This Vendee Globe Yachtsman Races Non-Stop Around The World For 24,000 Miles Through Fields Of Icebergs And Howling Storms – Alone

Alex Thomson is the Brit sailor who came within a seal’s whisker of winning the last edition of the toughest around the world race, even though his 18.28m Hugo Boss yacht was broken for part of it. The physical and mental challenges of racing flat out for 80 days at sea are immense, but as Thomson exclusively reveals to RSNG, he has victory in his sights for the 2020-21 edition of the race, and aims to become the first ever Brit to top the podium…

RSNG How physically gruelling is the Vendée Globe around the world solo race? ALEX THOMSON, YACHTSMAN ‘The Vendée Globe is as extreme as ocean racing gets. Less than 50% of skippers who begin the race successfully finish it. I sleep in 20-40 minute intervals every 2-4 hours. In the 2016-2017 race, I didn’t sleep for more than one hour at any one time. The reason for that is that, whenever I’m sleeping, I’m sailing slower, so it’s a constant battle between making sure that I have enough sleep to be able to make the right decisions and perform in the way I need to, but not sleeping so much that I lose time over my competitors.’

‘Physically, the race takes its toll on the body. When I’m in the southern ocean I consume up to 7,000 calories a day in order to perform at the level I need. This race is a true test of mental and physical strength.’

RSNG What’s the hairiest moment of the race? AT ‘The Southern Ocean is renowned for its rapid winds and furious seas. You’re being slammed by waves and you’re in darkness a lot of the time. It’s completely relentless. When you’re facing those conditions, even moving around the boat is incredibly difficult.’

RSNG How will you go about preparing for the 2020-21 race? Is strength and fitness something you have to work on in the run up? AT ‘I train most days, whether that’s in the gym, on the bike, on a grinding machine [the hand winch that lifts and trims the sails] or on the boat, on the water. I work with a personal trainer who puts together a programme tailored to me. Sailing an IMOCA 60 is very physically demanding. Individual sails weigh up to 60kg (130lbs). When I’m competing, I’m on my own and so I focus a lot of my training on cardio and upper body strength. Ultimately, I need to be competitive for up to 80 days at sea so it’s important that I’m physically prepared to do that.’

RSNG What about the mental side? What’s the toughest thing about racing solo? AT ‘For me, the biggest challenge is overcoming the concept of not succeeding. The prospect of failure isn’t one that sits comfortably with me and so I have to work hard to remain positive and to keep pushing on, regardless of how big the set back is that I’m facing.’

I use the helicopter method – I visualise being above the boat, looking down at the situation

RSNG Does being alone makes things harder? AT ‘I’m asked a lot about loneliness at sea. People think that, because I’m alone for all those days, I must get lonely. But I’ve learned to separate loneliness and isolation, and to put things into perspective. In everyday life, most people wouldn’t regard three months as a long time so I try to remember that. For me, it’s also sometimes about breaking things down into smaller tasks.’

‘When things are going wrong, I’ll try not to focus on all the things I need to do in order to keep pushing on and stay in the race. Instead I’ll focus on each small task that is ahead of me. That can be as small as making some food! If I break things down in that way, everything seems more bearable.’

RSNG Do you have any psychological techniques for staying calm in a storm? AT ‘I work with a sports psychologist called Ken Way who worked with Leicester City for their winning Premier League campaign in 2015/16. I work with Ken on various techniques and visualisation exercises, one of which is called the ‘helicopter method’. I visualise being above the boat, looking down at the situation I’m in. It allows me to take a step back and to find calm in what is often a very stressful moment.’

RSNG How do you maintain your focus and mental energy when racing alone? AT ‘It’s tough. I always says that I’m a jack of all trades and master of none. I have to be the skipper, onboard medic, cook, meteorologist, engineer – everything! So staying focused is incredibly important. Sleep and nutrition plays a big part. If I’m sleep deprived or I haven’t eaten enough, inevitably I find making decisions more difficult and it’s probably fair to say that my decision making is hampered a bit. So I have to stay disciplined and make sure I get the right number of calories, and sufficient sleep, because if I don’t I now understand that it has a direct impact on my performance and decision making.’

RSNG Is there anything about solo racing that you prefer to working in a team? AT ‘I compete in both crewed (more than one person) races and single-handed. For me, I love the challenge of solo racing. I often joke that the best thing about racing solo is that you leave everyone behind and don’t have to answer to anyone! But in all seriousness there is something so pure and so demanding about competing in a race like the Vendée Globe. There is no bigger challenge in sport today and to be able to cross the finishing line knowing that you completed that challenge solo is a very special feeling.’

‘But although I race on my own, this is very much a team sport. When I start the race in 2020, my team will have spent four years preparing for that moment, dedicating everything they have to making sure that I am in the very best possible position to win. The rest is then up to me.’

RSNG No British team has ever won the Vendée Globe – how frustrating has it been to come third, then second, and how do you convert that frustration into desire and drive to go forward? AT ‘To have finished the race in third and second place is a testament to the work that my team puts in, and to the hours that are spent in the lead up to the race. It was an incredible feeling to cross the finishing line in 2017 in second place, particularly after suffering such an enormous blow when I lost one of the foils on the boat. But it was bitter sweet in some ways, as we knew how close we were to that victory and it was clear that our boat was considerably faster than my competitors.’

‘When I finished that race and I was immediately asked ‘Will you do it again?’ I knew the answer. Having finished third and second, as a team, we are prepared to give everything we have to win in 2021. With the team that we have put together and the boat that we are set to launch, we feel that is fully achievable.’

RSNG What was the practical effect of losing a foil in the last race and how much harder did that make the challenge? AT ‘Essentially, losing the starboard foil meant I couldn’t perform as well on port tack. This meant that my competitors would gain ground every time I was on the port tack. So I really had to maximise every opportunity I got when the wind was in my favour. It was an enormous setback and one that cost us the race. But what it did show us was just how fast our boat was. If that hadn’t happened, it would have been interesting to see how quickly we could have finished the race.’

The maximum hull thickness of HUGO BOSS is just 2.5mm (0.01 inches) but it has to sail non-stop around the world

RSNG The technology that goes into the yachts these days is astounding – what’s the most impressive fact or figure from the current boat? AT ‘The maximum hull thickness of HUGO BOSS is just 2.5mm. That’s pretty impressive when you consider that that boat has to sail non-stop around the world!’

RSNG Tell us about the new HUGO BOSS IMOCA 60 yacht being built for your bid to win the 2020-21 Vendée Globe? AT ‘While our existing boat is still on the water (she’ll race in November this year, in the Route du Rhum), we are now building the new HUGO BOSS boat, which we aim to launch in June 2019. A lot of my time right now is dedicated to that process, which involves working with the technical team here at Alex Thomson Racing (ATR), as well as our naval architects, VPLP, and our boat builders Carrington Boats Ltd.’

‘While I can’t give too much away at the moment, the new boat will be significantly different. Our aim is to build the lightest, strongest, most reliable boat in the fleet. If we do that, I believe we can become the first non-French team to win the Vendée Globe. We’ve also spent time focusing on sustainability during the design process. We intend to complete the race without using any fossil fuels and we’ll also be implementing some interesting sustainable components onboard the boat.’

RSNG Could you build a boat that would be too fast and responsive for a human helm to handle? If so how do you balance absolute performance against human endurance? AT ‘When we design and build a new boat, we continually consider the human element. Yes, speed is crucial and we want to build the fastest boat we can. But that boat cannot be beyond the capabilities of me as the solo skipper. It’s a constant battle between speed and reliability. As Sir Robin Knox-Johnston said to me: ‘To finish first, first you have to finish’.’

RSNG What’s the most exciting moment for you in a race? AT ‘Winning. I am a hugely competitive person so nothing beats the feeling of crossing the finish line and bringing home a victory.’

RSNG Where do you see the toughest competition coming from in the 2020-21 Vendée Globe? AT ‘We believe six new boats are being built for the race (including ours). I would therefore say that any of those boats could be potential winners of the race. In the races leading up to the Vendée, we will begin to get a feel for who could be ‘ones to watch’. After the last two editions of the race, we are among the favourites.’

RSNG What advice would you have for anyone wanting to get into yacht racing, given that some skills transfer over from sailing smaller boats? AT ‘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 NEXT? Watch Alex Thomson’s Hugo Boss yacht in action in the 2016-2017 Vendée Globe…

This November Alex Thomson will compete in the Route du Rhum – a 3,542 nautical mile single-handed yacht race between Saint Malo, France, and Guadeloupe, Caribbean.

Follow the writer @the_adventure_fella