Joining round the world solo sailor Alex Thomson on the high seas and discovering sailing’s a lot tougher than we thought

Words: Warren Pole

Photos: Alastair Pullen

(Outdoor Fitness)

TO THE UNINITIATED, sailing is not a tough sport but more of a leisure activity for those with deep pockets that, at its hardest, means bobbing about for a few hours before retiring to the nearest Michelin-starred eatery to plunder your way through both the menu and the wine list with equal gusto. But to see sailing in this light alone would be to miss the point. 

After all, our fair island has form when it comes to extreme seafaring from pioneering old school heroes of Raleigh, Drake and Nelson to modern legends like Ben Ainslie with his record breaking medal haul from five Olympics, Ellen Macarthur, the fastest woman to lap the globe alone, and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who was the first ever person to ever sail solo around the world back in 1969.

Now, for a thoroughbred hard core sailing remains one of the last bastions of adventure, grit and courage, a sport more akin to Polar exploration or high altitude mountaineering in its hardships, dangers and battles with the elements. Among this breed, Alex Thomson is one of the elite, and just before this year’s Vendee Globe race I joined him aboard his race boat to sail 450 miles from Portsmouth to Les Sables-d’Olonne in northern France for the start of the event.

I’m no sailor. In fact, before this little jolly the sum total of my boating experience amounted to the odd car ferry, several misguided Spanish pedalo ventures and a trip to the Isle of Wight. Hardly the stuff of legend, and nothing like the required skill level to hop aboard a three million pound racing yacht.

But opportunities like this are not to be missed at any cost, and so I found myself on the jetty in Portsmouth one Sunday morning as Thomson and his team made last minute adjustments to the most incredible yacht I’d ever seen.

60 feet long, glistening chromes silver and with a body made entirely of carbon fibre, it sat menacingly in the still marina waters looking more like a spaceship than a boat and hopping aboard it rapidly became clear it was built for speed and nothing else. Anything that may have added unnecessary weight had been jettisoned, which meant no creature comforts whatsoever. No furniture, no insulation for either warmth or soundproofing, no bathroom, no kitchen and no toilet. It was nothing but a hollowed out shell of pure performance.


Pure unadulterated boat porn and as fast as hell with it

And it needs to be because the Vendee Globe is perhaps the most extreme sporting challenge on the planet. If you think this sounds like hyperbole, check the facts: a solo, round-the-world yacht race, successful competitors take three months to reach the finish – that’s three non-stop months of sailing all day, every day, much of it in treacherous waters and all of it cut off from human interaction. Entrants can, at best, expect to snatch two or three hours' sleep a day, all of those on the move.

Thomson explains it’s quite possible to sleep on board, even when battened down below as a storm rages outside but freely admits, “you do lie there thinking you’re going to die sometimes. You just have to control your mind”, which sounded like an understatement to say the least.

Added to this there’s the small matter of rescue, or rather lack of it, should things go pear-shaped, which over three months and almost 28,000 miles is almost guaranteed at some point whether in the form of illness, mechanical malfunction, storm damage or accident. Of 108 starters since the race’s inception, only 39 have ever made the finish. Three have lost their lives trying.

For most of the race competitors are far beyond the reach of rescue helicopters, and for large chunks, most notably in the Southern Ocean where there is no shipping traffic, they are beyond help from other passing vessels. Their only escape will be if another competitor is near enough to reach them, but by this stage of the race ‘near’ could easily mean a couple of days away – rather too long when you’re boat’s on its way down.

The games the human mind plays in situations like these are as extreme as the race itself.

“It’s like solitary confinement at times,” Thomson says. “When you’re in that boat in the Southern Ocean, it’s like being sat in a rally car at top speed, but with no windows, no lights and no brakes. It’s night time, it’s pouring with rain, and your brain’s going telling you it’s all over and that you have no control over what happens next. You don’t know where the icebergs are, whether you’re going to hit a whale, if a massive wave’s going to break over you, if your mast’s going to fall down, anything. You have to deal with all of these thoughts in your mind. It’s not pleasant”.

“Whenever you look at the competitors in this race, the one quality they all share is mental toughness. They are a breed apart,” says Ken Way, a sports psychologist who has worked with Thomson for years. “Many sports are tough, but in the worst case you can always simply stop. This simply doesn’t apply in the Vendee Globe – there is no stopping until the finish. I marvel at what these guys do”.

So what drives Thomson to do it? His answer is as short as it is fast.

“The challenge. Around 3,000 people have climbed Everest but fewer than 100 have ever sailed around the world and only 70 have ever managed it in race conditions,” he says with a characteristic grin as the ropes are cast off and we putter out towards the open water beyond. And I do mean putter. The motor on Thomson’s boat is purely for getting in and out of port, and as excess weight is to be avoided at all costs, it is tiny with barely enough power to pull the skin off a rice pudding.


Only one of these people knows what he's doing...

But as the yacht’s vast sails – set to such taught perfection they look more like a pair of 747 wings – fill with wind we begin to fly. A glance at the instrument panel shows we are, somehow, traveling slightly faster than the wind propelling us. A neat trick indeed. Especially as our comfortable cruising pace hovers around 15 knots – roughly three times the speed of a regular sailboat and not even half this craft’s top speed. Yet in these early hours with the sun high in a clear sky and a gentle swell on the water, the experience is pretty benign.

It wouldn’t last.

My first indication this may not be plain sailing came as night fell and the waves rose up. Rocking turned to battering as the boat, still strung out for max speed, bounced off the waves we were creaming through. To add to the fun, the horizon that I now realised had been doing such a sterling job of keeping my stomach in check all day was gone in the gloom. With depth perception removed from the black around us it suddenly felt like we were traveling at 200mph.

If you can imagine 200mph, in the dark, on a waltzer (with no seats) that never stops, you will have an idea of where I was at by this stage.

Perhaps a kip down below would sort me out? Perhaps indeed, but I’d have to get there first. Pitch black, barely tall enough to crouch in and pitching about like a runaway train, it was a close call whether I could get out of my waterproofs and into my sleeping bag before throwing up. Thankfully, I made it, and was then treated to the delights of sleeping between several bags of sails while being thrown about like a pair of trainers in the washing machine.

Unbelievably, sleep came easily, although fitfully, and when I was pitched awake I was treated to sights that better resembled a crazed horror flick. Ropes and gear swayed madly in the sickly glow of the massive navigation screen that formed the centerpiece of the ‘room’, while occasionally Thomson could be seen lurching about merrily, headtorch bobbing, as he casually checked our course.

All the while the wafer thin carbon fibre hull amplified every crash and roar of the water outside like a giant drum, and the impression of speed leapt again, to what now felt like Mach three.

Inevitably I saw midnight in from the back of the boat while saying goodbye to my dinner, and then spent the rest of the night slumped in a corner of the cockpit where at least the frigid night breeze gave me a chance of staying alive. It also meant I saw dawn break and the subsequent reappearance of the horizon with the gratitude of a death row inmate being given an eleventh hour pardon.

Stumbling back onto dry land in France 30 hours after leaving Portsmouth I felt like I’d been 15 rounds with Tyson. Thomson on the other hand looked like he’d undergone nothing more taxing than a stroll to the shops. A breed apart indeed.

Mind games

According to Thomson’s sports psychologist Ken Way, “there are three key mental qualities for success in this sport:

“The first is self belief. Most of us fluctuate in terms of self belief, but sailors like Alex don’t.

“The second is emotional flexibility, being able to identify when your mood isn’t helping and being able to alter that mood, and the third is resilience.

“I’ll make Alex imagine worst case situations and push him into an emotional place where he doesn’t want to be. Visualising the worst that can happen and how you’ll deal with it is much better than just imagining success – that can make people believe they’ve made it before they actually have, and as a result they can end up not working hard enough for their goal”.

Getting physical

Thomson’s personal trainer Shaun Biddulph says training for the Vendee Globe was as much about strength as it was cardio.

“We used cardio for heart strength to boost recovery. In the race he may be asleep one minute then suddenly need to shift a 100kg sail, change course and move the boat – the stronger your cardio fitness, the faster you can recover, the better you can react.

“Through years of extreme sailing Alex already has a strong grip, shoulders and back, but we worked on that too, even having a grinder* built with its flywheel in a water tank for extra resistance.

“Finally, core work, loads of it. He will be on a permanently unstable platform in the race, so any exercise you could do standing, we did with him on a half Swiss ball”.

(*a hand-turned crank that raises and lowers the boat’s massive sails. Normally a two-man job, Thomson will have it to himself for this race)

To follow the race go to www.vendeeglobe.org

For Thomson's own website visit www.alexthomsonracing.com


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