Despite breaking one of his powerful foils, Alex Thomson almost won the Vendée Globe race. Elaine Bunting explains how and why
A new 24-hour record
Remarkably, Alex Thomson made up all but 50 miles of this by the Equator, as Le Cléac’h was stalled repeatedly by very light winds off Argentina and Brazil. The distance between them shrank and stretched with every new weather system and the excitement in France and the UK at the prospect of a fight to the finish started to build.
On 16 January, north of the Azores and only four days from the finish, Alex Thomson yet again produced a blazing demonstration of his sailing bravado and Hugo Boss’s raw speed when he set a new 24-hour class record: 536.81 miles, at an average of 22.4 knots. This bettered François Gabart’s previous record by two miles.
Later, Thomson admitted: “Conditions were very bumpy and not ideal for going fast”, and he added: “I’m sure we can do a better job. Without any more development, I think the boat could easily do 30 or 40 miles more.”
Blocked by a winter high pressure system, and facing some of the coldest weather they had encountered, the two leaders had to sail almost into the English Channel before turning south, upwind, to fetch to Les Sables d’Olonne. Le Cléac’h entered his final 24 hours at sea with the narrowest of leads; only 33 miles separated him and Thomson.
When he extended his lead on the final night at sea and crossed the line, Le Cléac’h admitted how nervous he had been. “It was stressful because he kept catching me.
“Each time things went his way and I got nothing. With a lead of 800 miles off Cape Horn, I didn’t think I’d be facing such pressure. I’m very happy for Alex, it is a great 2nd place.”
Keeping things secret
How Armel Le Cléac’h won the Vendée Globe, when condensed, is a deceptively short story: he built a new VPLP Verdier boat, laid out for his style of racing, he trained assiduously, he made very few mistakes. The classic Figaro-style sailor, Le Cléac’h gives little away – his lone wolf style of aggressively hunting down his prey led to his nickname, ‘The Jackal’.
In contrast to Thomson’s cheerful video diaries, Le Cléac’h’s were carefully controlled, always shot in the same place in the cabin so never showing deck or sails. This led to speculation that he was guarding secrets, possibly damage, while rumours abounded that Alex Thomson had not really broken his port foil in December or had fitted a spare.
None of the stories was true.
After Banque Populaire finished, the only obvious problem was to a halyard lock. Le Cléac’h had been sailing without his J1 headsail since the early part of the Indian Ocean when the male part of the halyard lock had broken. He was not carrying a spare and it had been too risky to go aloft, so he continued without.
Thomson’s shore team had guessed this when they saw video footage shot near the Kerguelen Islands, but as Thomson had chosen not to have a J1 as part of his sail wardrobe, it made no difference to his tactics.
If there were other minor problems along the way, Le Cléac’h was not saying. His boat looked remarkably well-preserved and ready to go back to sea.
Nevertheless, a question that will hang over this Vendée Globe is whether Alex Thomson did, in fact, have the faster boat. Hugo Boss is narrower than Banque Populaire and the foils are different.
Banque Populaire has so-called ‘Dali’ foils, on which the elbow creates the vertical lift force and the tip provides the side force. On Hugo Boss, the foils are shaped quite differently and produce lift at slightly lower boatspeeds but at more downwind angles. They generate power from the shaft as well as the tip and can lift the greater part of the boat’s weight.
Thomson has stated that when he was sailing without a foil he was sailing at just over 80 per cent of polars, and when with one he was achieving 120 per cent. The foils give these boats another gear.
“The difference is immeasurable. Being able to sail on a boat with foils and not with foils is the world of difference,” he said.
“There was lots of debate beforehand whether it was right or wrong. I’ve been surprised. The public has been fascinated by the different choices and fascinated by the speeds.”
The commonplace prediction that most or all of the foils would break was quite wrong, too. Of the six boats with foils, only Seb Josse’s Edmonde de Rothschild retired because of damage to a fitting required to retract it.
“Personally I don’t think we made extreme choices, we just took them a little bit further than where they were,” Thomson says.
“So the next development, who knows? Are we going to fully fly? Are we going to be narrower? Are we going to be more efficient in waves?
“As for our foils, they were excellent and the fastest in some conditions but not in other conditions. There’s always a trade-off.
“But what is for sure, we’ve moved a long way from the designers’ drawings when they did not even know if it was going to work. Now we know it works and we have a bit more time.
“So quite possibly we might make bigger gains in four years’ time. And that is one of the attractions for me.”
The IMOCA class – the skippers and owners – must decide how much more development to allow. Under consideration is a rule to permit some variable control of the foils with adjustments to the angle of incidence.
The class will have an AGM in April and will vote on any changes to the rule, locking it down for the next race in 2020.
“We need to think about the costs too,” says Thomson. “There are seven boats foiling and on average each boat is building two sets of foils [costing] £300,000-400,000 a pair, plus the cases.
“We don’t want the gap between the well-funded teams and the other teams to be too big.”
He has made it clear that, provided he can continue with funding for a competitive boat – most likely a new build – he will be back in four years’ time. “I can’t leave it just at 2nd, I would never be satisfied with that,” he told a packed press conference after the finish.