Third Time Lucky
Four years ago Alex Thomson was looking at his beautiful black bullet of a new Hugo Boss shattered into a thousand pieces in the boatshed by the side of the dock Les Sables d’Olonne. At three in the morning, three and half weeks before the start, he and his crew were just outside the port waiting to deliver the boat when he had a contretemps with a French fishing boat. It left him with a hole in the hull, a broken mast in the water and crushed hopes.
Thomson made it to the start line – an achievement he calls the proudest of his career – but had to return to port and withdraw two days in as he began taking on water with six feet of carbon skin trailing out from a livid scar on the hull.
Little wonder that the former enfant terrible of ocean racing has a new, more humble slogan for his third Vendée Globe; “The first time was all about winning. The second time was about being at the start. Now I am focused on finishing.” But he is also quietly confident that this Vendée Globe is going to be all about reliability. He is in a different position this time because rather than having all of the focus and pressure of sitting on the dock with a new space rocket, he is in an older generation boat. This Hugo Boss was launched in 2007 and was the boat Sebastien Jose (BT) had in the last Vendée. It was forced to withdraw with rudder damage, but it is fast and solid. Most importantly, Thomson has bonded with it and has probably had his best ever year of sailing in it, covering 15,000 miles – more than half a Vendée Globe - and achieving some impressive results.
Thomson was second in the Transat Jacques Vabre with Guilermo Altadil in 2011 and then fourth in the single-handed B2B return journey. He then showed a new mixture of speed, stability and durability by setting a new west to east transatlantic record of 8 days 22 hours 8 minutes, smashing the old record by more than 24 hours, in July of this year.
Thomson is 38 and the proud father of a 21-month old boy (with his wife Kate), but he rejects the idea that he is a changed man. If you believe some of the press he has been through the ringer emotionally and physically in the last two years, does it feel like that?
“Well, I’ve got a kid (Oscar, with his wife, Kate), so that’s changed.”
It sounded like a tough time with the complications during the birth?
“I got appendicitis two days before the start of the Barcelona Race (the two-handed round the world race) and that allowed me to go back and see the birth of my kid,” he says. “I wouldn’t have seen Oscar born if that hadn’t happened. Then, I was due to go back to the race but he was diagnosed with a heart condition which in the end meant I couldn’t go.”
“Six months after that they gave him a totally clean bill of health so the reality was in the end I didn’t go and do a round the world race big deal, I saw my kid being born, we went through some heartache with him possibly being very ill but he subsequently got better. We don’t even really think about it now, I’ve got a kid (he smiles), we love him.
Only the slight catch, barely audible, in his voice halfway through his matter-of-fact description, hints at deeper emotion. Although, to be fair, he may just have had a frog in his throat.
“The nice thing since I’ve had Oscar is I’ve got a little bit more balance in my life I worry more about being away from home and where my family is has taken some priority which has been good for me.”
Has it helped his sailing?
“In this race they always say that there’s never been a winner that hasn’t got a child. As a sailor, as a person, I feel more responsibility than I did before. Over the years with everything that’s happened to me in these races I’ve just become more aware of what the risks are, I don’t think it’s changed me as a sailor. I don’t think I’m any different. Obviously, I have a reputation that everybody likes to tell me about and everyone wants to think that’s true that’s up to them. I still think I sail the boat the same way as I did before but I’m more aware of the risks.”
“I feel pretty complete now. What gives you confidence more than anything is miles. Everyone always says what’s important? ‘Time on the water’, there’s no substitute for it and we’ve done our time on the water and we’ve been relevant, doing a Transatlantic record and the way I did it - I had serious autopilot problems all the way across, couldn’t sleep properly - we not only tested the boat, but the team and me.”
Has he ever had such a good year?
“No, not since I started. It feels like the tide has turned a little bit. But then why has the time turned? It’s very easy to say that everything that has happened to me before is bad luck. Well, getting appendicitis is definitely bad luck, when I lost the boat in the Velux 5 Oceans (2006), yes, I lost the keel, but I chose the designer and I chose the builder and they were the only reasons why that keel could have broken, so ultimately the problem was down to me.”
“What we’ve done in the last five years which has changed is to bring in someone like Stewart (Hosford, the teams’s managing director) and what he is good at is processing systems. So, we’ve put in place a load of process that’s designed to capture as much of the detail as possible as opposed to leave it in people’s heads. That’s why we’re a better team, because we’re more organised, we’ve done a full risk assessment of every single component on this boat, it’s a very boring document, but that’s why we are different. That’s why the tide has turned.”