Brian Viner: The mystery is how Goss and his crew find courage

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The Independent Online

About 15 years ago, I was offered an interesting journalistic assignment: spending four days and nights on a fishing trawler off the coast of Cornwall. In February. My editor thought that I was just the man to write a colour story about the experience, but in the end, it became clear to him that I probably wasn't (manacling myself to railings outside his office screaming "please, please, please don't send me to sea" might have planted the first seed of doubt in his mind).

A more intrepid writer went instead, and duly produced an excellent colour story, though not without first producing some excellent colour, in the form of almost constant spewing. He later told me that it had been the most wretched experience of his life by the power of about 1,000, and this was a man who supported Manchester City FC.

Anyway, my own deep suspicion of the sea is matched by deep admiration for those who plough through it, whether in pursuit of livelihoods or sporting challenge. Dame Ellen MacArthur has shown me round the cramped living quarters on two of the vessels that carried her round the world, and I would have taken my hat off to her if only there had been room. I'm in awe of such people.

The latest object of my awe is Pete Goss, the Cornishman and former Royal Marine who in the 1996 Vendee Globe race, showed how blithely the word "hero" is bandied around in sport. A hero is not a man who carries on playing football despite a cut on his forehead, or even a man who insists on batting with a dislocated finger against a battery of quick bowlers. A hero is a man who, after receiving a distress call, turns his boat round in the Southern Ocean and battles hurricane-force winds for two days before reaching and rescuing a stricken rival, the Frenchman Raphael Dinelli, who was facing certain death. For that, Goss received both the MBE and the Légion d'Honneur, and an invitation to be best man at Dinelli's wedding.

A couple of days ago he told me about his next project, but first he emphasised the buccaneering spirit of folk from England's furthest-flung county. He informed me proudly that it was Cornish miners who introduced football to Mexico, which was very nearly a conversation-stopper, but I researched this marvellous claim and found he was right. The first football club in Mexico was the Pachuca Athletic Club, founded in 1900, and its inaugural team sheet read Dawe, Dawe, Bennetts, Bennetts, Blamey, Sobey, Bragg, Thomas, Bunt, Pangelly, Pengelly. Moreover, in and around Pachuca to this day you can apparently buy crescents of pastry stuffed with meat, found nowhere else in Mexico, and known as "pastes".

Goss also told me that that one evening in the 1850s, with Cornwall, then as now, in the grip of economic depression, seven men were sitting in the Star Inn in Newlyn discussing an enthusiastic letter from a friend who had followed the latest Gold Rush to Australia. Two of these men owned a 37ft fishing lugger called The Mystery. One suggested they should sell the Mystery to pay for their passage to the Antipodes. The other, Richard Nicholls, said bugger that, let's go in the Mystery.

They set sail on 18 November 1854, six of them having never been out of sight of land. In Cape Town they were commissioned to take the next batch of Royal Mail to Melbourne – quite an honour for seven working-class blokes in a small wooden boat – where they arrived after 116 days.

Their achievement has inspired Goss to build a replica of The Mystery, evocatively called The Spirit of Mystery, and he plans to set off in their wake at the end of October. There will only be a crew of four, but like the original crew they are related either by blood or marriage. And like the original crew, Goss, his brother, his brother-in-law (who has never sailed), and his 14-year-old son will navigate by the stars. "We won't use the engine, we'll row in and out of ports," Goss told me. "The only difference is that I'm going to wear Goretex and I won't be eating salt pork." He intends to be fuelled partly by Talisker whisky, for Talisker is supporting a series of talks, by Goss and members of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, at sailing clubs across the country, to raise money for the RNLI.

Meanwhile, descendants of the Newlyn seven are falling over themselves to support the expedition. One of them has donated the original sextant. And if Goss can match the seafaring skills of Nicholls, he'll be delighted. "I'll be dead chuffed if we can beat their time," he said. "They got to Madeira in nine days." I suppose it's too much to hope that on their brief visit they taught the Madeirans, including a forebear of Ronaldo, to play football?