Despite a slim chance of winning the Sydney Hobart Alex Thomson chats positively to Sue Pelling about what he hopes to gain from the race

Thirty-one year-old singlehanded British speed sailor Alex Thomson has modified his Open 60 Hugo Boss to take a 10-strong crew in the Sydney Hobart Race on Boxing Day.

Thomson, who holds the current 24 hour world speed sailing record for solo monohulls when he covered 468 miles at an average speed of 19.5kts during the Le Defi Atlantique in 2003, has a lot of major events planned for the next few years, and aims to use the Sydney Hobart Race to gain valuable experience and to use it as a testing ground for his new keel.

Chatting to Thomson on the eve of his second Sydney Hobart it’s clear that the intentions of this race is not necessarily to win but to use the event, like many others he has planned, as training platform in the run-up to the next Vendee Globe. Thomson hopes to have a new boat on the water by April 2007.

Commenting on his obsession with Vendee Globe Thomson said: “Everything we do revolves around the Vendee Globe. Everything we do is learning for that. The 5-Oceans next year is to learn not to win, the same with the Barcelona World Race, that will be to learn, not to win.

“To be honest,” admitted Thomson, “we have zip chance of winning the Sydney Hobart, unless of course the forecast is horrendous. If we were to sail at a true wind angle of 128 and 132 degrees between 28 and 32 kts of wind, yes, we’d have a chance of winning, not line honours but a chance of winning. Unless the big guys at the front get some really nasty weather and don’t get there, there’s no way we’d get line honours.
“It’s not really the point, the point of coming here was to do some stuff with Boss and to give us the opportunity to sail the boat home.”

For this race Thomson has signed up eight crewmembers and one cameraman and modified the boat accordingly. But the main modification to Hugo Boss is the replacement keel which Thomson said was a necessity. Shocked at what was discovered following the Vendee Globe earlier this year, Thomson explains the reasons for the change.

“Because there were all sorts of problems with keels in the Vendee Globe I decided to get mine checked out. I have to say after all the Vendee problems I had my reservations about sailing back from Cape Town. I spent the entire time listening to every little bang and noise; it just scared the hell out of me. I couldn’t believe my eyes when we got her out of the water and found it was cracked. I think it is wrong that a keel can crack like that. In my opinion the keel on your boat should be there forever.”

Getting his head around the problem Thomson decided there was nothing for it other than to spend £100,000 and have a new keel built and have it put back in its original position. Explaining the reasons behind the position change Thomson said: “When Bilou and Jean Le Cam did the TJV in the boat in 1999 they felt that the boat was unbalanced with the bow down so they built a new keel. They put 16 degrees of rake on it and four and a half of degrees of rake on the mast. And raked the daggerboards back as well. In the old days the boat was so fast upwind that it didn’t really matter but we decided to put the keel straight again and adjust the ballast.

“All we’ve done is moved it back to where it was in the first place, so we’ve put some water ballast on the trailing edge of the keel to pull the bow up. We built the fin in carbon so we were able to put another 400 kilos of weight that we would have had in the fin, in the bulb to obtain more righting moment, and we’ve put the waterballast on the back so when we sail downwind we fill it with water and bow comes up. Okay, it’s cost a lot of money to have it done but McConaughys here in Austrailia have done a great job. We’re now just looking forward to seeing how it performs.”

Although Thomson spends most of his major races sailing alone having a total of 10 on the boat for this race is definitely not something he’s too concerned about. In fact, he’s very much looking forward to the prospect, adding: “Give me a crew anytime! Not only can you have a laugh you get to learn off each other and learn from each other’s skills. After this race, in February, I’ll be sailing back to the UK. I’ll have a crew with me too, four or five of us, probably some of the shore crew because I want them to experience what I bloody well have to go through. They’re well up for it. And here I hope I will learn a bit about what I want on my new boat.”

Singlehanded sailor suddenly needs a 10-strong crew, why? “The reasons for this is to sail the boat properly. Without kite socks you need the bodies to drop the kite and to be able to gybe the boat when you’re flat out at 20kts, basically that’s the number of people you need. I’ve got some wicked people onboard including Chris Tibbs as the meteorologist, Nick Moloney, Dick Parker, Jeremy Robinson, and Simon Hiscocks so the boat will be sailed well.”

The current situation for the race shows that the winds will be light and fluffy for the first day or so then strong northerlies will fill in which could be good for the Boss boys. However, Thomson concludes that unless it reaches 30kts they’ll have no chance: “Reaching conditions in 30kts would suit us just fine, but 20kts not good for us. We’re so far out on a limb with the extremeness of the boat, unless we have the exact optimum conditions it won’t work. We have to wait for those conditions to come along I suppose. The Fastnet was bloody atrocious and it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen here.

Thomson concludes: “All will be fine as long as there’s a cold beer waiting for me in the Customs House in Hobart. That I’m really looking forward to.”