Solo sailing with the FT: Alex Thomson

There’s not a lot of room down here, is there?” says Alex Thomson, with huge understatement. We’re below deck on an Open 60 boat, moored in Haslar Marina before we take it out into the channel off Hampshire. The vessel, the Hugo Boss, is identical to the one that the 38-year-old sailor will attempt to race single-handedly around the world next month. “It’s called the coffin,” Thomson says, pointing out how dark and small the cabin is.

Thomson will be competing in the 26,000-mile Vendée Globe, the only single-handed, non-stop, round-the-world race – arguably the ultimate test in ocean racing. It takes place every four years, and Thomson and his team have been preparing for three-and-a-half years for this one, which leaves Les Sables-d’Olonne, on the west coast of France, in November.

“It’s very much a team event – there are 15 of us, and we have one goal: to win,” he declares. Indeed, so intensely competitive is the race – which lasts about three months – that even the cabin must go unpainted: “Paint would add to the boat weight, and weight’s something we’re desperate to keep to a minimum,” he says.

After the darkness of life below, we climb on to the deck, where it’s a fairly treacherous environment. Not only is there very little room to move, but there is also a colossal number of ropes and levers to trip over. “People who are used to dinghy sailing have no idea how technical it all is,” he says, as he yanks ropes, clambers up sails and then takes the boat into the open sea, where it tips rather elegantly on to its side and soars through the waters.

There’s no doubt that lifting up those huge sails, grinding and adjusting them with every change in the wind, is enormously hard physically – but then there’s the rush of the heady feeling you get as the boat gains speed and sweeps majestically out to sea.

Alex Thomson (right): 'The race is hard, emotionally and physically. You get destroyed, to be honest'

During the race Thomson must snatch his sleep in 20- to 40-minute naps every three to four hours, though even then he will be totally attuned to the vessel. “When I’m asleep downstairs I can tell by the noise the boat’s making exactly how much wind there is and whether something’s wrong,” he says. “There are these subtle changes that you’re alert to, and that you only get with years of experience.”

Feeling the lift and movement of the boat as the wind catches the sails, combined with the lovely endlessness of the seas and the skies, is an uplifting experience. But, says Thomson, “For me it’s not about that. Sure – you see some fantastic sights, like dolphins every day, but I do it because I love the challenge and I love boats.

“I’m in a position where I can design the boat I want so it’s exactly right for me. Then I get to test it in the toughest physical challenge imaginable.” In fact, he adds, “Did you know there are about 50 times as many people who’ve climbed Everest as have sailed around the world? Only 68 have raced around the world. That’s a great group to be part of.”

Thomson first took to the ocean on a windsurfer when he was 11. He began dinghy sailing at 14, moving on to yachts at 21. He did his Yachtmaster Award so that he could make money teaching, and carried on sailing whenever he had the time. In 1999 he won the Clipper Round the World race. He was just 25, making him the youngest skipper ever to win. It was the start of a successful professional career that saw him smash the solo transatlantic sailing record by more than 24 hours earlier this year.

“That was incredible for me, but the Vendée is the big race,” he says. “I’ve raced it twice before, in 2004 and 2008, but structural faults with the boat meant I had to retire both times.”

The race, he says, “is hard, emotionally and physically. You get destroyed, to be honest.” He has been in the gym for up to 10 hours a week to get into the best possible shape for the coming physical onslaught. “You end up with chicken legs, because you mainly work the upper part of your body on a boat,” he explains. “The theory is to try not to lose weight during the race, but when you’re eating dried food, cured ham and tortilla wraps for months, it can be difficult.”

It also takes months to recover: “I always get ill because I’ve been in a cocoon away from any bugs, then I come back to germs.”

Thomson, whose son is not yet two, knows that one of his biggest battles will be with the crushing loneliness and the huge desire to be back with his family. “It can be overwhelming,” he tells me, even though he will have phone and radio contact. He is trying to prepare by talking to a sports psychologist.

The race itself will be in turns boring, exhilarating and frightening. He has had some pretty scary experiences in the past, such as, in 2006, breaking his keel, capsizing and breaking his hand. He went into shock in a life raft as he waited to be rescued. “I thought I was in trouble then … big trouble. I could easily have died,” he says.

“Some of the worst times on the boat are when you’re worrying about people at home, or hear of problems at home,” he adds. “You’re miles away, and there’s nothing you can do. You try to manage your emotions, but it can be hard. My dad had a heart attack when I was in the middle of the ocean for the Barcelona World Race in 2007. I’ve never felt so lonely in my life, knowing I couldn’t get back. Then my newborn son was taken ill when I was on the same race in 2010. It’s very difficult. I wear my emotions on my sleeve – I’m not as self-contained as I should be.”

But, despite the fears, he’s also determined and confident – he believes that he has the best boat possible. “Everyone’s worked very hard; it’s up to me to bring it home now.”

The 2012/13 Vendée Globe gets under way on November 10;

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