After 16 years and 3 finishes, Golding admits: “It’s tough. There’s a limit to how much you can bear”
It was an emotional and deeply relieved Mike Golding who arrived in Les Sables d’Olonne last night to complete his third and last Vendée Globe. Golding has dedicated 16 consecutive years to the quest of trying to win this race and has started four editions in the pursuit of it. No-one has ever done more.
His 6th place is not, however, what he’d hoped for. Although gracious about defeat by his closest rival Jean Le Cam in the final days, when he was asked about it Golding’s eyes welled up visibly.
Yet the importance of the result now this race is finished was summed up by Bruno Retailleau, president of the Vendée Globe organisation. “Vendée Globe Un!” he shouted to a crowd who’d mustered to see Golding arrive in the piercing midnight cold.
Number One of the Vendée Globe indeed. Golding is the most enduring sailor in all of this race’s long history. He is the first to finish three races and more than anyone deserves the title of the man who never gave up.
Along the way, he has had to absorb a lot of disappointment. He talked about that last night with a steely, matter-of-fact resilience. “I’m very satisfied,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to have had four opportunities to compete. I know I’m lucky. I don’t think I wasted any of them.”
Today, he explained more to me. “I was motivated to do this race because I thought I had a good set of cards and I was wrong – but not that wrong,” he says.
“It’s like Top Trumps. You look at everyone’s assets: the boat they have, the experience they’ve got, and we knew that we would come with an older generation boat and without a full set of cards. That’s not an excuse because it was based on the fact that you don’t always need the fastest boat to win and there would be attrition. But in previous races I’ve always had all the cards.”
The newer boats were faster, he points out, but “the results belie the truth; they were only a little quicker.
“In the south we [Golding, Jean Le Cam and Dominique Wavre] fell off the gravy train and the leaders were 100 miles in front and just kept getting gravy. All of those ahead of us were doing 20 knots and you just know you can’t do that. I had one poll when we were doing 19 knots average. The wave pattern made it hard to maintain a speed.”
Having fallen behind in the Indian Ocean there was never an opportunity to catch up, and the attrition that might have given his group a leg-up never happened.
‘Goldfinger’ as he’s nicknamed in France, is much admired here for his tenacity and toughness. I’ve followed his career and almost all his races first-hand since the first British Steel Challenge 20 years ago, and see him as the epitome of the dedicated professional in every way – I recall his early Challenge crews having a spreadsheet detailing which colour of sponsored clothing to wear on each day of the week so as to reinforce their united appearance.
In the two last Vendée Globe races, though, I think I’ve observed the mounting toll this remorseless cycle of solo round the world races has been taking, how much harder it is for him go through it all again. Golding’s telling answer to a question about the high points of this race was: “Leaving. And arriving.” He meant it.
Since Cape Horn he has said that this is it; his last ever Vendée Globe. He will not be back here as a competitor again in 2016. “I’ve invested 16 years of my life into trying to win the Vendée Globe and that is enough. I want to enjoy what I’m doing and I think it’s time to realign my focus.”
Golding admits that it has become progressively more difficult to stay motivated. “I feel pretty good now, but out there I wasn’t. I’m finding it harder and harder to extract the pleasure and filter out the pain.”
The contrast between his experience and that of winner François Gabart, a first-timer seeing all the highs and lows for the first time, is inevitable. ” I can understand how [François] could wax lyrical on his first race. It was a dream race. I wish I could be that person,” he says. “But if he came back it might not be so much of a dream.
“Solo sailing at this level is incredibly tough. If you’re cheerful all the time you must be unhinged. It is a lot of hard times interspersed with occasional glimpses of paradise: the perfect day’s sail or the perfect position, days when you would pay to do this. But mostly I go from poll to poll and my emotions go up and down. I am hyper-critical – should have I have chosen this sail, or taken this course? – and four or five times a day you’re judged by mathematical criteria that may or may not be relevant.”
Like Golding, I’ve never really bought into the idea that some sailors love it so much they are eternally cheerful. I sense a construct. As does he. “It makes me gag,” he says bluntly.
The real experience, Golding says, is closer to that of Ellen MacArthur’s, whose races were famously and regularly interspersed with tears. “That’s the real reality of it. I’m not surprised she cried. If we weren’t roughty, toughty men we’d be blubbing.
“The frustration is the thing. I lost my voice during the race. I’m sailing single-handed; how do you think I did that? I didn’t catch a cold. I was shouting my bloody head off with frustration.
“It’s incredibly hard. Just when you’ve dealt with a problem something else comes and parks itself on your doorstep. It’s hard on you mentally and physically and there is a limit to how much of that you want to bear.”
But he continues: “How do you get your kicks? I just want something to give me the same excitement as before. And I doubt I’ll ever get that excitement again.”
What comes next he isn’t quite sure. Golding still owns an Extreme 40 catamaran and, if he can find a sponsor, continuing the Extreme Series is an option, one that provides lots of excitement, a beer in the bar afterwards and a soft bed at the end of the day. But he’s non-committal about that. I suspect he craves something bigger, epic in its own way as the Challenge and Vendée races that have shaped him.
“In June I am going to have a break and reflect. I want to do something important. I don’t want this to be my the whole thing. I would have liked a Vendée Globe win to be a legacy, but that’s not going to happen. So I need to find something else.”
In the meantime, Golding is a star here in Les Sables d’Olonne and everywhere he goes people want to take a photo of themselves beside him. Today I realised that in all these years I’d never bagged one myself and I’m thrilled to get this picture of me with my all-time hero round the world sailor.