Over 26,000 miles, no stops, a crew of one and no assistance. The Vendée Globe round-the-world solo sailing race is, as Alex Thomson (left) says, “one of the hardest sporting challenges that exists in the world today.” And he should know; the skipper of Imoca 60 yacht Hugo Boss has competed in it twice and, despite retiring both times, in 2012 he’ll participate in the Vendée for a third time.
On his first attempt in 2004, Thomson had to leave the race in Cape Town with a hole in the deck. Then in 2008, his Hugo Boss yacht was in a collision with a French fishing vessel outside the harbour at Les Sables D’Olonne just three weeks before the start. Though his team repaired their boat, Thomson quit the race after just three days when he realised it was taking on water.
Neither, however, quite compares to his experience in the 2006 edition of the Velux 5 Oceans solo round-the-world race. While neck-and-neck in second place with fellow competitor Mike Golding in the notoriously brutal Southern Ocean, Hugo Boss’s keel failed. Video footage records a visibly distressed Thomson coming to terms with the realisation that his only option is to leave Hugo Boss to sink and transfer to Golding’s boat.
“I had to abandon the boat halfway between Antarctica and Africa, get into the life raft and be rescued by Mike Golding,” recalls Thomson. “It would have been fine, and Mike would have been given the time back by the race committee, but I’d only been onboard his boat for three hours when his mast fell down – and that was the end of his race.”
There were brief moments, Thomson says, when he started to think “this is it,” so why does he continue to put himself through it? “So few people have actually sailed solo nonstop around the world,” he explains, “so for me it’s the biggest challenge one could undertake, and that’s what makes it so attractive.”
Newly married with a baby son, Thomson admits his young family makes it harder to do what he does, “but I still want to go on and win the Vendée Globe in 2012 and that requires a certain degree of commitment.” It also takes a great deal of discipline. From eating up to 6,000 calories of mainly freeze-dried food a day (“really it’s not nice food, it’s just fuel”) to getting sufficient sleep and keeping his emotional state in check, Thomson says discipline is “what solo sailing is about”.
He also prepares by training for up to ten hours a week in the gym, and latterly his focus has shifted from strength-based training to cardiovascular fitness.
“In the old days, I felt I needed to be stronger rather than fitter, whereas this boat’s different. It’s the hardest boat I’ve ever sailed and you spend longer putting sails up, furling them, dropping them and pulling them in so spending more time on cardiovascular fitness is good. I’ve never had a problem with strength – I’m naturally pretty strong.”
By way of comparison, the 70ft, 15-tonne yachts that compete in the Volvo Ocean Race carry 700sq m of sail area and have ten people to operate them. Hugo Boss is 60ft long and weighs five tonnes less but carries the same sail area.
“If all’s going well it’s manageable, but if everything goes wrong you simply haven’t got the labour to sort things out,” says Thomson, whose three solo round-the-world experiences bear that out.
It is, he concedes, far harder to prepare for the psychological aspect; it’s all about experience. “The first time I did it, my brain found it hard to comprehend what it was doing. But when you’ve done it once and you become used to things it isn’t so bad.” Being alone on the ocean isn’t a time for quite contemplation, or even working through your music or movie collection, says Thomson. “Generally you’re just racing”.
Thomson’s rise up through the sailing world was undeniably rapid. As a windsurfing and dinghy-sailing instructor, aged 20 he decided to turn sailing into a career. He enrolled for a yachtmaster qualification while earning £50 a week as an apprentice at the sailing school (“my main responsibilities were cleaning bilges and unblocking toilets”) but was quickly promoted to skipper. While working with Sir Robin Knox-Johnson CBE (the first man to sail solo nonstop around the world, in 1968) his big opportunity came. “He was aware of what I wanted to do, so he took me on a Greenland expedition to check me out. At the end of the trip he gave me a job,” says Thomson.
That job turned out to be skippering one of the boats on the 1999 Clipper Round the World Race, in which amateur crews sail with an experienced skipper. Thomson’s crew won and, at 25, he became the youngest skipper ever to win a round-the-world race. One of the amateurs on his boat was entrepreneur Sir Keith Mills, with whom he founded Alex Thomson Racing in 2003. That same year, for the legendary Fastnet race, Hugo Boss became a team sponsor for the first time and have been involved as a title sponsor ever since.
It’s obviously a winning strategy for Hugo Boss, because the black and white Imoca 60 is an undeniable head-turner. Purchased in 2010 and adapted for single-handed circumnavigation of the globe, it is the most powerful boat in its class, and one of the most recognisable racing yachts in the world.
And, as public interest in round-the-world sailing shows no sign of letting up, Thomson has no doubts about why this is: “It’s about man versus the elements and people can relate to that,” he says. “It’s an inspirational thing.”
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