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"I can only aim for first now." Alex Thomson is going for Vendée Globe glory

The Vendée Globe solo around-the-world race is one of the toughest sporting challenges on the planet. Alex Thomson has done it four times so far… Rhys Thomas finds out what it’s going to take to make it a fifth

I meet Alex Thomson aboard his new yacht. Well, I say yacht, it’s more like a cross between a boat and the batmobile – if Batman were sponsored by BOSS, that is. You’d definitely need Bruce Wayne’s budget to buy one of them: the revolutionary new yacht cost a whopping $7.7m. That’s a lot of money for a boat that doesn’t even have a bed.

But then you need a serious yacht, for a serious challenge. The Vendée Globe solo around-the-world race is one of the planet’s toughest sporting challenges. The concept is simple – even if the execution is anything but: to circumnavigate the world, alone, without stopping and without assistance.

Thomson is handsome, if weathered; his skin is sun-kissed in the way outdoor furniture is. He has shining white teeth that match the giant BOSS logo sprawled across the yacht’s hull. He is notably ripped beneath his suit jacket – and speaks powerfully and fast, but with a controlled pace. Like a man full of energy and discipline in equal measure.

We conduct the interview inside the cockpit, which is uniquely placed within the yacht, not outside. Not only does this help make the boat lighter, but it offers much-needed protection from the elements too.

You can’t help but feel a little Robin to Thomson’s Batman inside the boat. (Although, I had to remove my shoes because of their hard soles, which left me in my socks. A small hole on one of the big toes did somewhat ruin the superhero vibe.)

The yacht, simply called BOSS, can reach 40 knots – so 46mph. If you’re going against the waves that fast, there’s a lot of water going over the top of the boat. “Normally I’d be cold and wet and miserable. So the idea of this is to keep me dry and comfortable. I can rely on technology to help me see around the boat. [There are at least a dozen monitors where you’d normally expect a windscreen in a car.] It’s safer and lighter, and so far no issues.”

And it looks cool, I add.

“It does,” Thomson grins.

This is a nice yacht, Alex. How did you end up racing these around the world?

Growing up, my father was a search and rescue helicopter pilot, so we moved all around the world as kids while he was doing it, which I loved. I wanted to be like my dad all my life; I wanted to pilot a big chopper.

But this all changed when I was 17, having my medicals before I was to begin learning to fly. The optician told me my eyes were so bad I couldn’t even be a seaman in the Navy, let alone a pilot. It totally changed my life.

I was in love with extreme sports and adventure: I was windsurfing and doing a bit of dinghy sailing too, and I decided to see where I could take it.

So I became a windsurfing instructor. While doing that, I became curious about boats, so I joined a sailing school.

I found what I loved doing and it all built up from there: learning to sail properly, training, races, more races, longer races…

Talk us through the yacht we’re aboard…

It’s pretty much all carbon fibre. Where possible we’ve taken out the layer you typically put between two walls of carbon to save weight. So on the doors, for example.

There’s also some titanium, where we need metal, because it is light and doesn’t rust.

We need to build the boat early enough to make sure it’s reliable. Fifty per cent of people don’t finish the Vendée Globe. It’s a balance between performance and reliability. Normally, the better a yacht performs, the less reliable it is. It’s a real challenge for us – to make sure it can go all the way around the world.

What’s your least favourite part of the course to sail?

I split it into three sections. The race to the Southern Ocean; the Southern Ocean itself; and the race back. For me, the only race is the race there. As long as you’re then alive at the end of the Southern Ocean, you’ll be fine – you just maintain the boat all the way home. So the Southern Ocean is the most dangerous, but also the one we as sailors want to go to. It’s
a yin and yang situation.

What’s the best thing about your job?

I love how when you go out on the ocean, you know how small we are – the human race, that is. It gives you real perspective.

And this is the fifth time you’ll have taken on the challenge?

Yeah, the first two I didn’t finish, then I came third, and then second. So I’m at a 50% success rate. But that’s a good thing, because I can only aim for first now. I’m thinking: fuck it, let’s swing hard and try to hit the ball out of the park. Normally I wouldn’t, but I have nowhere else to go.

What are the main changes between this yacht and the one you came second in?

Hydrofoils are the biggest difference; they’re what makes the boat slippery on the outside. Our concept was to get the boat as slippery as possible, letting the materials do the work.

We pretty much fly on this boat – literally. The back end is occasionally not in the water, and the bow can be 4m in the air at any point. What goes up does come down pretty hard though, which is why the insides are padded.

The other one is the solar panels. In the last race I carried 225 litres of diesel – that’s the most efficient way of putting power in. But I think we’ve reached the point where solar technology is super efficient. I have the same area of solar panels on my house as I do on this boat – and my electricity at home is practically free.

So if I can utilise solar power here, I can save 225 litres of weight. Which, when you consider the fact that I’m prepared to pay around £4,000 to shave a kilo of weight from the boat, is a huge saving.

Who had that idea?

Me, actually. I thought: it’s one person and one boat, and total self-sufficiency. I even make my own clean water on here [by collecting sea water and filtering it]. If I can do that and sail this boat around the world on my own, and then say I did that without any fossil fuels, or I used 20 litres instead of 225, and I won – it’s quite a statement I think.

There’s nothing in here but walls, floors, the steering mechanism and screens. Where do you sleep?

I haven’t decided yet. There’s a seat up there [he points to a foldout chair that looks a bit like a lifeguard’s chair at the leisure centre] but I’m not sure yet. I want to be as close to those handles as I can. The sooner I get my hands on them in the morning, the better.

And what training does this take?

It’s pretty never ending. Physically, these sails are bloody heavy and you spend a huge amount of time [the last winner competed the race in 74 days] working them, so you have to hit the gym and eat well, and often. 

The mental side is what I’m really into though. Mental health is top of the agenda, as it always should be, and I work with my psychologist – who helped Leicester City on their way to winning the Premier League – on a lot of mental techniques to help me deal with the emotions and different challenges.

I can’t actually speak to him when I’m on the race as I’m not allowed assistance of any kind, so we have to think of the challenges that I could face, and techniques I'll need to use to cope with them, beforehand.

What techniques do you use?

There’s a lot of hypnotherapy involved. Now, I’m an emotional person: unlike most yachtsmen, you can get a lot of words out of me. I wear my heart on my sleeve – if I’m performing badly I’m pissed off, and my discipline just goes.

I won’t sleep or eat; I’ll just work.

That’s no good. But what’s worse for me is that when I’m doing well, I’m elated – and then I get complacent. To take away the complacency, what we did is recreate that feeling of invincibility and relate it to a near car crash, where you slam on the brakes and feel a rush of adrenaline. So by practising, now when I feel elated I get a shot of adrenaline to keep me in check. It’s an absolutely amazing thing to be able to do. 

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The next Vendée Globe starts on 8 November, 2020. For more information, go to vendeeglobe.org

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