Sailing along the learning curve

Stuart Alexander talks to Mike Golding (left), the former fireman who is to skipper one of the British yachts in the Admiral's Cup, which begins this week
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The Independent Online
Making the jump from the fire service to the starting grid of a grand prix yacht race has not always been easy for Mike Golding, the skipper of one of a trio of boats that make up the British team in the Champagne Mumm Admiral's Cup, which begins on Thursday.

Golding, who has slightly thinning sandy hair, a brick-red face from so much time in the sun, and a combination of cockney and Berkshire twangs, is dedicated to the nerve-calming properties of the weed. He can get quite wound up at times.

His approach to sailing has been as careful as any book of regulations which would apply to a service that has many overtones of the military, and as cautious as is demanded by being - as he was - put in charge of a crew of fare-paying amateurs determined to live out a dream by sailing round the world against the prevailing winds and currents.

Now he has had to cross the gulf between being a seaman, who always puts safety first, and becoming an out and out racer, who wants to stay alive but takes risks - pushing boat and body to the limit - to win.

The 34-year-old Golding, born in Great Yarmouth, spent 12 years in Slough with the Berkshire Fire Service and now lives in Southampton's Ocean Village. His big break came not just in being chosen as one of 10 skippers in the first British Steel Challenge (now the BT Global Challenge), but in being allocated to the yacht sponsored by Group 4.

The company's chairman, Philip Sorenson, got on well with Golding, backed him again when he wanted to break the record for sailing solo over the same route, and then listened encouragingly when Golding came to him with the idea of trying for a place, in a much different type of boat, in the Admiral's Cup team.

"Oh yes?" asked the sceptical of Hamble, Lymington and Cowes, where the yachties hole up between regattas. How would someone like Golding fare against a fleet where many had made racing their lives, where top sailors pit their wits against each other, tweaking, tuning and conniving to squeeze tiny extra points of advantage?

Golding's saving grace has been that he knew he was catching up. His first task, apart from doing everything possible to get himself up to speed, was to make sure he had the right players around him. "I went out and looked for people who could look after their own corner, who were already specialists and could do their jobs to a very high standard," he says.

"That was important or I could not have made the transition - I would have struggled much more if I had tried to do everything myself." He accepts that early efforts to try and reproduce on a race boat the sort of camaraderie that glued everybody together on his Challenge boat did not work. On the Challenge boat, the personal and group achievement of completing the task was the goal - on the race boat they can all get a boat around the course anyway, only the results matter.

Golding had been shrewd enough to make the objectives of the project modest. The first was to continue the job of building a platform for himself and Group 4, learning more about sailing sponsorship and the uses to which it could be put.

The second was to change the perception of Group 4 within sailing, to make it clear that the company wanted to learn about the top level of racing, and to expand the corporate contacts it could make at the top end of sailing.

The third was to build on the corporate hospitality opportunities already in full swing on the big Challenge boat, from which people could watch the smaller racing boat. Nothing about actually making a splash in grand prix yachting or even winning the Mumm 36 place in the Admiral's Cup team.

"I knew that even if we could not make the team, we could still compete in the Ancasta Mumm 36 World Championships in Hamble the week before," says Golding.

"Also, the venues for the European circuit were both perfect for our companies over there, and because there was no great distance to ship the boat, it could be done at a sensible price. We set a budget before we started, knew it was important to stick to it, and we have."

This no-nonsense background has gone down well with the employees at Group 4, many of whom had been in the services previously. They have a natural affinity which has prevented any animosity about the company spending money on him in the search for publicity. There is a feeling that he is one of them.

Golding seems successfully to be walking the tightrope between on the one side, being in management control, and on the other, not trying to adopt a position of expertise since he is in fact still learning. Sorenson is impressed, which is good for Golding, pointing always to the management skill that is being learned, rather than claiming that some sort of magic wand has been waved to put Golding in the superstar, Olympic medallist league.

He seems self-assured, good at answering questions or speaking to an audience. He has persuaded Group 4 to pull the whole Admiral's Cup team under its sponsorship umbrella, although late enough in the day for Sorenson to negotiate a bargain deal for his company. And he clearly likes what the 12 months in a Mumm 36 has done for him.

Asked what he would choose to do on his final Saturday on earth, sail single-handed into the sunset, skipper a team of enthusiastic amateurs, or take part in some grand prix racing, he has no hesitation in plumping for the grand prix racing he has come to enjoy so much.

But there is a proviso. If he had a little longer than just the Saturday, he says, and someone would offer him the opportunity of doing the Vendee Globe single-handed non-stop round the world race, he would "snatch your arm off".