A relieved Mike Golding tells the story about his final few hours of the Vendee Globe without a keel!

It might have been a rather dejected and slump-shouldered Mike Golding that sailed across the finish line of the Vendee Globe in the early hours this morning, if the keel had still been attached to his Open 60 yacht Ecover. But having been forced to nurse his boat for the last 14 hours across the Bay of Biscay – with only his flooded waterballast tanks and twin daggerboards as barely adequate stabilisers for the stricken yacht – it was an elated and jubilant Golding that reached Les Sables d’Olonne in the early hours of the morning.

He thrust his arms aloft and fired off red flares, very much as Vincent Riou had done little more than 24 hours earlier in celebration of his Vendee victory. After what Golding had been through the previous afternoon, faced with the prospect of retiring from a 24,000-mile race just 50 miles from the finish, he too was celebrating victory – victory simply in having completed the course.

“Having this happen to me has made me realise just how important third place is to me,” smiled Golding at his press conference today. “It’s made third feel pretty good.”

Golding returned to rapturous applause in the French port in the morning. The crowd hung on his every translated word as he recounted the extraordinary events of the previous afternoon. “I was sailing in 20 to 25 knots of wind, with two reefs in the mainsail and the Solent. So the boat was well loaded, well powered up. Suddenly I felt the boat lean over from what I thought was a gust of wind. I jumped into the cockpit to release the mainsheet.”

When releasing the mainsheet failed to bring the boat more upright, Golding was concerned. He went through the boat, trying to find the source of the problem. “I tried to dial the keel up, I checked I didn’t have water ballast in the wrong tanks. Then I went to the edge of the boat to look for the keel and couldn’t see it.”

This is when Golding got really concerned. He went down below to peer through the endoscope that allows him to view the keel below the hull. “I looked through the endoscope at the top of the keel, but that was inconclusive. So then I opened up the escape hatch underneath the boat, put a diving mask on and put my head under water. That was interesting, because the boat was still doing six knots at the time. I looked under the boat and there was a keel there, but it was in a strange position.”

Golding was scratching his head in bewilderment, not quite able to compute what had happened. “You expect your keel to be attached to the boat. It’s something that you take for granted,” he said. But when he looked underneath the boat again, the keel really had gone. In retrospect, Golding believes that the first time he looked the keel “was hanging by a thread”. The next time he looked, it had snapped off altogether, almost flush with the bottom of the hull.

“Suddenly the boat was three tons lighter, and I thought ‘Great, here we go,’ joked Golding. The reality was that the skipper was seriously worried, not only for the boat but for his own safety. “My immediate thought was retirement. I thought there was no option about carrying on.” But having dropped the sails and flooded the ballast tanks with water, Golding had time to weigh up other options. He decided to hoist some a staysail and a fully-reefed main – a virtual handkerchief of cloth compared with his normal sail plan.

The added problem was that the remaining 50 miles would have to be sailed against the wind, still blowing 20 knots against him. “It was only following tentative experiments with small sail plans that we realised we could make the boat go to windward.”

To get his head round this new way of sailing, Golding said: “I imagined I was on a Thames barge with daggerboards and no keel, just that instead of carrying a cargo of 10 tons of coal I was carrying a few tons of water.” Gradually the ‘Thames barger’ gained confidence with his new set-up and even unfurled the Solent sail to generate more power. The boat picked up in speed and was averaging 7 knots, even touching 9 knots at one point.

When a camera helicopter came over to shoot pictures of Ecover making her uncertain progress towards the finish, Golding frantically waved it away for fear of the downdraft blowing his 60-foot dinghy over and ruining his race. But generally it was an uneventful last 50 miles into the finish, so much so that Golding managed to watch a DVD of the Quentin Tarantino movie Kill Bill while sitting in the cockpit, genoa sheet in hand.

When Golding crossed the finish line at 03 hours 17 minutes GMT, the relief was palpable, the reward immense. “The boat has taken care of me and and now I am just happy to be here,” he said.