Thomson’s Turning Point

Published on January 21st, 2017

By Matt Sheahan
After 24,000 nautical miles and 74 days he was barely across the finishing line of the Vendée Globe and already declaring that he wanted another go.

Conditions were below zero as the sun rose over Les Sables d’Olonne. He had slept just five hours in the last three days and none in the last 24hours. He had declared he was ‘dangerously exhausted’ some days before. British solo sailor Alex Thomson was running on empty, finishing as the bridesmaid and yet already thinking of the next race.

Offshore sailors rarely say this. They have notoriously short memories, which allow them to recover quickly and go back out for another go, but few ever make such a bold statement so soon after a grueling race.

But Thomson is different. His story, a remarkable one in which one of the best known names in British offshore sailing has changed in front of our eyes in 12 months. More importantly, it’s clear that Thomson knows he has changed too.

From a bold, often fearless sailor with a reputation for keeping his foot hard to the floor longer than may have been good for him, Thomson has emerged from this 2016/17 edition as a determined, relentless, smart thinking long distance sailor. After a lifetime racing long distance offshore, his career has turned a corner, not simply because he improved his position in the Vendée Globe by one place, but because he knows he and his team have managed to arrange their ducks in a row in a way that has not been possible before.

The team has a fast boat, a smart sailor and the depth of experience that can only be gained from thousands of miles and regular attendance at the school of hard knocks.

As he was interviewed on the foredeck just minutes after crossing the line, it was also clear from his comments that he has spent months dealing with the agonising thought that if his starboard foil hadn’t broken the outcome could have been quite different.

“I’ve dealt with that,” he said when asked about how much the broken foil had hampered his performance. “It’s been the toughest part of this race. I’ve dealt with it and I really don’t want to discuss it anymore.”

It’s easy to understand his view. Many faced with the same position would have doubtless arrived at the finish barely concealing their bitterness about what could have been, blaming the broken foil. But Alex had been tortured by this from an early stage of the race and had dealt with it by looking forwards.

Speak to any solo sailor and they will tell you that dealing with your emotions is the toughest thing. From spine tingling excitement and highs to deep lows, sailing alone is an emotional roller coaster. Add the size of his campaign, the pressure of expectation, the uncertainly of the boat’s structural integrity and the fear of it happening again or worse and it is easier to begin to understand how much mental effort it would have taken to stay in control, let alone take 800 miles out of Armel Le Cleac’h’ lead on the return stretch.

Even then there was more to his transformation than a cruel blow in the opening stages of the race.

Just over a year ago he and his crew member Guillermo Altadill were stuck inside the then brand new upturned boat, 82 miles off the north coast of Spain. A terrifying experience in anybody’s language. Stepping back aboard the same boat to set off alone, for 24,000 miles took great strength of character, let alone the herculean task on the part of the team to get the boat repaired and afloat in time.

Thomson was quick to credit the team here and did so with respect and sincere gratitude. But it was clear once again that his mental battle around the world started a long time before he slipped his lines in Les Sables d’Olonne last November.

Back then, I like many, suspected that this would be Thomson’s last big push around the world. And as he threw everything he had at the first leg south towards the equator, it seemed easy to relate this single minded, focused state of mind to a personal pact that he had made that this was the big one. Now or never.

Whether this was true or not, 74 days later he returned a different man to the one we thought we knew.

He said he didn’t enjoy it as much as the previous one. He was quick to acknowledge the stress and struggled to remember the fun times or amusing events during his trip. But to those that watched his regular video blogs he was both entertaining and an inspiration, telling it how it was. Few sailors in contention for the lead would record themselves wincing as the boat slammed through waves at break neck speeds. Few would be prepared to reveal their nerves and fear as they counted out boat speeds rising into the 30 knot range – Thomson did and his story was captivating.

Of course, there’s time for him to change his mind, soften his views and settle back into life ashore. We all say thing in the heat of the moment that change as the dust settles. But Thomson doesn’t back track.

He knows his performance was more than a second place and a world speed record; it was a step up into another league.

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