Sailing: Single-handedly gunning for glory in Gallic world of sail

Britons Mike Golding (left) and Ellen MacArthur are on a steep learning curve in ocean racing's 60 class.
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The Independent Online
IF SUCCESS breeds success and strength comes from adversity British yacht racing took a significant step forward last week in the unlikely country of Colombia. Not the wildwest bit, but the Caribbean Atlantic city of Cartagena, the destination of the Jacques Vabre two-handed race from Le Havre. Putting down a marker for the Anglo-Saxons in previously French-dominated territory were Mike Golding and Ed Danby, who finished third in Team Group 4, and Ellen MacArthur, who partnered Yves Parlier in Kingfisher Aquitaine.

For quite different reasons, both Golding and the 22-year-old MacArthur came away from the event with confidence enhanced. They will be rivals when they line up at Les Sables d'Olonne in November next year for the 100-day test that is the Vendee Globe single-handed non-stop round the world race, probably the toughest in yachting. For the moment, however, they share the same problems. First, of keeping up their momentum of development as others crank up their campaigns and, secondly, of negotiating a system of international rule-making that has a distinct flavour of French flexibility.

Single-handed ocean racing, which has nursed so many Gallic sporting heroes, has been marked, for British observers, by dramas of the kind which saw Tony Bullimore rescued by the Australian navy from his upturned yacht in the last Vendee while Pete Goss was winning the Legion d'honneur for, in turn, rescuing Raphael Dinelli.

The difference now is that Britain has two fully-funded competitors, though MacArthur does not see this is as an Anglo-French confrontation. But she does acknowledge that change is happening quickly in what was a French world. Golding's third place could just as easily have been a first. He was only 22 minutes behind Catherine Chabaud and Luc Bartissol in second place, and 1hr 32min behind the winners, Thomas Coville and Herve Jan.

"The low point may have been losing so much though a tactical decision after the start in Bay of Biscay, but the high point was knuckling down and slowly, slowly pulling those miles back," Golding said.

Coville thinks that Team Group 4 may be the fastest downwind in a fleet full of new boats for a race run in such conditions. There is a noticeable increase in self-assurance as Golding moves among the best at this level of racing. He has learned more about his boat and how to handle it, is taking it back to Cherbourg for another modification to its keel, and is looking at ways to develop the designs of his sails in a different way from the French.

MacArthur, meanwhile, was disappointed to finish sixth in her first short-handed race in sailing's 60 class boat, but nearly losing the mast twice through rigging failure and finding in a hurry some ingenious ways of preventing it from falling over the side was a valuable lesson.

Her own new 60 is being built at Marten Marine in Auckland and that will be her base for the next three months. Working in a yard is something she has done before and MacArthur - not a lady with any reservations about getting her hands dirty - is clearly looking forward to donning overalls again and rolling up the sleeves.

After launch and trials in February, the schedule takes her on a delivery trip home through the southern ocean and round Cape Horn. Then comes a desire to raise her status and sailing abilities via the testing single- handed transatlantic race from Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island, in June, before the final preparations for November and the Vendee Globe. "I learned a tremendous mount from this race [the Jacques Vabre] but now I have an exciting 15 months to look forward to and I can't wait to get on with it," she said.

With the United States, Italy, and possibly New Zealand joining the Open 60 party, plus recognition from the sport's world governing body, ISAF, and more direct help from the International Monohull Open Class Association, the individual fiefdoms of Gerard Petitpas, director of some of the French- based races, and the Vendee organiser, Philippe Jeantot, are being diluted. Golding, for one, wants to see a new order established in the monohull 60s. "What we need is to achieve the sort of standardisation, without stifling innovation, achieved by our opposite number in the 60-foot multihulls," he said.

As the Open 60 class moves from strength to strength, Britain now has in Golding and MacArthur two talents capable of riding the oceans to yachting glory.