Despite breaking one of his powerful foils, Alex Thomson almost won the Vendée Globe race. Elaine Bunting explains how and why
The power of positive thinking
All the same, it will take many months for the pain of the Vendée Globe to subside. The staple fare of short video diaries from skippers barely touch the relentlessness of this race and the preparation leading up to it.
Only 14 months ago, Thomson was airlifted from his boat when it capsized in the Bay of Biscay during the Transat Jacques Vabre. Hugo Boss had to be salvaged and rebuilt and no one knew for sure if they could make the start of this race in a competitive state.
The Vendée Globe capped what was already a long and hard road.
Ashore, Thomson’s voice was croaky from talking. His legs ached when he walked; his glutes and quads had withered from disuse. The race was “gruelling, just brutal.”
“It can’t be healthy,” he said. “The physicality of moving the sails around and pulling them up and down is hard, the lack of sleep, the decision-making and the clarity you need in your brain is massive.
“I think the bit where you really notice it is when you finish and the responsibility and the stress of the whole thing, not just the stress of the competition but of what can go wrong.
“Anything can go wrong at any moment and so you’re constantly planning and preparing. I make a thousand different plans; what if this happens, what if that happens?
“It’s incredibly painful on your brain. And when you cross the finish line it’s all over and it feels like the whole world is lifted from your shoulders.”
Another thing that Thomson kept returning to, again and again, was the emotional toll. “It was frustrating at times, an exercise in staying positive,” he said.
When questioned about the handicap of losing a foil, Thomson said: “These things definitely have an impact and I’ve spent the last two months internally being frustrated and considering what could have been.
“I had to challenge myself mentally to be positive and to view things instead of the glass being half empty, considering it to be half full.”
He talked at the finish about his boat. “To be able to be part of a team where you get to commission and build one of these machines, and then to go sailing on it and be able to do these things…. The day I broke the record, I did more at 30 knots in that one 24 hours than in my entire career.
“So, you know, it’s great: these are boys’ toys and we get to play with them. It’s a real privilege to be able to do that.”
So while we can weigh up the design of these boats, the engineering, the delicacy of the carbon foils, as precise and intricate in their way as a Stradivarius, performing in a non-stop race of this duration and brutality can come down to whether or not the sailor, the individual, can stay upbeat and motivated. Thomson’s 2nd was also built on this learned, hard-won ability.
“I have stopped wondering ‘what if’,” he said. “I think you guys [the media] can decide what if and I’ll be very satisfied with my 2nd place.”
Never ever give up
Sir Keith Mills, the businessman who once crewed for Alex Thomson when Thomson was 25 years old and the youngest ever winner of the Clipper Round the World race, and has backed him ever since (he is also one of the backers of Sir Ben Ainslie’s Land Rover BAR), says sportsmen such as Thomson and Ainslie “never, ever, ever, ever give up”.
“Alex, over the years, has had the most horrendous issues and problems and he never gives up – determination, as well as talent, is critical,” he says.
“On a race like this, 74 days, with huge physical and mental pressures, need a very special human being, and Alex Thomson is a very special human being… He should be immensely proud.”
His humour and enthusiasm has won him huge admiration in France. No longer the ‘mad dog’ perceived to be going at it full pelt regardless, he is seen to be part of a highly organised and professional team. Race followers recognise a humility in him, and admire that.
Le Cléac’h now leaves the IMOCA class. Banque Populaire has been sold to Louis Burton, who is doing this race in Bureau Vallée, a new ‘Ultime’ 100ft trimaran is being built for Le Cléac’h and his sponsors – another is in construction for Seb Josse and Gitana Team – to launch this summer.
If Thomson returns to the Vendée Globe in 2020, he will be the star. A French supporter speaking to Alex Thomson’s father, Peter, put it like this: “Armel is the story. But Alex is the legend.”