Andi Robertson interviews veteran British sailor Mike Golding, who now faces with Gamesa, his fourth assault on the Vendée Globe.
Gamesa during the Transat Jacques Vabre 2011
Mike Golding was very nearly a worried man, concern growing that he might not get the sponsorship support which would allow him to complete the unfinished business that is the Vendée Globe solo round the world race. For Golding, who will start his fourth Vendée Globe on 10/11/2012 off Les Sables d’Olonne, all routes and roads lead to that mythical solo race. Two handed and crewed racing on the IMOCA’s may have a point in the preparation phase, but everything is about one man, one boat, non-stop around the world.
The tenacious British skipper has been bitten hard when it comes to this pinnacle race. Sure, the goal is to win, but to complete the circle and cross the finish line back in Les Sables d’Olonne finishing with no regrets would probably allow Golding to move on. That addiction is scarcely unique, indeed it is the same for so many other skippers, Jean Le Cam, Bernard Stamm, Dominique Wavre, Jeremie Beyou, Kito de Pavant, all share the desire to triumph, but each has ghosts of races past that they feel the need to exorcise.
In fact Golding is in excellent shape in terms of his preparation. He landed a new sponsor, Spanish wind energy giants Gamesa, just at the right time. The deal came not through any traditional channel, but through a corporate dinner which his wife was attending in England, and the fit – as they say – could not be more perfect.
Wind energy is the business of Gamesa, just as it is for Mike Golding. While the company may be Spanish owned and based, it has a truly global reach with engineering plants in India, China, Brazil, the USA but it investing heavily in Golding’s home islands, Great Britain where they have an engineering R&D excellence facility in Scotland and are presently setting up new factories in Scotland or England.
For Gamesa, media exposure is important, but the real benefit to the company of the IMOCA Open 60 programme is that is a catalyst to bond the different units together. They have 34 production facilities around the world employing over 8,300 people. A recent key order for wind farms in Canada is worth $900m. A simple to understand, powerful human endeavour such as Golding’s Vendée Globe campaign is an important communication vehicle, an inspiration and motivation which it is hoped will permeate the whole company, from executives to factory floor workers.
Delivering the campaign to the Gamesa personnel has already seen an innovative ambassadors programme, which is already working well. Ambassadors are selected from different plants and they visit the Gamesa Sailing Team at key stages, race starts and finishes for example. They then return to their home workforce inspired and informed and pass on the excitement around the Gamesa family.
Mike Golding, Gamesa
Gamesa’s backing might have been enough to build a new boat, Golding has been unequivocal that was an option. But instead he has opted to forego any possible speed advances for what he hopes are the twin benefits of built in reliability and knowing the finer points of making his Owen Clarke design go fast. Both key attributes are the result of three years of racing his current boat. First race he sailed after building as Ecover 3 in New Zealand, was the Transat Jacques Vabre 2007, the first of three with the same boat.
Part of the reason he is driven to return to the Vendée Globe is that he had just taken the overall lead in the South Indian Ocean, some 1100 miles SE of Australia, when his mast collapsed in a 60kts squall. It was the first time the past IMOCA and FICO world champion had to retire from a Vendée Globe. In the 2000-2001 edition, he lost his mast in the first 24 hours of racing and had to return to Les Sables, step a replacement and start eight days behind the fleet. In the 2004-5 edition he finished third, sailing the final 60 miles with no keel. Adding fuel to his desire is the knowledge that both of these last two editions he has lead at some point.
And so Golding is striving above all else for reliability. He knows that Gamesa is not the quickest now, but is quick enough to win. But he knows he needs to be still racing at the finish line to win. First off was a major refit last summer. Golding has abandoned his preferred semi-wing mast for a classic rig. Statistics prove such a configuration to be the most reliable. Losing a second mast, when the boat was racing as President to the north of the Cape Verde early in the Barcelona World Race with Jean Le Cam and Bruno García, merely underlined a need to change. He has abandoned wheel steering and gone for tillers, Gamesa has had a major diet, losing a significant amount of weight losing a pedestal winch, and the team have reconfigured the coachroof to afford the solo skipper more protection from the wind and waves.
The 2011 Transat Jacques Vabre was slightly disappointing for Golding and co-skipper Bruno Dubois. They were third until they made a poor decision to break from the fleet and go south which dropped them to ninth, but on the return solo B to B race Golding took third. The results were OK, but most importantly the boat made it through a series of big Atlantic storms with no major problems. And so Golding feels like it is fine tuning systems between now and the start, and maximising time on the water. He is presently hoping to join the French training hotbed at Port-la-forêt to work on what he considers to be the remaining weaknesses: transitions and boat for boat racing.
What were your feelings after the Transat Jacques Vabre and the Transat B to B and what are your next steps?
The main conclusion is that we are in a strong position. The most important outcomes are that the boat proved reliable and it proved competitive. Both races were pretty uncompromising. Big storms in both races ensured that the boat, and the skipper(s), took a ‘good kicking’ in the Atlantic and man and machine emerged intact and better for the experience. The boat returned to our base in Southampton requiring no significant structural work at all, a bit of ‘spit and polish’, and some mechanical issues to deal with, refining systems and looking at where we can improve things.
On board Gamesa
The boat’s rig, the mast, came out the boat as soon as we got back and we have run extensive ultrasound tests on the running rigging – the high tech carbon fibres which support the mast and control its curvature and the power in the sails – and have made the difficult decision to change to discontinuous rigging. We were super-cautious because two of the Volvo Ocean Race boats had problems, one losing their mast and one having to return to land after a stay broke. They were using similar rigging from the same manufacturer, a developmental solution, and so we have taken every chance to be very vigilant.
So, as ever, reliability is the key, but what are the areas you have been focusing on?
We have been concentrating on areas where we still think things might go wrong. In broad terms they are two sections, the rig as I said, which is a compromise now, it is a step back but we are at the forefront of that carbon rigging technology. We have to think of the Vendee and that is the choice. We are looking at all the systems inside the boat. We changed from 24v to 12v and that involved changing all the components and there are some tidying up to do. And we have taken the decision to change the engine and all the plumbing systems, the ballast valves and soft pipe work has been replaced. The boat, at four years old, was a little more tired. We have tidied a lot up.
Are you therefore at a stage where the boat is pretty much as fast as you can make it, or are there more gains to be made over the final months?
I don’t think there are any advances we can still make, to be honest we have run out of scope in the sense that it becomes a diminishing return, and that is the benefit of where we are with a boat we have had this long. There comes a point where you don’t chase your tail anymore and get on with sailing what you know to be a competitive boat. We are at place where we know the boat is fast enough to compete against anyone, now we have to make sure it is reliable. If you look statistically at the Vendee Globe, then your chances of doing well are multiplied many times over if you are reliable.
The last race does skew the percentages a bit, but the 2004-5 race three of the boats finished together – within a day – but the last race the boats which came third and fourth were a long, long way behind. I think many of the newer boats will suffer with ‘newer boats’ problems. We saw that on the TJV and heard some stories from the BtoB, significant problems where we just don’t want to be. For example we have taken a decision not to go with a halyard lock system on the mainsail. We have a 3:1 halyard. We would like a 1:1 halyard with a lock, but it’s the Vendee and a 1:1 system will not win me the Vendee Globe but it might lose me the race, and that is the philosophy we have to apply.
So how will use the remaining time to best effect?
There are no good grand prix races this season which would be good for us. To that end there are a series of trainings at Port La Foret we would like to join. I am told by the people we have approached they would have us there, but you can’t tell until we get an invite. They are structured training, short offshores, two boat and multi boat testing and solo sailing, just things to get you into the solo rhythm.
Even if that does not happen I would try to do something with Dominique and Bubi and that would be interesting with three boats from the same gene pool. There would be inherent differences but they are quantifiable. And we have changed our boat so much I would hope we would be closer to Acciona. There is plenty of time to do training, but the problem is getting training with the ideal outcomes. I want to do more three to four day solo ‘races’. If I have a weakness it is as a slow starter, generally I get better and better. It would be a performance enhancement this time if I started the Vendee Globe in a higher state of readiness. A strength is I get better and better but if you have already lost 200 miles in the process of getting better and better it takes some catching up.
Would you have built new had timing been different?
There are a lot of good boats, and we are less new. And for the first time I am starting with a boat which has been around a bit. But we took that decision before we signed Gamesa. But were it blue sky thinking, what would be our choice? We are pretty happy with the boat. The boat’s early life was plagued with reliability issues, but we have addressed them. The boat is fundamentally quick and easy to drive. Maybe it is one of those slow maturity things. But the boat has not yet delivered the results it can.
And who would you consider the favourites to be for the Vendee Globe, or are there none?
There are no standout favourites, but you would put Riou, Jean Pierre Dick on a level – but JP has always struggled on his own, things go wrong for him.
There is a lot of talk about an IMOCA One Design, what are your thoughts. Or is there no real crisis for the class to worry about?
I think there are a lot of good things, a lot of positive things about the IMOCA Class, and – contrary to what was maybe believed – the class has new sponsors with new and existing boats and there are new faces, across the board. And that is good. There is growth, or turnover. The last Vendee Globe was exceptional and this one will be more normal, I don’t think there will be more than 20 boats on the start line. There will be some latecomers, like maybe Dee and Brian. People are working very for them, and the reality is that as we get closer then budgets come down and down. With eighteen boats at the moment, then it is good. 30 boats in 2008-9 was almost unsustainable so to be down 30% is good.
What is bad is that there are no new plans to build boats at the moment. And that won’t happen until IMOCA decided on the question of One Design and on top of that you have problems occurring like the Europa Race. The class took a vote and the class wanted to single handed and double handed races, with the occasional short fully crewed event, short events to keep the budget sensible. And by short I mean a regatta at Lorient, but to race for a month fully crewed was not something we decided to do. The strength of the class is with the two major round the world races, the Vendee Globe and the Barcelona World Race, and to be honest that is almost enough to sustain the class. To be honest we need to plug the gaps with better things, but if there was nothing else it would still almost work. I don’t think it will ever be a grand prix circuit, I don’t see the class that way.
And the One Design thing I see as a complete red herring. The problem is try and integrate the one design and the existing fleet is going to be impossible. To wipe out 60 million euros worth of investment in the current fleet is suicidal, so you have to move forward. The only way to make a boat faster than what is there, and it is completely nonsensical to make one design faster, but given the lengths we go to to make our boats fast, and to try and make a one design reliable, it is nonsensical unless you make the boat bigger. But if you make the boat bigger the costs go up. The costs go up exponentially. The 60 is the right size. I see where they are coming from, a 70 foot boat you could manage with modern systems, but the costs really are still the same. I can’t see where you can build a 70 foot boat cheaper than a 60 foot boat.
In my view the class has made many attempts to save money. But experience shows that when they try and write the rule, people get round it and are better than the rule makers. I think using a combination of the one design elements to create a tighter box, in essence, charging systems for example – packages which need to be in the boat – engine, charging, keel systems which would take out the development costs. Something which is introduced over time. So for example in the next Barcelona World Race all the boats might need to have a forged steel keel.
What do you look back over your career and consider to be the highlights?
I loved the Challenge Races, much more enjoyable than people would give credit to. Highlights in my solo career have been winning the Transat because that was the race I grew up watching as the OSTAR, I think it was a big mistake to supplant the Transat and lost an iconic race out of our calendar. And third place in the Vendee. I could have finished that race feeling quite disappointed with third. And then the keel fell off and I ended up happy to finish at all! It could have ended up thinking ‘shit I was so close to finishing’ and not getting there. So that transformed that result. We were in good company, Riou, Le Cam and myself, I knew I had made a mark. It was a proper third, we were 1200 miles ahead of the next boat.
What is the feeling like with Gamesa, a Spanish company?
Gamesa is a global company which is developing an offshore business, especially in the UK, and so I guess I was in the right place at the right time with the right proposition. We would like to expand the Spanish audience, but we really are expanding across into all the territories where Gamesa are.
And what do you see as the future for the Barcelona World Race?
I certainly think that the route that the Volvo Ocean Race now takes has opened an opportunity for the Barcelona World Race to be a stopping race on the traditional route, say stopping in Cape Town, Wellington and Brazil. That way it keeps the race alive when people have problems and really it would publicise the city of Barcelona in these territories and beyond.
Vendee Globe website