An unwavering dedication and willingness to get beaten down, over and over again, and carry on with undimmed passion to win is what characterises the top solo sailor such as Alex Thomson
We know them as shorthanded or single-handed round the world races, the Vendée Globe and the like, but we should really call them single-minded races. An unwavering dedication and almost self-flagellating willingness to get beaten down, over and over again, and carry on with undimmed passion to win is what characterises the top solo sailors, such as Alex Thomson.
They should be some of the sport’s best role models.
This is something I was reminded of again this morning as followers of the Barcelona World Race woke up to the news that Alex Thomson and Pepe Ribes have been dismasted in the Barcelona World Race. They were reaching in moderate conditions in the South Atlantic at the time and, importantly, had weaved through the Doldrums to put themselves in an authoritative position at the head of the fleet, leading from Bernard Stamm and Jean Le Cam on Cheminéees Poujoulat.
This was the race that Alex Thomson could – and perhaps should – have won. It was certainly his best chance to date, in a boat that is newer and theoretically faster on reaching and running angles than all the competitors. He had every chance of continuing to dominate over the race’s other favourites, Stamm and Le Cam.
After years of seeking out and setting out on powerful designs that other skippers tended to look on, shake their heads and mutter “too powerful” or “not reliable enough” Thomson has a boat that was meticulously prepared and fitted within the proven envelope of current designs. He and his team have sailed over 20,000 miles on this boat in preparation for this race, and he must justifiably have felt that every possible weakness had been looked at – the boat dismasted crossing the Atlantic last year and that led to a rebuild, strengthening and review.
In an interview before the start of the Barcelona World Race, Thomson told me: “I’ve been in the class a long time now and you build up a level of experience about how to get it right, which hopefully means we become more competitive. 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.”
Since 1999 (when he won the Clipper round the world race), Alex Thomson has done six more round the world races, finished only three and has been on the hunt for a round the world win. It’s sad to say, but this ratio of failure to success is not that unusual. Bernard Stamm has had suffered something similar, and twice had to be airlifted off boats as they sank underneath him. And if you can remember that far back, Mike Golding had his fair share of dismastings, keel problems and a collision with New Zealand during the Around Alone that cost him his best chance of a round the world race win.
Befalling disaster is the price for taking part in these gruelling races, which push skippers and boats relentlessly with no cushion of a stopover to regroup, rest up and repair.
But these races also shape some of the strongest characters in our sport. This is why so many in France, and not quite enough people beyond, view solo and short-handed sailors as heroes. They embody a spirit and attitude that is shiningly impressive. Far from being dogged or dour monomaniacs, when you meet them in the flesh, solo round the world skippers (I have met most of them over the years, to be fair) always seem to be cheerful, upbeat, determined, exceptionally dedicated, engaged with the world and never, ever deterred – or not for long anyway.
Perhaps these men and women are the ultimate optimists, the gamblers who are going to win – next time. But you can bet Alex Thomson will be out with his tail up before long. He his building a new yacht for the 2016 Vendée Globe, and I put money on the prospect of him being on the start line full of hope of a win next time.
This is, I think, what makes Thomson and his fellow skippers such wonderful role models: they fully embody the motto ‘quitters never win; winners never quit”.