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Donkin on Sailing

November 2009 - The iShares Cup

Purple rain clouds with shards of lightening are passing to the east of us, further along the Cote d'Azure, but for the moment, at least, the sun is glinting on the waves and the Mistral's steady 15 knots of breeze ensures that our Extreme 40 catamaran is streaming along, balanced on one hull.

We're heading on a course parallel with the seafront at Hyeres, venue for this the second round of the iShares Cup, the event that is becoming for sailing what Formula One is for motor racing.

There are many similarities - tight circuits good for spectators, some of the sport's finest international talent, highly tuned race machines, strong sponsor interest and colourful venues.

One difference in motor sport, however, is that you would never find the world rallying champion in a grand prix car. Moving between disciplines in any sport is difficult and so it is proving for our helm, Mike Golding, better known for his round-the-world sailing exploits than for fast cat sprints.

Golding and his crew are struggling, coming well down the order in most of the races. He's not used to sailing at the back of the fleet so I'm expecting to hear a few choice words, but not a bit of it. "People are saying: 'You must be down,' but it's not like that. We have a lot to learn but just look at the competition. In that last race we were trailing just behind double-Olympic gold medal winner, Shirley Robertson. That's not bad going. No, I'm enjoying myself," he says.

It's a marked contrast to his previous event on the Open 60, Ecover II, when he was leading the Vendee Globe in the Southern Ocean before a squall dismasted the boat and ended his race. With hindsight would he have done anything differently? "No, it was just one of those things," he says.

In solo round-the-world sailing, skippers must learn to live with disappointment as pummelling seas wage a war of attrition on the fleets. In the last Vendee, only 11 of the 30 starters made it to the finish.

Golding has never won the French-dominated Vendee, but it is not for the want of trying. Since he made his name in the 1990s skippering crewed boats, then single-handed under Group Four and latterly Ecover sponsorship, he has competed in a clutch of round-the-world events, crossing the equator 22 times and rounding Cape Horn five times. He was named International Monohull Open Class Association (IMOCA) world champion for two consecutive years in 2004/5 and 2005/6.

So why has a sailor hitherto focused on single-handed endurance events, stepped in to the specialised world of Extreme 40 sailing? A lot of it has to do with sponsorship. Golding is one of a small number of top flight sailors who run their own racing team, again like the teams in Formula One racing. An Open 60 campaign is expensive and, with no events for most of 2009 before the two-handed Transat Jacques Vabre race in November, he says, it was unrealistic to expect to retain his existing level of sponsorship.

"I came back from the Vendee feeling exhausted and disappointed with the way it ended," he says. "We had been running the Open 60 programmes back-to-back for 12 years and from a personal perspective I wanted to refresh my basic sailing instincts, if you like. Something that didn't involve going out to sea for long periods seemed attractive."   

One possibility was to switch to a less expensive Extreme 40 campaign in the iShares Cup, an event that is geared towards strong sponsor involvement. "I could see the way things were going and thought the iShares looked promising since here you can take your sponsors or media guests on board during races as the fifth man." Fortunately his long term sponsor, the cleaning products company, Ecover, liked the idea.

This is how I find myself on the Ecover boat in Hyeres , wearing the yellow bib reserved for the fifth man. As a passenger you are not expected to do anything other than hang on and change sides during tacks. On a boat which has trampoline-like netting for a deck, this is easier said than done. The Extreme 40s accelerate rapidly and can comfortably reach speeds of 25 knots. Sailing on the edge it doesn't take much of an error to tip one over but Golding seems comfortable on the helm.

It's clear, however, that the team is not gelling yet. The end of the first race is something of a confessional as helm and crew apologise for various gaffs. The post race briefing will be detailed and lengthy. But Golding seems relaxed nevertheless.

"There are some great sailors and teams competing here that have been doing this for a while. We're new to it but we're not making complete idiots of ourselves out there and we're learning all the time.

"Everything about this kind of sailing is different for me, but that's why it's so refreshing.   It's a bit like a circus - about putting on a big show every time we come to a new venue."

If the iShares Cup is sailing's travelling circus, then the ringmaster is Mark Turner, chief executive of race organiser Offshore Challenges, the company he owns jointly with Ellen MacArthur. Turner achieved a coup in the spring when he secured the opening event in Venice .

"It was a great way to open the season. Venice had never before in its history closed the waterway in front of St Mark's Square. To sail there was special," says Turner. Golding agrees. "Walking across St Mark's square early in the morning with a sailing bag over my shoulder I had one of those epiphany moments and things felt good. It was pretty cool."

The tour has done so well, even in the recession, that Turner has plans for a winter series of two events in the Middle East and two in Asia running from December to March. Various towns and regions have been bidding to host the events.

Golding is keeping his options open, but since his team owns its Extreme 40 it is quite possible he could be there. His wife Andrea, and six-year-old son Soren were at the Hyere races. "One of the best things about this racing is to come back to them on the pontoon at the end of the day. You can't do that in a round-the-world race. But this kind of race with a predictable schedule means I can be a better dad."

That said, the team's Open 60, with its plain white hull for now, until new sponsorship can be arranged, is fully refitted and ready to sail. It won't be too long before Golding is out there crossing the oceans again, doing what he does best.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved