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Skipper who was just too professional

Andy Rice finds the secret of Group 4's success is as good as Golding
Two years ago at Earl's Court in London, Chay Blyth welcomed almost 200 people, each of whom had been persuaded to pay pounds 18,750 for the privilege of sailing the wrong way around the world. They were gathered to find out which of the 14 boats they would be racing aboard in the BT Global Challenge.

Only Blyth knew the allocations. Within minutes, however, one team stood out from the rest. As Blyth announced the crew of Group 4, their skipper Mike Golding presented each of his new team-mates with a bundle of clothing and asked them to change immediately into their matching uniforms. No other team was so organised. A few weeks later the new recruits purchased their pounds 200 Le Chameau sailing boots for their round-the-world adventure. Unfortunately for Andy Girling, his pair had a blue gaiter, not the red specified as part of Group 4 team colours. Golding told him to buy a second pair.

To some, Golding might appear to be a man sartorially obsessed. But to Humphrey Walters, such anecdotes are a mark of Golding's leadership skills and his dogged quest for perfection. Walters is chief executive of the management training company MaST Organisation, one of the sponsors for the race.

Last year Walters and his MaST colleagues spent a four-day session assessing all 14 skippers before the race began. He drew up a "batting order" of the strongest contenders. Top of the list was Group 4, followed by Toshiba Wave Warrior, Concert, Save the Children and Motorola. As the boats crossed the finish line in Southampton Water last week, Walters' prediction proved to be spot on, bar his inclusion of Concert, which had suffered a dismasting.

Such accuracy surprised even Walters, but it confirmed what he suspected all along - that this race was not going to be a test of super sailing skills so much as a test of leadership and teamwork. To Walters, Golding appeared one of the more "people-oriented" skippers.

In a way, Golding's victory was no great surprise; he was by far the most experienced skipper in the fleet. In 1993 he had missed winning the first wrong-way-round-the-world race, the British Steel Challenge, when Nuclear Electric pipped them by 90 minutes. He then took the same yacht - suitably modified - on a single-handed tour of the globe to smash Chay Blyth's 21-year-old record by 125 days.

But no one had guessed just how much he would dominate the Global Challenge. After all, he had been presented with roughly the same motley crew as every other skipper that day at Earl's Court. This did not stop him winning five of the six legs and beating Toshiba Wave Warrior by more than two days.

Timon Robson, one of Golding's crew, puts their success down to their skipper's emphasis on doing everything as a team. "One of Mike's policies was that from day one we would stick together. Even when we weren't on the boat we would make a specific effort to go out to dinner as a crew, to go to bars as a crew, all wearing identical uniform. Mike made sure there were no splinter groups. It was very noticeable that with many of the other boats you would see just two or three of them."

Golding attributes much of his success to skills he learned running a 17-man watch at Slough Fire Station in the early Eighties. "Everything you do on the fire station is geared to that time when the bells go down. Everything we did on the boat was geared towards that time when the start gun went off."

While much of the media focus has been on the dissent and near-mutiny that dogged other boats, Group 4 never appeared anything other than united in purpose. Not that Golding was without his dissenters. While his own goal, clearly, was to win the race, he had been careful not to assume that every team member would share his enthusiasm. "People have all sorts of reasons for entering this race, and it is not always to go out and win it," he said. "The key is to find a middle ground that you're all comfortable with. I would say that the majority of the team want to win the race, but there were a couple of people who would have been comfortable with a less strenuous approach.

Golding's argument was simple. "You pay pounds 18,750 for a ticket round the world. That is not where the challenge lies. The real challenge is to excel at what you do. You never regret the effort you do make; you only regret the things where you didn't make an all-out effort."

The dissenters were soon won round, but other boats did not warm to Group 4's approach. "There was a feeling that Group 4 was a lot further down the track than the others," he said. Victory, however, has returned the 37-year-old to almost universal popularity, although he has bowed out of further involvement in Blyth's quadrennial challenge. For some, Golding will remain the skipper who was too thorough in a race designed for fee-paying amateurs. For Golding, there could not be a higher accolade.