Alex Thomson: In Pursuit of Sailing History
Published on January 30th, 2017
The eighth edition of the Vendee Globe attracted 29 IMOCA 60 skippers, representing four continents and ten nations, to take on the only non-stop solo round the world race without assistance.
Amid the field was Alex Thomson who sought to be the first British winner, who now upon his finish, shares in The Telegraph his remarkable attempt for sailing history…
Day 1: November 6th – Setting sail from Les Sables D’Olonne
Sailed out of Les Sables D’Olonne today to begin what I consider to be the toughest sporting event left in the world: the Vendée Globe.
This is my fourth attempt and as always, the atmosphere at the start was incredible. The little town really comes alive as hundreds of thousands of people come to wave the skippers off lining the banks of channel. It’s hard to describe the feeling other than to say that it is incredibly emotional, a moment you can never forget. The feeling is a little bittersweet.
Although I’ve been working for this moment for the past four years, and I am confident my boat Hugo Boss is one of the fastest in the fleet, if not the fastest, waving goodbye to my family never gets easier. My wife, Kate, worries when I’m away but she understands that my life ambition is to win the Vendee Globe. Georgia, my two-year-old, is too young to really be aware of what is happening. But Oscar, who is now six, is finding it difficult.
All being well I’ll be able to speak to them every day from the boat which makes all the difference in keeping my spirits up. It normally takes a week or so to settle into a routine in a race like this, so I know the next week will be tough. These first few weeks are all about getting into a rhythm with the boat and getting the boat in a good position down the Atlantic.
Day 7: November 12th – Taking the lead
As expected, the first week of this race has not been easy. I made a bad decision early on to gybe and head inland in a different direction to my competitors. Unfortunately, this didn’t pay off and I quickly realised it was a mistake, as I found myself drop from near the front of the field to ninth place. Incredibly frustrating. However, I know that stewing over it will do nothing.
I have worked really hard on my mental preparations this time around, working with my friend, the psychologist Ken Way – who also worked with Leicester City’s players last year when they won the Premier League title – and I have coping mechanisms in place now. Generally I am a pretty positive, can-do person. But I do have a tendency to be quite negative when I am really sleep-deprived.
Ken and I have worked on what we call the ‘Helicopter View, a visualisation technique which allows me to remove myself from the boat mentally and relax so that I can sleep when I need to. I also set myself targets – sometimes something as small as preparing and making some food for myself. If I feel I have achieved something, anything, it helps get me back on the path to feeling better. Small steps.
Anyway, I definitely paid for that early gybe and had to sacrifice sleep to focus solely on gaining speed – luckily that paid off today. I decided to go through the Canary Islands, passing Cape Verde to the west, whilst the rest of the fleet went around the islands. I came through the islands leading the fleet.
Day 14: November 19th – A frustrating setback
A terrible, terrible day. After all the build-up, the hard work after the capsize 12 months in the Bay of Biscay which effectively wrote off the boat, my Vendée hopes may be over just two weeks into the race. I had been making great progress at the front of the pack and was sleeping in my cabin when I awoke to a loud bang and the boat turned to the right quite aggressively. The rudder kicked up and I heard some kind of scrape on the hull. I rushed on deck and eased the main sheet when I noticed the starboard foil was no longer there.
I don’t know what happened – I can only assume we hit some sort of floating object as the loads were within the recommended parameters. In fact, as conditions have been bumpy I had retracted the foil by 30 per cent early this morning and was sailing rather conservatively.
It doesn’t look as if there is any damage to the hull so all I can do is sail on and see how I go. But I am struggling to stay positive. I am frustrated, angry, knowing the speed deficit I will now suffer on port tack and the thought that this might jeopardise my goal of being the first non-French winner of the Vendee Globe.
Day 30: December 5th – Overtaken by Armel
They were dark times after I lost my foil. I admit I sometimes just thought ‘what’s the point?’ I had to try really hard to stay positive. I am proud to say that I managed to turn it around. I passed Cape of Good Hope nearly two weeks ago, setting a new race record for the fastest time from Les Sables d’Olonne to the cape at the southern tip of Africa. And today I am passing Cape Leeuwin, Australia, the second of the three great capes and one of the key milestones in this race.
I am now in the Southern Ocean where the seas are heavy and the winds are fast and adapting to sailing without one foil has been a challenge. Frustratingly Armel overtook me a few days ago, taking the lead and setting a new race record between the two capes.
But I am learning how to sail HUGO BOSS on port tack without the starboard foil and she is still performing well. I am just trying to stay in contention for now, keep the boat safe and get out of here in one piece. Once we round Cape Horn I will focus on regaining the miles and closing the gap
Day 50: December 25th – Christmas At Sea
It has been a difficult week or two, haemorrhaging miles to Armel. But today I got the best Christmas present possible whilst being alone at sea on Christmas day. I rounded the infamous Cape Horn. Rounding the Horn means that I can now turn the bow back towards the finish and there is just over 6,000 miles to the finish.
I enjoyed a welcome break from my standard freeze-dried food today, tucking into a homemade Christmas cake and a tinned burger – perhaps not a traditional Christmas dinner, but a welcome change. Of course, I spoke with my wife and children and had a few present to open onboard.
Having left the Southern Ocean I now need to focus on closing the gap to Banque Populaire back to the finish. The weather is looking good for me to sail on starboard tack most of the way home which means I have a chance to catch Armel who is currently 448nm ahead, having at one stage held a lead of over 800nm.
Day 68: January 12th – Battle For The Lead
It’s hard to believe that 90 per cent of my race is finished and routing has me sailing into Les Sables d’Olonne around this time next week. At the moment I am behind Armel and it’s been a difficult couple of days. Having closed to around 80 miles the gap went back out to 200-plus. It is like elastic stretching and contracting. I will close on him and then he hits the next bit of wind first and opens up a lead again.
But I am gaining and I can feel the interest starting to build back home as people cotton on to the fact that I am still right in this. Interview requests have gone up exponentially while my team tell me the video which the French naval helicopter took of us in the Southern Ocean, and which BBC South is hosting on its website, has had over 6 million views. This kind of stuff gives me a real boost.
I have made a real effort in this race to engage with fans and on social media. The race needs that. I don’t think the policy of just being guarded with everything and not letting the public in s the right one. We need to get fans excited by the narrative, allow them to see what it’s like. I’ve also been making videos for my son Oscar, just to try to get him a bit of kudos at school if nothing else. I can’t wait to see him again next week. He has found this experience difficult.
For now, it is all about this last week. I haven’t had the use of any wind instruments since before Cape Horn so I am often sailing purely on instinct, a huge challenge in itself as I fear going to sleep and crash-tacking without the use of my auto-pilot, but I’m still in the fight, that’s the main thing. When my foil broke I thought it was all over for me. Anything now is a bonus.
Day 74: January 20th – Race Finish
It’s all over! It is an amazing feeling to have finished – it only sunk in a few hours before I reached the line but all of a sudden there were the team RIBs and the scrutineers and the media emerging out of the dawn light. It is a strange feeling seeing so many people after so long on your own. Kate came out on one of the boats with Oscar. Sensibly, given the -5c temperatures, they left Georgia at the hotel. It was very special seeing them, and my team mates. But we won’t really be able to catch up properly until later. For now, despite having slept just five hours in three days – and none at all in the last 24hrs – I have media duties to fulfil.
Sailing into Le Sables D’Olonne and seeing the crowds lining the canal is indescribable, no matter how tired you are there’s nothing like that sight. Although I’d love to have won I have to be happy with second place given my technical issues, and to have broken some records along the way, including a new 24hr distance record of 536.81nm.
Armel sailed an incredible race, though, and after coming second twice he deserved this win. He and his team have done a wonderful job and I’m very happy for them. People tend to think of sailing as an individual sport – especially in a solo race like this – but it really is all about the team, and I owe this result to my team who worked so hard both before and throughout the race. With luck it will be my turn next time. The fire still burns! But for now I just want to enjoy my time at home, spend time with my family, enjoy a burger and a beer, and catch up on some much needed sleep.
Ranking (Top 5 of 29)
1. Banque Populaire VIII, Armel Le Cléac’h (FRA), Finished, 74d 03h 35m 46s
2. Hugo Boss, Alex Thomson (GBR), Finished, 74d 19h 35m 15s (+15h 59m 29s)
3. Maître CoQ, Jérémie Beyou (FRA), Finished, 78d 06h 38m 40s (+4d 03h 02m 54s)
4. StMichel-Virbac, Jean-Pierre Dick (FRA), Finished, 80d 01h 45m 45s (+5d 22h 09m 59s)
5. Queguiner – Leucemie Espoir, Yann Elies, (FRA), Finished, 80d 03h 11m 09s (+5d 23h 35h 23s)
The eighth Vendée Globe, which began November 6 from Les Sables d’Olonn, France, is the only non-stop solo round the world race without assistance. Twenty-nine skippers representing four continents and ten nations set sail on IMOCA 60s in pursuit of the record time set by François Gabart in the 2012-13 race of 78 days, 2 hours and 16 minutes.
For the first time in the history of the event, seven skippers will set sail on IMOCA 60s fitted with foils: six new boats (Banque Populaire VIII, Edmond de Rothschild, Hugo Boss, No Way Back, Safran, and StMichel-Virbac) and one older generation boat (Maitre Coq). The foils allow the boat to reduce displacement for speed gains in certain conditions. It will be a test to see if the gains can topple the traditional daggerboard configuration during the long and demanding race.
November 12, Day 7 – Tanguy de Lamotte, Initiatives Coeur, masthead crane failure
November 19, Day 14 – Bertrand de Broc, MACSF, UFO collision
November 22, Day 17 – Vincent Riou, PRB, UFO collision
November 24, Day 19 – Morgan Lagravière, Safran, UFO collision
December 4, Day 29 – Kojiro Shiraishi, Spirit of Yukoh, dismasted
December 6, Day 31 – Kito de Pavant, Bastide Otio, UFO collision
December 7, Day 32 – Sébastien Josse, Edmond de Rothschild, foil damage
December 18, Day 43 – Thomas Ruyant, Le Souffle du Nord, UFO collision
December 24, Day 49 – Stéphane Le Diraison, Compagnie du Lit – Boulogne Billancourt, dismasted
December 24, Day 49 – Paul Meilhat, SMA, keel ram failure
January 1, Day 57 – Enda O’Coineen, Kilcullen Voyager-Team Ireland, dismasted
Source: Vendee Globe