Alex Thomson interview before his Vendee Globe challenge: ‘Imagine a bus hitting a brick wall without any warning’
Alex Thomson takes on the toughest single-handed race in the world
Credit: Lloyd Images
Alex Thomson will wake up in Les Sables d’Olonne on the west coast of France on Sunday morning, having banked his last proper sleep for 70-odd days, say a remote, Covid-compliant goodbye to his wife and children and set off to become the first non-Frenchman ever to win the Vendée Globe.
The 46 year-old from Bangor in North Wales will start sailing’s greatest single-handed race – non-stop, around the world, unassisted – as the bookmakers’ favourite, armed with one of the fastest boats and biggest budgets in the fleet. To say that Thomson’s build-up has been plain sailing, however, would be rather underselling things.
Almost exactly 12 months ago, Thomson very nearly died in an accident at sea.
Competing with former Olympic sailor Neal McDonald in the two-handed Transat Jacques Vabre, which follows the historic coffee trading route between France and Brazil, their boat hit a submerged object – assumed to be a whale – and literally stopped dead in its tracks. “The deceleration was just under 3G,” Thomson recalls. “Imagine a bus hitting a brick wall without any warning. You’re like a rag doll.” Thomson, who had been in the cockpit, was thrown forward violently, ending up underneath a winch table. “I wasn’t wearing a helmet,” he admits. “I could have died there and then.” He escaped with a chipped elbow.
His boat was not so lucky. Hugo Boss, Thomson’s £6million state-of-the-art yacht, was left with its keel hanging off, still tethered to the hydraulic ram but swinging about, creating an ever bigger hole in his boat. “We had to cut through the hydraulic ram, then we sailed to Cape Verde without a keel, which was a first for me,” Thomson concludes matter-of-factly.
The repair job, combined with lockdown, threatened to derail Thomson’s 2020/21 Vendée bid altogether, leaving him short on sailing time. But sitting in his offices in Haslar Marina in Gosport, a few weeks before the start, he seems happy enough. “I would say we are pretty confident,” he replies when asked to assess his prospects. “We’ve done just under 20,000 miles in the boat. I’d have preferred 28,000. They [his French rivals] are faster upwind, we are faster downwind. But that’s just a gut feeling.”
Alex Thomson onboard Hugo Boss
Credit: Getty Images
Thomson’s confidence stems from the fact that he has been through this before. This is far from his first rodeo. Forced to abandon in 2004/5 and 2008/9, he finished third in 2012/13 and second last time out when he had the fastest boat and would surely have won but for his starboard foil – the ‘arm’ which sticks out of the side of the hull lifting the boat right out of the water when it is heeled over – being ripped off after 11 days following a collision with unidentified floating object. Thomson still finished in 74 days 19 h 35 min 15 sec, the second fastest time on record, and just 16 hrs behind France’s Armel Le Cléac’h.
Thomson trusts the process now. He backs his instincts. He is comfortable being based in the UK as opposed to the rest of the IMOCA fleet out in France. “It’s a crappy place to train,” he admits of the Solent. “Very short waves, very close together. So we have to travel further off-shore [to train]. But I have always liked being based here. In France, everyone is always moving between the teams. Like cycling and F1. To do something in secret is very hard. We are taking an Anglo-Saxon approach to how we operate it – how we manage it, operate with our people, raise our money, offer value, how we compete. I think a completely different way."
The upshot is the probably the most radical boat the Vendée has ever seen, launched intentionally later than Charal, the vessel belonging to rival Jeremie Beyou, who is widely considered the French favourite.
Finished in matt black and fluorescent pink, Hugo Boss features a host of innovations, from the fully enclosed cockpit concept which everyone is now trying to copy ("I think everyone thinks it’s right," he says. "Anyone who has a cockpit that can be enclosed, they are enclosing it."), to the striking curved foils, to the 20 square metres of non-skid solar panels on the coach roof, to the fully-reclining seat which will double as his bed. “I will probably spend 18-20hrs a day in that chair,” he says. “We had an occupational therapist come in. We’ve tried to find a zero gravity position.”
Simply put, Thomson is leaving nothing to chance this time. His engineers have replicated the load of the impact on the keel from last year’s TJV crash; they have fitted an infra-red device to the top of the mast which they have called Oscar (after Thomson’s son) and which can recognise objects in the water; there are 320 sensors on board allowing Thomson to feel what is happening to almost any part of his boat while sitting in his chair.
Like last time, Thomson will wear a ‘shock watch’ which will zap him if he doesn’t respond to his alarm, an occupational hazard when you are grabbing 20-40mins of sleep every 2-4hrs. He has worked with the sports psychologist, Ken Way, on relaxation techniques. He is a believer in hypnosis. Thomson has even worked with partners Nokia Bells Lab on something called ‘The Hub’, which will give fans unprecedented insight into what he is experiencing on his boat; his heart rate on the hour every hour, sleep, wind speed, boat speed, calories, decibels. “Basically anything we thought was interesting”.
Hugo Boss en route to France
Credit: Getty Images
Covid-19, he insists, does not concern him. He has been fully locked down for a week now and has taken every precaution. “I won’t test positive,” he says firmly. “It will be an impossibility.” Once they’re off, the Vendée is pretty much the perfect lockdown sport. Never mind two metres, in the Southern Ocean the sailors will be nearer to the International Space Station than any land mass.
It is difficult to comprehend what the 33 skippers – which includes three British women in Sam Davies, Miranda Merron and Pip Hare, half the female sailors in the fleet – are about to undertake; the sheer scale of what lies ahead. The solitude. The deprivation. That otherworldly element perhaps explains why French Navy helicopter footage of Thomson in the Southern Ocean four years ago – when he clambered up on to his deck to wave to the camera – went viral. It was a unique glimpse into the extreme world of the solo ocean sailor.
It also explains why any concession to performance is out, though Thomson is packing a Soda Stream this time after finding out that Le Cléac’h had one on board four years ago. I also spy some Pork Scratchings in his supplies. “We tried to hide that from you,” he jokes. “I think I eat one every three days. Calories-to-weight it’s actually the best thing on board.”
It feels as if Thomson really means business this year. He used to be known by the French as fast but ever-so-slightly reckless. Le Showman. With his publicity stunts like the Mast Walk and the Keel Walk which have garnered millions of hits on YouTube. Now Thomson is revered as being fast and extremely serious. He even thinks a few of them might secretly want him to win, to go one better than he managed last time, one better than Ellen MacArthur managed in 2001, and open the race up to an international audience.
Sailing in this country would certainly get a huge boost if Thomson can pull it off, 51 years after Sir Robin Knox-Johnston became the first man to circumnavigate the globe non-stop, solo and unassisted.
What is his motivation? “Just being able to provide some entertainment now, for the fans [during lockdown]. That’s a big motivation,” he says. “And a big opportunity for the sport to get more coverage than we normally do.
“I want people to come in and feel what we feel. For me going offshore and being knocked to hell by Mother Nature makes me a better human being. It puts you in your place on a daily basis. I sort of feel that every human should feel that.
“But yes. 100 per cent. Beating the French is part of the whole reason for doing it. I think this time even more. Last time when I gybed off the Finistere, which was a mistake, I remember everyone saying ‘Here he goes, he’s doing a Brexit’. And of course Brexit is going to happen during the race."
He smiles. “I just think it would be fantastic if it continues the way it is and I end up at the Elysee Palace, being given a Legion d’Honneur by Macron. Having to give it to a Brit. Can you imagine?”