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Sam Goodchild: Ready to take on the world singlehanded

Yacht Racing Podcast

In the history of the IMOCA Class there have been few skippers who have completed a debut year to rival that of Sam Goodchild, who achieved five consecutive podium finishes in his first five races and became the 2023 IMOCA Globe Series Champion.

But who is this modest 34-year-old Englishman? A sailor who will start his first Vendée Globe in November in a proven 2019-vintage boat (the former LinkedOut) that will give him podium chances on the round-the-world course, if not an outside chance of winning, something no British sailor has yet achieved?

Sam GoodchildGoodchild had an unconventional upbringing, spending much of his childhood living aboard yachts with his parents in the Caribbean islands, an experience that has given him an extraordinary affinity with the sea and with boats. In fact if you talk to those who knew him as a teenager they say the young Goodchild was obsessed with the sea and sailing from an early age.

Charles Darbyshire, the founder of the Artemis Academy in Cowes which trained young British solo racers – Goodchild among them – says Goodchild was focused on the sea to the exclusion of everything else.

“His love was the water and sailing and that’s how we got to know him,” said Darbyshire. “What I remember of him at that time was he couldn’t actually talk about anything other than on-the-water activities – there was almost nothing more to him.”

David Bickerton, who mentored Goodchild during his teenage years when the young British sailor was at boarding school in Britain, jokes that Goodchild “grew up sleeping on the chart table” and had been on yachts “since the year dot.” He says, as a result, Goodchild is probably happier on the sea than on land and developed an unusual affinity with boats.

“He had phenomenal balance – the best I’ve ever seen,” says Bickerton. “He could walk around the boat without any need to hold on – it was extraordinary and something I’ve never seen in anyone else.”

Having lived variously on the Caribbean island of Grenada, the Isles of Scilly and in the Cornish port of Falmouth, Goodchild knows what it is to be an outsider. “My whole life, I’ve been a foreigner,” he jokes. “When I was in England, I was the kid from the Caribbean, and when I was in the Caribbean I was the kid from England. Now I’m in France, I’m the guy from England.”

Goodchild completed his school studies with A-Levels in Maths, Physics and Design & Technology, but turned down university, where he might have studied engineering, in favour of a life on the sea. In doing so, he rejected advice from his parents and others that he should get a degree and then go sailing. “I was pretty stubborn-minded about it,” he said. “I was probably a little over the top, but I discovered this world of sailing and it was something I wanted to do. Why would I look somewhere else when I’d already found it?”

Goodchild’s early experience on the water was dominated by dinghy sailing and match racing, a discipline at which he excelled, becoming the best skipper in his age group in Britain. But his real interest was in offshore racing and after gaining experience with Alex Thomson’s team and then working as a preparateur for Mike Golding, he set as his career goal taking part in the Vendée Globe.

But it has been a long journey to IMOCA as Goodchild gained experience, honed his skills and awaited the right opportunity. He completed four seasons in the Solitaire du Figaro, alongside several years racing Class 40s. He crewed on a wide range of big multihulls, including the MOD 70, Phaedo3, and the maxi-trimaran Spindrift, and then returned to the Figaro in 2020 when he threatened to become the first British winner of that event before being undone by a windless final race. He went on to win the Ocean Fifty Pro Tour in 2021 and continued sailing in that class until selected to race alongside Thomas Ruyant in the TR Racing team last year. It proved an epic first season in IMOCA that saw Goodchild sail a massive number of miles, starting with crewing on Holcim-PRB in The Ocean Race and finishing third in each of the five IMOCA races, among them the Transat Jacques Vabre (with Antoine Koch) and the Retour à la Base.

What we have learnt over the years is that Goodchild is a tough and determined competitor with an excellent temperament for top-level sport. Starting with an upbringing that nurtured his natural talent he has matured into a methodical, competent and competitive racer. Throughout he’s maintained a laser-like focus on the Vendée Globe, moving to France, learning French and working hard to master all the disciplines that that race requires.

Brian Thompson, the British skipper of Phaedo3, has sailed thousands of miles offshore with Goodchild and says he has never wavered in his Vendée Globe ambitions. And Thompson has seen him improve in all areas over the years. “He’s the same person as when I first met him 10 years ago, but just with far more skills and confidence – he’s the complete package,” said Thomspon. “He doesn’t make mistakes and is always focused on doing a good job on board and looking at the big picture as well. He will be aware of what we are trying to do navigationally and he is a very good driver.”

Thompson says Goodchild has never stopped learning. “He’s very intelligent and really thinks about his sailing, so he doesn’t get backed into a corner where he has to panic or rush things. He does it all in the right order and doesn’t miss out a step and then get into trouble later.”

Goodchild has had his fair share of setbacks, for example when possible crew selections have not materialised, when he was dismasted in the Route du Rhum in Class 40s and when he suffered a nasty head injury on board his Ocean Fifty, Leyton, at the start of the last Route du Rhum. But he has weathered these storms, aided by a nicely-balanced temperament.

“I think he hides the lows well, or manages them well, and I don’t think he has the highs,” said Darbyshire. “The kinds of things that wear other people down have not had the same effect on him. He accepts them but doesn’t let them knock him.”

Bickerton says Goodchild takes losses and reverses and uses them to work out how to improve, rather than dwelling on them in a negative way. “He doesn’t always get great results and when things do go wrong, he works out why and how to avoid it in the future, rather than flinging stuff overboard or shouting and screaming,” he said.

In the latter respect Bickerton adds that Goodchild plays a competitive game but never strays into intimidating tactics or trying to destabilise an opponent. “He is very, very competitive and absolutely determined to do very well, essentially win. But Sam is not going to be nasty. He will not be like that and I think people like him. He will be very good and make sure he does the best he can to win but he won’t cross that line,” he said.

If you ask Goodchild about his strengths, you get an idea of how modest he is despite all that he has achieved. “That’s never an easy question to answer,” he says laughing. “If I had to pick something out it would probably be being an all-rounder. I can’t think of anything which I’m really good at, but I can’t think of anything that I’m completely useless at either.”

And his weakness? He says weather and navigation is still an area he wants to strengthen, having done a lot of sailing in big multihulls when the routing was often done on shore by dedicated professional meteorologists. But there is another thing he highlights: “One of my biggest weaknesses is I want everything done as quickly as possible. I think definitely on a Vendée Globe you sometimes slow down a bit – you do things once, slowly and well…”

In terms of his evolution to the elite level, Goodchild says that after his first Figaro experiences, the years he spent on big multihulls with the likes of Thompson, Thomas Coville or Yann Guichard and their crews gave him the experience and learnings he needed. He was thrilled to come back to the Figaro in 2020 and find that he was able to mix it with some of the best sailors in the sport, an experience that re-fired his ambition for the Vendée Globe.

“I have sailed with a bunch of people who are legends of the sport and I’ve seen a bit more and learnt a bit more how they operate, and that helps in terms of realising I am capable of doing this and that a Vendée Globe is something I am capable of. It’s not going to be easy or straightforward, but I don’t go into it wondering if I am capable of it. It’s just about how well I can do it and whether I can make it to the finish and keep the whole project in one piece,” he explained.

Goodchild says being a team leader within TR Racing is a big challenge which is taking some getting used to. But, he says, with the support of the whole team and his French wife Julie – with whom he has a seven-year-old step-daughter and a two-year-old daughter – he could not be happier with the build-up to his first Vendée Globe. “There are always points for improvement and things I could spend more time on, do better and work harder on. But I feel for a first Vendée Globe, I couldn’t really hope to be better prepared to be honest,” he said.

Looking in from the outside, what we can expect to see is a man who keeps it all under control and does not give too much away whatever the trials and tribulations he goes through. Thompson reckons he has an excellent chance of winning the Vendée Globe against the best IMOCA skippers in newer boats and, if he does, Goodchild will stay cool as always.

“Yeah, if Sam wins the Vendée he won’t be any different after that – somewhere deep inside there will be a sense of accomplishment, but we won’t really know about it,” said Thompson.