Brian Thompson has clocked up 4 non-stop circumnavigations and 23 other sailing records, so why is he only now making his mark at home?
As a crewmember of the record breaking crew of the trimaran Banque Populaire, Brian Thompson has set a new British record of his own: the only person to have sailed four times non-stop round the world.
The holder of a portfolio of no less than 27 sailing records across oceans and round the British Isles, Thompson has an extraordinary CV and is one of Britain’s most talented and popular ocean sailors, yet also one of its most unsung.
Judging by the press coverage in the UK today, perhaps that is changing. Maybe, just maybe, it is Brian Thompson’s moment.
As he stepped off the big trimaran yacht this morning, I joked with Thompson that he has circled the globe so many times he’s like sailing’s Sputnik. The mild-mannered Thompson, always quick to appreciate a joke, laughed. “I’m more of a Laika,” he replied, “the space dog.”
Thompson, 49, first broke the fastest round the world record on Steve Fossett’s Cheyenne in 2004 and since then, was skipper of the big catamaran Doha on Tracy Edwards’s ill-starred Oryx Quest round the world race in 2006, and notched up a third non-stop circumnavigation when he finished 5th in the Vendée Globe in 2009 on Bahrain Team Pindar.
Thompson has always been much in demand on fast multihulls because of his completely natural touch on board and is a gentleman in every sense of the word, comfortable in his own skin and very easy to get along with. He is one of the few ‘Anglo Saxons’ who is sought after by French crews and slots in perfectly with them – they have a collegiate rather than hierarchical style of sailing that I think suits him well.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about Brian Thompson from the perspective of most sailing readers is that he is truly one of us. Whereas in France it is commonplace for famous sailors to sail for pure pleasure and to own, sail and cruise with friends and family in often quite modest boats, on the other side of the Channel one seldom sees well-known professional sailors out meandering for fun. They may profess sailing is a passion, but it’s not a passion quite as we know it.
Thompson is rather different, in that he can bring out the speed in any boat with an instinctive feel, but loves yachts of all kinds. While sailing with him the summer in the Solent I played a game with him to identify as many kinds of boats as possible – there’s Vertue, a Contessa 26, a She 36, Heavenly Twins catamaran, Leisure 23 and so on.
Try as I might, I couldn’t beat Brian. He appears to know every kind of yacht ever bullt, values and respects them all and says he would absolutely love to cruise round the world with his two children. (He has two children aged 6 and 4 and is separated from his wife.)
There is a reason for this: his wide-ranging background. Thompson is one of those rare birds, an ‘ambidextrous’ racing and cruising sailor. He began sailing in dinghies during summer holidays in Burnham. In 1985, after university (he read economics), he sailed with his parents to Gibraltar in their Oyster 39 and took a job in a boatyard to earn money to go travelling round Europe by motorbike.
There he met a man who told him that if he went to Palma he might be able get a job and work on yachts. The idea of making a living from sailing hadn’t occurred to him, but he says he “walked around the dock for a few weeks and got my first job on Mistress Quickly, the famous maxi yacht from the 1970s.”
Another reason why he is so highly valued by French skippers and teams is his versatility. Traditionally, big boat racers weren’t all rounders, they were very good at one job. But as yachts have become more short-handed – even 13 people on a 130ft trimaran is short-handed – crew have had to become better sailors. There’s no-one who just trims the foreguy. You have to be able to drive, grind, change sails and fix things.
Thompson’s solo experience has made him this kind of sailor, and he is said to be a superb helmsman with total concentration.
His next ambition is to do another Vendée Globe. Time is a bit short, as the race starts in November, and he has no sponsor as yet. With things as they are, raising the money will probably be quite difficult.
Thompson is also quite tricky sponsor material because he can come across as being rather meek. He is not particularly assertive and at times can appear slightly goofy. He leads by example, though, and if he can find the right commercial match, a backer will discover someone of immense charm and intelligence, not to say determination.
Anyone who has been reading Thompson’s logs from Banque Populaire will understand what I mean when I say he is part intellectual, part philosopher, with a heartwarming sympathy for the sea, the stars, the fish and the birds. It shines out vividly among sailing’s dull, cold constellations of true wind speeds, wind angles and pressure gradients.
I may be wrong, but unlike many of his contemporaries I cannot see Brian Thompson retiring from sailing in years to come, or stop wanting to cross oceans. He may be nearly 50, but Brian Thompson is in his prime. He will, I reckon, be a Generation X version of Mike Birch, still racing fast boats in big races without ado well into his seventies.
So, 27 records and 4 non-stop circumnavigations in, this is probably only the end of the first half of Thompson’s story.