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Sporting Heroes: Alex Thomson

Meet the man who recently scaled the 'Everest of Sailing'. We chat to British sailor Alex Thomson about life on the waves

Alex Thomson captured the imagination of a nation with his thrilling assault on the Vendée Globe. Over the course of the solo, round-the-world yacht race Thomson spent 74 days, 19 hours and 35 minutes at sea, breaking two race records in the early stages. Ultimately he finished second to French yachtsman Armel le Cleac'h, who required a record time to edge home in front of his British challenger. This is a remarkable man in his own words.

How did you get into sailing?

I started sailing as a young child. The first watersport I tried was windsurfing when I was eleven, then dinghy sailing when I was fourteen. My dad was a search and rescue pilot in Gosport, so we lived close to the water and I always loved to be out on the water. Since then I’ve never been far from the sea; it’s always been important for me to live close to the water, even when I’m not on it. For me, sailing presents the ultimate challenge; it requires me to push myself to the limit, both physically and mentally and allows me to put everything I have into competing. I completed an apprenticeship with Clipper Ventures and worked really hard to become a skipper in the 1998/99 Clipper Round the World Race. It was after I had won this race that I decided to go pro. You don’t do this for the money though; you do it for the love of it.

What’s the best thing about being a professional sailor?

I get to sail a boat designed just for me. If you were in to cars it’s basically the equivalent of being able to build a custom-racing machine. And when I say custom, I mean someone has taken a mould of your rear end and they have moulded a seat to suit your exact dimensions. When it comes to boys toys it doesn’t get any better than this!

And the worst?

Being away from my family. It’s tough spending so much time alone at sea with my wife and kids back home, but I have to remind myself that it is my decision to do this. Communications onboard are now a lot more advanced than they were years ago though, so I’m able to speak to my family most days when I race, which makes a big difference.

What would you say is your biggest achievement to date?

My greatest achievement so far is coming second in the last edition of the Vendée Globe.

What’s the biggest misconception about life as a sailor?

The reality is it’s brutal: there are no real comforts when you race around the world, it is possibly the most unglamorous thing you could do. However I love it and I am fortunate enough to be able to race professionally. Sailing is a great sport to push your own boundaries. As well as being a great team sport, even as a solo racer I have a fantastic team around me. Your readers should pop down to their local sailing club and they will find plenty of free or inexpensive ways to get on the water. There are sailing clubs all over the country and several initiatives have been launched to get kids into sailing. The clubs are all over London and dotted around the country on the coast and inland where we are blessed with lots of lakes and reservoirs so no excuses!

How do you relax before a big race?

I don’t relax before the race; it is all about preparing right up until you leave the dock. I try and get as much sleep as possible before embarking on something like the Vendée Globe. I used to try and adjust my body clock before a race but that was absolute hell so now I rest up ahead of the race start and prepare myself for a first week of very little sleep.

Congratulations on your brilliant Vendee Globe! What do you learn about yourself while spending 74 days at sea?

Thank you! The greatest thing I learnt in this last race was how to keep myself motivated. It would have been very easy after the foil was damaged to just think ‘Game over’. I worked on a technique we prepared before I started the race. After the incident with the foil I focused on small goals, such as ‘I must eat well tomorrow’. Once this was achieved I focus on the next goal, and then the next, little triumphs all the way round the world.

Do you talk to yourself – apparently it’s quite common during long periods of solitude?

Fortunately, although I am on my own, I have a satellite phone onboard so I can talk to my loved ones and team every day, signal permitting. You may also have seen the video diaries I made during the race, so there are ways of staying in communication with other people despite not having any face-to-face human contact when I’m competing. When I get into the Southern Ocean often I am joined by albatrosses. They’re amazing creatures and they glide effortlessly above the boat and above the water. Despite the isolation I look at that bird and it gives me comfort. Often I name them and talk to them.

When do you find the time to sleep and for how long?

I aim to sleep for 20-40 minutes every two to four hours. It can be quite scary on deck, and when the adrenaline’s pumping to keep you focused (and ultimately alive!) it can make it very difficult to sleep. In this Vendée Globe, for the first time, I wore a bracelet that would give me a nasty electric shock if I slept through my alarm.

And dare we even ask about toiletry arrangements…?

There is no functioning toilet onboard HUGO BOSS. What I use is an anti-tip over carbon fibre bucket.

What’s the single hardest thing about sailing in the Vendee Globe?

The Vendée Globe is known as the ‘Everest of Sailing’ for a reason. It’s a combination of factors that makes this race as extreme as it is - two-and-a-half months alone at sea, wind speeds in excess of 70mph and waves as high as ten storey buildings. All of this needs to be tackled on minimal sleep, and a diet of freeze-dried food. Communication with the outside world is limited and, if anything goes wrong, it’s typically only my fellow skippers who would be in a position to rescue me. So, all in all, I think it’s fair to say this is the toughest sporting challenge on the planet.

What’s your favourite area in the world in which to sail?

I am really looking forward to returning to the Caribbean with my family this Easter. My wife has booked us a Dream Yacht Charter holiday and we will be sailing around the Islands and enjoying the time together as a family.

What makes a great sailor?

You can’t get too high or too low. You have to expect the unexpected. I work with sports psychologist Ken Way who also, interestingly, worked with Leicester City for their winning campaign last season. Whenever I’ve got an upcoming challenge that I need to overcome, I work with Ken on visualization exercises. I visualize being above the boat. It allows me to see that there are no obstacles in my way, which calms me down. So I think that ability to overcome the mental challenges that the sport can bring is a huge part of it. But, ultimately, you also have to love, and be committed to, the sport.

And what makes a great yacht?

Speed and reliability. For this boat, the attention to detail that went in to every stage of the design and build was taken to the next level, to make sure we had the lightest, and therefore the fastest, boat we’ve ever had. The boat was two years in the making and the build, which involved many of the same techniques and technologies deployed in Formula One, had a team of 30 working full-time on the project.

You’ve had a long relationship with Hugo Boss – how did that come about?

HUGO BOSS has been my sponsor since 2003 – it’s one of the longest standing partnerships in the sport, which we’re very proud of. Without sponsorship I couldn’t do what I do. BOSS’ support has allowed us to put forward a competitive campaign, time and time again, for key races including the Vendée Globe. And we have also had a lot of fun together over the years! We released a trilogy of stunts – The Keel Walk, The Mast Walk and The Skywalk which have now been watched by millions of people all over the world, which is quite amazing.

What advice would you give to an aspiring young sailor who wants to compete professionally?

Practice, practice, practice! Get out on the water as much as possible. For me, sailing a boat is as natural as walking down the street, and that is because I am so comfortable out on the water.

What are your ambitions for the future?

The aim is of course to put together a competitive campaign for the 2020 Vendée Globe. There are many components which need to come together in order for that to happen, but we very much hope to be in a position to challenge for that first place, which as a team we so desperately want. We’ve enjoyed third place, second place, now we really want to win.

What would you do as a profession if you weren’t sailing?

I originally wanted to be a helicopter pilot, believe it or not. When I was younger I went to get my eyes tested and they told me my eye sight was so bad that I couldn’t even join the Navy!

Do you have any piece of gear or clothing you particularly love?

When I am not on the water sailing I spend a lot of time travelling and always make sure I pack my Navy Travel line suit. I really like my HUGO BOSS regatta watch which has a picture of my boat on the case back and keeps me on time for all meetings whilst I am ashore.

Alex Thomson is sponsored by HUGO BOSS and Mercedes-Benz. For more info visit alexthomsonracing.com