A criticism of politicians (yes, I know there is a list) is that many do not have any interests outside of politics – making them very one-dimensional. This leads to a cerebral paralysis where they can’t see anything but what they are doing and often cannot accept that other people’s experiences are just as, if not more, valid than their own. It is for this reason that I try and maintain a few interests of a non-political nature. One of these is sailing. The reason for this is several fold. It is not only a sport that gets me out and about in the open air but it is also a physical challenge to be part of a crew sailing a large boat across the open sea. It also allows me to challenge my wits against the elements of weather and sea ensuring that I learn how to safely reach our destination. But most of all sailing as a crew teaches leadership.

One reason I don’t like The Apprentice is because on the occasions I have watched the show everyone is trying to get one over the other contestants. This may well be the nature of reality shows, but where The Apprentice appears to differ is that the contestants all seem to lose sight of trying to achieve a group objective. Sailing does not allow that to happen as the size of the yacht, the functions needed to sail and the dangers contained in the ocean means that no single person can do everything – and while there is a Skipper, the crew needs to work as a team in order to achieve their collective objective of reaching their destination, hopefully in as short a time as possible if they are part of a race.

For many years I have taken part in the Round the Island Race, sailing anti-clockwise round the Isle of Wight. It is a distance of about 50 miles depending how close you want to sail at the Needles, and can take anything from two and a half hours (Steve Fossett on Playstation in October 2001) to over 12 hours (me in 2006, when the wind was poor). After undertaking the race for 5 years I had wanted to do something a bit more challenging and the Fastnet has been my goal for some time.

It is a bi-annual offshore race that takes place over a 608 mile course. Starting from Cowes, the race rounds the Fastnet Rock off the southwest coast of Ireland and then finishes at Plymouth, after passing south of the Isles of Scilly. Its infamy emerged after the 1979 race, when 15 sailors lost their lives in a severe storm. The Fastnet was also the race in which Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran fame became trapped under the hull of his yacht Drum in 1985, spending 20 minutes under the waterline before being rescued by the Royal Navy.

Several months ago, the Mayor of Barnet, Cllr John Marshall, asked me if I had read a book called Left for Dead, a first-hand experience of a survivor of the 1979 race. The book is now lying on my bedside cabinet awaiting me to pick it up and seeing that I have not yet read it Claire keeps asking if the race is really that dangerous? So I spend much time reassuring her that the 1979 storm was a freak occurrence. However, the regularity of freak waves, freak storms or freak accidents has resulted in me believing these are in fact regular occurrences – bad things happen and there is not always someone who we can blame or take legal action against as a result. But I don’t consider that Claire needs to know this.

The Fastnet race is not only daunting because of its history but is also arduous as the crew have to complete 3 qualifying races before they even get to the start line. These include the Myth of Malham, from Cowes to Eddystone lighthouse near Plymouth and back; the Morgan Cup, from Cowes to Cherbourg in France; and finally a night race, the Dinard, from Cowes to St Malo, also in France. The last time I crossed the English Channel the conditions were very difficult to say the least and they mirrored the previous crossings I have undertaken – rough seas, biting cold and the threat of rain.

On this last occasion we cast off at 10:30pm on a Friday after work. Having agreed to my crewmates taking the first watch, from midnight to 3am, I went down below to try and get some sleep. This was not as hard as it sounds, particularly after a week of work at the BBC and running the Council in Barnet. So for the first hour I snoozed and then fell into a light sleep until 2:55am when one of my fellow crew entered the cabin to say he wanted me out of the bunk so he could sleep. In the time it took to put on my thermals, clothes, waterproofs, boots, hat, gloves, safety harness and lifejacket I realised I had to get up on deck as quickly as possible as I was starting to feel the effects of being thrown about down below. The boat was pitching and rolling and each time a wave hit the hull, I was thrown a little off balance. Climbing into the cockpit from the galley ladder I suddenly felt a chill of wind as it rushed over the top of the coach roof. Before long, though I had on two pairs of socks, I could not feel my feet and spent the next 2 hours stamping to keep warm. But it was not the cold which bothered me as much as the nausea. Desperately trying to keep down the chips we had eaten onshore, I was slightly alarmed as the two other crew members on deck, one on watch with me and the other too ill to go down below, repeatedly rushed to the side of the boat to be sick. Cold and nausea for three hours on watch, three hours down below trying to sleep, and cold (and some nausea) again at 6am when back on watch. It was a relief to see the harbour entrance at Cherbourg and know that the voyage was over – at least until the return the next day.

But this will not put me off completing the Fastnet race. It may be gloomy on the economic horizon but I am hoping that this spring’s bright weather holds. My new crew and I are soon due to cast off for the first time in a get-to-know you sailing weekend. It may be the kiss of death to predict the weather but it is looking good for the weekend with easterlies on Saturday and north easterlies on Sunday – 10-15 knots so pretty much ideal. While we will have to show more individual leadership than contestants on The Apprentice, it stays in my mind that once at sea this will be just like the Big Brother house – with no way out!