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Mar 12, 2018

Vendee Globe sailor Alex Thomson talks about life on the oceans

Tony James speaks to Vendee Globe sailor Alex Thomson about life sailing and racing on the world's oceans

Three months of danger and isolation, 60-foot waves in freezing seas, fitful sleep, permanently wet clothes and the knowledge that whatever happens, you’re on your own. One experience of that is surely enough for anyone.

Meet a man who has done it four times, lived to tell the tale – and can’t wait to do it again.

Only hours after he came second in last year’s non-stop round-the-world Vendee Globe single-handed yacht race, falling short of his dream to become the first non- French winner, by a mere 12 hours, 43-year-old Alex Thomson had thrown his hat into the ring for the 2020 instalment of the world’s most gruelling sailing contest.

“If I can put together a competitive campaign and we can take things to the next level, we’ll go for it,” he said, and that’s what he’s done. Backed by his long-time sponsors, German luxury fashion house, Hugo Boss and a consortium of other partners, the build of Thomson’s new 60 ft IMOCA class racer will start in May, but not surprisingly other details remain a secret.

Technical problems dogged Thomson’s last bid, and lessons have been learned. “The biggest challenge of the Vendee Globe is that you have to produce a boat fast enough to win and strong enough to finish,” he told us. “This time we’ve got to be better, faster, more organised and more reliable.”

Thomson knows better than most that the Vendee takes no prisoners. The race rules are brutally simple: no stopping, no prepared routes, no help with repairs and no assistance if ill or injured. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

He will once more leave behind his wife, Kate, and two young children, Oscar and Georgia, who will be ten and six by the time of the next Vendee. “I’m used to being away from home but I know it’s harder for them,” Thomson says.

He could be forgiven for wondering if it would finally be fourth time lucky when he led the 2016-17 event in the early stages, breaking two race records and was 100 miles in front when a hydrofoil was ripped off his boat in mid-November. By Christmas he was nearly 1,000 miles behind his fierce rival, Frenchman Armel Le Cleac’h and would have been forgiven for calling it a day.

Thomson doesn’t think like that. For him the race wasn’t over until it was over: he cracked on, despite further technical problems, setting a new record of 536 miles sailed solo in 24 hours and slowly and painfully, Le Cleac’h’s massive lead was whittled down.

Eventually Thomson lost by a mere 12 hours after one of the most thrilling chases in elite ocean sailing.

No one who knows Thomson doubted that he would want to enter his fifth Vendee Globe in 2020, and so, with the luck conspicuously missing last time, fulfil his lifelong dream of winning sailing’s greatest solo offshore race.

He matched Dame Ellen MacArthur’s 2001 second place finish and broke his own British record for the fastest solo circumnavigation in a monohull, but although he was delighted to be home in one piece and reunited with his family, it was obvious that for him the job wasn’t finished.

“I’m happy to be in second place and maybe next time it will be one better” he told a post race press conference. “A third, a second –it’s easy to see what comes after this.”

The sea has been Thomson’s life for as long as he can remember. His grandfather had a house on a tiny island off Jersey where the family spent idyllic holidays sailing, swimming and fishing for crabs and lobsters.

Thomson claims he was usually an outsider at the 11 schools he went to as his family moved around the world. “I didn’t want to be one of the others – I wanted the difficult side because it made it more interesting. I became good at making the best of difficult situations.

“My dad was a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot so we always lived near the water. I got into windsurfng at 11, then dinghy-sailing, then yachts. I did my first offshore race in 1995 and found my vocation. My job was my hobby and it’s the best job in the world.”

Thomson first reached public attention when he became the youngest skipper to win a roundthe- world race – the 1998 Clipper competition.

Crewing for him was Air Miles magnate Sir Keith Mills, the key figure behind the successful London bid for the 2012 Olympics and the mentor responsible for Thomson breaking into the solo sailing circuit and later moving into the big-time IMOCA class.

Mills helped to arrange Thomson’s Hugo Boss sponsorship in 2003, which has now become one of the longest and most envied partnerships in sailing. Recently, Boss extended the deal until 2021 to include backing Thomson’s boat, team and campaign for the 2020 Vendee Globe.

“Alex is an outstanding sportsman and for us a great brand ambassador,” says Hugo Boss CEO Mark Langer. “Together with him and his team we can look back on many incredible moments both on and off the water. We are delighted to continue our successful partnership.”

Thomson certainly gives good value away from elite sailing with a series of daredevil stunts which include calmly walking up the 95ft mast and across the keel of his IMOCA 60 sailing at full speed at a suicidal angle and combining his two loves of sailing and kite boarding by pursuing his boat on a kite and jumping on board from a height of 280 ft.

He completed the James Bond image by wearing a slim-line stretch-wool top of the range Hugo Boss suit, shades and a watch. How cool is that?

Sponsored by Boss, Thomson had his first crack at the Vendee in 2004 but had to retire after damage to a boom fitting and four years later was forced out with a cracked hull after a collision. In 2012 he came a very respectable third in an older-generation boat, which only increased his determination to become the first non-French winner of the race they call “the Everest of the sea.”

Thomson reckons it’s more difficult than that. “Half the people who start the Vendee Globe don’t finish,” he says, passing on the round-the-world sailor’s favourite fact: over 4,000 people have climbed Everest, over 500 have been into space, but the number sailing nonstop round the globe has barely reached three figures.

Thomson has had his share of high-profile incidents, including a mid-ocean rescue in the 2006 Velux 5 Oceans race. The boat was later found on a remote South American beach.

In 2015, competing in the Transat Jacques Vabre race from France to Brazil, Thompson’s ten million Euro Boss yacht had to be abandoned after it was rolled over by a rogue wave.

“As soon as you leave sight of land, your boat feels really small. It’s humbling. It makes me understand how small we are as a human race and how powerful the ocean is. It’s strange that our planet is called Earth when most of it is covered by water. We know less about our oceans than we do about the Moon.”

And the future? “Being at sea five months of the year has become normal for me,” Thomson says. “ I don’t know what else I’d do if I didn’t sail. I’ve thought about it because at some point I’ll have to stop.

“Will I ever be satisfied? I don’t know. To me, success is winning the Vendee Globe. After that? We’ll just have to see.

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