Alex Thomson has been on the hunt for a round the world race win for the last 14 years. Could his coming quest for the Barcelona World Race in Hugo Boss be his time?
On New Year’s Eve, as Barcelona celebrates, Britain’s Alex Thomson will set out on the Barcelona World Race in Hugo Boss his eighth non-stop round the world race. He will enter 2015 as he has every year since 1999: on the hunt for the winner’s trophy.
This winter he is racing in the Barcelona World Race, the double-handed non-stop round the world race that leaves from the Catalan city every four years between solo Vendée Globe races. Thomson’s aim to win this, racing with Spain’s Pepe Ribes, is part of the larger campaign he is mounting on solo racing’s biggest pinnacle.
Thomson counts as a veteran campaigner. He has finished three round the world races including winning the Clipper Race in 1999, finishing 2nd in the Barcelona World Race in 2009 and 3rd in the last Vendée Globe. But he has had his share of failures and disappointments. He has failed at four further attempts, including the last Barcelona World Race four years ago when he had to pull out at the last minute with appendicitis.
This ratio is nothing remarkable in the IMOCA class, but somehow, early on, Thomson gained the reputation of being a hard-driving, slightly madcap risk-taker, something not diminished by the immensely successful viral marketing stunts he has done with Hugo Boss: walking the keel and the mast of his boats and diving off, dressed in a suit. The mastwalk video (see it on YouTube) has had nearly 1.6 million views.
But gung-ho is not how Thomson appears or sounds today. Through unstinting hard work over the last 14 years he has accrued enormous experience, is almost an elder statesmen of the class, and now a husband and father of two young children. He prefers to emphasise the huge amount of technical work and sea miles he and his team have built up in preparation for this race.
“People always perceive me as a maverick or someone who pushes the boat hard and breaks things, and as far as I’m concerned that’s a good perception to have – I’d rather have that than the opposite – but I think I sail the boat the same way – there are times to push and times not to. And we’ve solved technical problems that will allow me to perform.”
Thomson and his co-skipper, Pepe Ribes, are joint favourites alongside the Swiss-French pairing of Bernard Stamm and Jean Le Cam in Cheminées Poujoulat. Like Thomson’s, theirs is not a new yacht but is a replacement for Stamm’s previous IMOCA 60 boat which broke in half and was wrecked in a huge storm in the English Channel at Christmas 2013.
As for their own strengths, Thomson says he and Ribes are a good combination: “We are from different world. I’m more focussed on single-handed sailing, and Pepe’s experience is the intensity of the Volvo Ocean Race. If we raced like that all the time we’d break something or get exhausted, but together we complement each other. Pepe is like a machine; he just carries on and on. I haven’t sailed with many people who are as well-rounded and good as he is.”
Thomson’s VPLP-designed Hugo Boss, formerly JP Dick’s Paprec-Virbac, and the last winner of Barcelona World Race, has undergone a major refit, including work on the keel and a reduction of ballast tanks from five each side to two per side to comply with a revision to the class’s new rules on righting moment. Broadly, this is designed to slow the race to ever more powerful boats and in Hugo Boss’s case has resulted in a lighter boat for the same righting moment, more inclined to slam upwind in choppy seas, but potentially faster off the wind.
With the most modern yacht in the race, Thomson and Ribes have what is, on paper, the fastest weapon to hand, and Thomson says that, by the race start, he had logged over 20,000 miles on board.
But he is in no way under-estimating Stamm and Le Cam, and in the face-off between the two pairs, we should see a compelling contest. “You couldn’t really have more formidable really,” he says. “Jean is quite conservative with choices and sometimes Bernard is less conservative so it’s a great mix and as a duo they are definitely the most threatening to us.”
He adds: I’m now sitting in a position where we are the favourites, alongside another boat. That’s never really been the case before. The technical side of it, making the boat more reliable is what we’ve focussed on more and more and maybe less on the performance side, and I feel really confident that we’re set up very nicely for this race and for then for Vendée Globe.”
More in the February 2015 issue of Yachting World. Join us for the year ahead with a print or digital subscription