Alex Thomson’s bold new Hugo Boss will change how the solo skipper sails, but will it win the 2020 Vendée Globe? Helen Fretter got on board to find out more
“What’s my speed? What’s the speed? What’s the boatspeed now?!” Alex Thomson hollers into a microphone. Thomson, at the helm of his brand new Hugo Boss, is pumped. As we headed out for today’s photoshoot he said they weren’t going to push the boat too hard. After all, they’re still getting to know her. Instead the aim of the day is mainly to get some drone shots of this futuristic yacht flying high.
But with 18-20 knot westerlies as we thunder out and back from Gosport, it quickly becomes all about the numbers. “32 knots boatspeed in 18 knots of wind with a… a… storm jib up!” Alex gesticulates at the rig, “That’s amazing isn’t it?”
It’s not really a storm jib, it’s a J3 with a single-reefed main, although it’s definitely not all the sail area this machine of a yacht can carry on a moderate inshore day. And we haven’t even opened a valve for the water ballast. But Thomson’s enthusiasm is infectious, and the boat truly is amazing.
At one point Thomson is so buzzed he does a little happy dance, then wiggles the tiller mischievously from side to side. He’s clearly having a whole lot of fun.
He’s not the only one. The sensation of speed is astonishing – a foiling IMOCA does not scoot forwards like a dinghy being hit by a big puff of wind, nor does it have the thundering momentum of a Maxi powering up, or even the screaming white-knuckle ride of a foiling catamaran. Instead it is like a jet plane taking off, or a turbo kicking in – a relentless acceleration that makes you involuntarily hold your breath. It feels as if it will simply get faster and faster forever.
It doesn’t, of course. The IMOCA 60s don’t have T-foil rudders for constant flight, so some of that fighter jet surge of speed levels out, until you are simply hammering along at 30-plus knots.
It is tricky to judge how high you are flying until the boat crashes down again. On our Solent sail, those plunges back to sea level are not particularly violent, although the next day my legs ache from bracing. It’s impossible to comprehend how bone-shattering and relentless the motion would become in a big Southern sea.
The reason Thomson is shouting into a headset to ask for his windspeed and boatspeed is because he can’t see them. The radical design of his seventh Hugo Boss means there is no outside cockpit. There are no number displays on the mast or anywhere else. Thomson is perched, temporary tiller in hand, on the scooped transom, one foot on a small brace point on deck, the other balanced on some taut lines. Clearly this is not a helming position designed for trans-ocean racing.
In front of him the hot pink coachroof rises in a curve like a beautiful 1940s Buick. But this is the wacky races cartoon car version, because Thomson is standing on the equivalent of the rear bumper to steer, while invisible accomplices control his accelerator and gears inside.
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Immediately aft of the mast is the cockpit, quite unlike any other I’ve seen on a monohull – a closer comparison is the enclosed cuddy of an Ultime maxi trimaran. If you stand at the mast base you see a bank of winches and clutches in front of you, and above them four screens.
But over your head is a solid coachroof, and at your back a solid bulkhead. And coming through that bulkhead are two tiller extensions. It is a room, and it is in here that Alex will navigate, trim, play the keel and minutely adjust foils – and helm – for 28,000 miles around the globe.
For the drone shoot, two or three crew toil in this engine room, grinding the main on, constantly shifting the keel cant and angle of the enormous curved foils to power us ever higher. Through the closed comms headsets Alex’s questions and instructions come thick and fast “What’s my angle of attack? Keel up. Main on. Let’s go!”
It’s not just about producing spectacular photographs, every time Alex takes out the yacht he calls his ‘crazy science project’ he wants to see what it can do. And the first impressions are very good indeed.
£6 million machine
The ‘science project’ is a £6 million gamble. The latest Hugo Boss is designed to win the 2020 Vendée Globe, that’s it. All of Thomson’s yachts have been built, or optimised, to win the solo round the world race. But this time around the boat has literally one job.
The result of the Transat Jacques Vabre is irrelevant. There is no double-handed Barcelona World Race or multi-stage Velux 5 Oceans on the calendar any more. Any notion of building a boat that could also work for the crewed Ocean Race IMOCA class was dismissed at a very early stage.
After retiring from the 2004 Vendée, and abandoning ship in the 2006 Velux 5 Oceans, and being crashed into by a fishing boat in 2008, there was a time in Alex’s career when he simply needed to get around, to finish a solo round the world race. But with a 3rd (2012) and a 2nd (2016) place under his belt, that time is over. Now he only wants to go one better.
For the 2016 Vendée, his last Hugo Boss was already one of the most foil-reliant IMOCA designs of that generation. Thomson, famously, broke a foil during the race, but managed to push ferociously hard despite it to remain in touch with winner Armel Le Cléac’h and finish 2nd.
This time around all the new IMOCA launches (eight for 2020) have committed further to using foils for lift and stability. But whilst there are big variations among the different designs, Hugo Boss is arguably again the most radical of all.
There are a few reasons that led them to this point. One was the central cockpit. “This was my idea. I wanted to stop being wet and I wanted to see more of what is going on,” Thomson recalls.
He suggested the concept to his design manager, Pete Hobson. Hobson in turn discussed it with the yacht’s structural engineers and designers, who worked out that it could bring big weight savings.
Class rules define how much structure is required around the keel, Thomson explains. “By moving the cockpit here, the sides of the cockpit become the structure. So it’s free, essentially it’s cost us nothing in terms of weight.”
There are other benefits – by moving the pit to the mast base, it reduces the need for heavy line tunnels and reduces friction. Although it feels restrictive, Alex is adamant that the visibility is, if anything, improved.
The cockpit roof just skims the top of Thomson’s head at 5ft 10ins; for anyone shorter the visibility is obscured, but for Alex it’s a panoramic view. There are portholes looking forwards and to each side as well as directly upwards, and there are rotatable onboard cameras – seven at last count – which can be viewed on the nav station tablet screens.
“Most people assume you’ve got no visibility but actually it’s more than what you had before,” Thomson explains. “The cockpit was at the back of the boat, you could never see past the mainsail or the boom, whereas now you can see everything.
“What if you want to see the jib? On the old boats you’d have to come out, and then walk up the side of the boat, look, then come back in, do a bit of winding, then go back out and look again. It’s unsafe. It’s a big use of energy. Whereas now you can just look up.”
The team was able to make other gains from the set up – the roof over the forward cockpit is solid, but it doesn’t have to be. The coachroof, further aft, provides all the stability the boat needs to right in the event of a capsize, which also saves keel weight.
By lowering the boom to the coachroof there is an end-plating effect on the mainsail, and it also generates a vast space for solar panels – some 19m2, all part of Thomson’s plan to rely on electric power rather than carry diesel.
To make every design decision work on so many multiple levels meant that Thomson’s team had to have a very complete vision of what they wanted to achieve before the design was finalised. Besides working closely with VPLP again, for their newest yacht they also took a huge amount of the development in-house, with Hobson, who Thomson introduced as a ‘genius’ at the boat’s official launch in London, working relentlessly on the design.
Hobson was able to invest near-limitless amounts of time and energy in trying different iterations of each design, looking to find the neatest, lightest solution to every requirement. It was, he admits, a true passion project. The hull shape is by VPLP and, with its low freeboard and reverse sheer, clearly shares some genetics with Jérémie Beyou’s Charal.
“Basically you chop stuff off the bow until structurally it makes no more sense,” explains Hobson. “What you’re doing is taking panel weight out of the corners, and as you take that structure off the boat gets lighter, you give up some form stability at high angles of heel that make your Angle of Vanishing Stabiilty (AVS) worse, which would eventually involve adding weight to the bulb. So what you do is you keep cutting it away until the point where it starts to penalise you in other ways.”
A recurring theme in the design and build was an obsessive control of weight. Thomson says Hugo Boss weighs 7.6 tonnes, of which the hull structure itself is just 2 tonnes (the keel accounts for around 4 tonnes, with everything else – mast, engine, winches – another 2).
Some of the cleverest details of the yacht are almost invisible. “That little tube in the cockpit that you can hold onto is actually a tension bar that takes the structural load of the sheets,” explains Hobson. “That saves 4kg on a bulkhead. It’s a step, and Alex’s seat will sit on it. So that little thing that weighs 0.3kg replaces something that weighs 4kg, but then how much else has it saved? Those are the coolest little bits around the boat that nobody knows about.”
Everywhere you look there are custom modifications. The pedestal winch in the cockpit is actually a structure that supports the winch deck. The winches themselves tilt 12% forward, which means the lines at the mast base don’t need to be deflected for the most efficient lead angle.
But the most visible innovation on this IMOCA 60 is the foils. Whereas the other IMOCAs sport foils with angular ‘elbows’, Hugo Boss’s enormous 7m foils are drawn in a near constant curve.
Drawn in a foggy car window
The curved concept was originally doodled by Alex and Hobson in the condensation of a car windscreen. “The minute we sketched it out we knew what we wanted to do. We ran it past VPLP, and they ran it through their first VPP programme and it immediately came out percentages faster than what they were calling the VPLP 2018 foil, which we knew was Charal,” explains Hobson.
The design is a response to the IMOCA rule change, which now allows skippers to adjust the angle of attack of the foiling daggerboards.
“We’re focusing on control,” explains Hobson. “And what I mean by that is this translation in the top bearing allows you to control directly the angle of attack of the foil, so as you push that by 2° you get 2° of angle of attack. If that was a straight shaft with a tip on it, you might change 3° there and sort of change that by 1°. The curve is a trick to get control within class rules.”
Again, there is other sorcery going on here. The structural spar inside is constructed in such a way that as it flexes under load it has a self-dampening effect. The additional depth of the foils also means that they don’t aspirate as quickly.
“On a lot of the boats their foil is basically a flat lifting surface, and when it comes out of the water you lose all your lift, and you drop back down again. On our foil as you lift you proportionally lose the foil area so it’s a dampened lift and loss of flight. And when we get it set up right the boat starts regulating it’s own flight when we get it just right,” Hobson explains. So why is no one else doing it? “I don’t know, that’s the worrying thing!”
The main reason no one else is doing it is probably because the Hugo Boss design and build (at Jason Carrington’s yard in Hythe, UK) was a very closely guarded secret. The team decided from the outset that they wanted to be the last to come from the VPLP drawing boards in this cycle, and they are one of the latest to launch ahead of the Transat Jaques Vabre [Hugo Boss was to retire after hitting a submerged object 380 miles west-north-west of the Canary Islands.]
That’s not to say that the Hugo Boss development is finished. Thomson will be building a second set of foils (each set costs around £500,000) after the TJV. The final decisions will need to be made quickly – designer Vincent Lauriot Prévost tells me that he thinks teams need to have committed to any foil design changes by November in order to build and test in time for next year’s Vendée.
There are still plenty of other details that haven’t been finalised. As yet Thomson has no bunk, or even a chair. “We’re not really that bothered about where I’ll sleep, maybe I’ll have a nice comfy seat. We need to start thinking about suspension. On the Route du Rhum I felt like I nearly broke my coccyx.”
More important is avoiding impact injuries. One of the advantages of the small cockpit area is literally not being able to fall very far. “I took a rugby scrum helmet on the last two Vendées already. I think we’re getting close to being in body armour now,” he muses.
Certainly Thomson will be able to trim without putting on oilskins, or even sunscreen. More problematic will be the heat. “My concern is the tropics, in could be 50°C in here,” he admits. Hugo Boss’s black livery uses a specially designed light reflective paint to – theoretically – reduce the amount of heat absorbed.
Other elements have been kept the same where possible. The sail programme is very much a development from the previous Hugo Boss. Even the lines running into the cockpit are in identical colours as on the last boat.
Eliminating errors remains a huge part of any successful Vendée campaign. Alex has, famously, had some of the worst luck in sailing. He came down with appendicitis days before the start of the 2010 Barcelona World Race. Before that his 2008 boat was dismasted and ruined by a French fishing boat days ahead of the Vendée Globe.
At the time, that collision felt like the cruellest luck ever. Afterwards, Alex says, they examined their own failings and did everything they can to ensure something similar can never happen again. They took a similar long hard look at the decisions that led up to his previous boat being rolled, dismasted, and nearly sunk in the TJV four years ago.
But yet, stuff just keeps on happening to him. Having never won any of the IMOCA transatlantics, last year he was on course to take 1st in the Route du Rhum when he went for one last power nap before the finish. Exhausted, after averaging 21⁄2 hours of sleep in 24 over the course of the race, he set his infamous electric ‘shock’ watch to wake him up. The watch ran out of charge and Thomson overslept, Hugo Boss crashing into the island of Guadaloupe on autopilot.
So does it feel like a risk to go to such a radical place? As Thomson will use cameras to help him trim and keep watch, is the chance of some technical glitch causing a knock-on problem something that concerns them?
“Actually it wasn’t the tech that failed,” Thomson says of the Route du Rhum grounding. “I failed to make sure that the tech was fully charged. So we’re putting a lot of effort and energy into making sure that’s not going to happen.”
Thomson even plans to start from his indoors helming position – be prepared for the surreal image of an apparently pilotless Hugo Boss lining up with 30 other yachts on the start line for the 2020 Vendée Globe.
The whole point of this latest Hugo Boss, and of Thomson’s entire 2020 Vendée Globe campaign, is that it is genuinely uncompromising. “This whole campaign can only be measured on whether I win or not. Whether I like it or not, there is only one place we can go.
“What that means is I didn’t feel like I had to compromise in any way with this. Normally you look at what the other boats are doing. Whereas we just said ‘**** it, let’s go as far as we possibly dare’, and that’s what we did.”
First published in the November 2019 edition of Yachting World.