What made such waves in France was the way Goss had turned back during the race to rescue another Frenchman, Raphael Dinelli, deep in the stormy Southern Ocean. Goss then nursed Dinelli's injuries for 1,200 miles before dropping him in Hobart, Tasmania.

Add to that all the drama you would expect a solo round-the-world sailor to experience - not to mention the occasion when he had to perform a surgical operation on his own elbow - and you get an idea of what has been an extraordinary time for the former marine.

Most mortals would return vowing "never again". Goss, though, is adamant: "I really enjoyed it, despite the bad times. The impression I am left with is fantastic. I feel privileged."

Talking this week as he prepared to set sail for Plymouth, Goss said he would look back on the Vendee Globe as a three-part episode in his life. Firstly there was the "worst year of my life" as he worked 18 hours a day, dividing his time between building the boat and visiting anyone who would see him to try to persuade them to part with the sponsorship cash to pay for it.

Then there was the race - "four-and-a-half months which felt like four- and-a-half years had been condensed into them". And now there is the problem of a near six-figure overdraft. "The Vendee Globe finishes for me when I get rid of that," he said.

If Goss has been up against it all the way, it is something he would consider almost natural. He is from the never-say-die school. Unlike all his rivals in the Vendee, Goss could not afford a 60-foot yacht. Instead he went for a 50-footer, trying to cheat the disadvantage of size by innovation and clever building.

Adrian Thompson produced the boat, Aqua Quorum, which Goss praises non- stop. It was the only new boat to complete the race without having to undergo major repairs. With money so tight, Goss and his wife, Tracey, had to sell their house. Loans were taken out and bankruptcy loomed, but Goss survived the strain thanks to the support of Tracey and his design team. "This was a team effort and I was just lucky enough to be the driver," Goss said.

After such an effort to put his challenge together, it came as a huge relief for Goss to make the start line in Les Sables d'Olonne last November. He started well, but when he hit a calm patch in the Azores he could do nothing as those in front gained 200 miles on him in just 24 hours. "I had lost it before I'd hardly started. I felt I had let the team down," Goss said.

Another rude awakening was in store in the Southern Ocean when Goss capsized, though it is typical of the man that he drew strength out of adversity. How did he explain the capsizing? "Too much enthusiasm. I took stock, got the pace right and was soon storming along."

It was at this stage that Goss received the rescue message: Dinelli was sinking 1,200 miles south-east of Australia. Could he plug 160 miles back upwind? "Going back was the best and worst thing I have done in my life," Goss said. "The wind went from 20 to 55 knots in three hours. I was suffering knockdowns, nearly pitch-poled. I was in the shit and wondering if I would pull through."

Did he have any doubts about deciding to turn around? "It was a quick decision to make. Ultimately you don't have a choice. Anyone would have done it. It was not heroic. My time with the Royal Marines got me through it." In true British fashion, the first thing Goss offered Dinelli when he had him safely on board was a cup of tea. The Frenchman himself had made sure he took a bottle of champagne into his life raft when he abandoned his sinking Algimouss yacht.

But Dinelli was in a bad way. "Only his will kept him alive," Goss said. "He was in a bad way with hypothermia but we gelled the moment I pulled him on board. We are kindred spirits." Dinelli was too weak to look after himself, and for the next 12 days Goss had to sail through the treacherous seas to Hobart and tend to the Frenchman, who had to be spoon-fed every few hours.

Having delivered Dinelli into safe hands, Goss then resumed the race. After the exhilaration of the rescue, this was another difficult time for him. "My spirits were low," he said. "I already knew there was a mayday from Gerry Roufs' yacht [the Canadian and his yacht were never found]. Three others had had to be rescued. I was leaving the womb of Hobart feeling bruised and knackered.

"The rest of the fleet had gone, so there would be no one out there to rescue me, and within 24 hours I received a message from race headquarters warning me that Hurricane Edna was coming through. I was frightened. I had always respected the sea but I had never been scared. Then that awful storm hit us and baptised me again. I came through it and felt strong again."

Yet his problems were not over. From 10 days before he rounded Cape Horn until the finish, Goss had to pump cooling water manually though the generator for four hours every day. Even worse, as he approached Cape Horn the skin ruptured around an inflamed elbow tendon which had troubled him for most of the race. The race doctor sent Goss a fax detailing how to deal with protruding hernias. With a torch strapped to his head and a mirror secured to his knee, Goss proceeded to operate. "It was very painful," he said, adding with typical understatement: "It's a rather strange sensation, slicing away at yourself with a scalpel."

In comparison, the rest of the race was relatively calm - he even talks about having to overcome boredom - until last weekend's scenes at Les Sables d'Olonne, when Dinelli was among those waiting to greet him.

Goss finished fifth out of 15 starters in a time of 140 days, three hours, 25 minutes and four seconds, but the official record will show 13 days and six hours less as compensation for the rescue. His time is a British record, although there are quibbles about whether his journey was both non-stop (because he transferred Dinelli to another boat in Hobart) or single-handed (because of the 12 days when Dinelli was in his boat).

Now as Goss returns home he must also return to "normality". After such experiences this might be a problem for most, but Goss has already got everything worked out in his mind. "Now I am at peace with myself. I have come back with no regrets. I went through that during the race.

"As for the future, I won't make a decision for three months. It has been a brilliant experience and a good reason to do the Vendee again in a 60-footer. But this was an apprenticeship and life is so short it seems foolhardy to repeat things. I want to look at other projects, like the race in 2000 [round the world for fully crewed, unlimited-size yachts].

"If I am going to be remembered for anything, it won't be the rescue; it will be for crossing that finishing line with a Union Jack flying. Now I have got to dance to the tune of corporate reality."