Extreme sailing: why I'm going round the world again

British sailor Alex Thomson skippers his yacht as he prepares for the
Barcelona World Race 2014 (CHRISTOPHER PLEDGER)

Many of us think of round-the-world sailors as simply mad, but to listen to
Thomson is to understand that speeding through crashing waves is his
tranquillity. What he finds alone at sea is not madness, but incongruous

“As soon as you leave sight of land, your boat feels really small,” he
explains. “It’s humbling. It makes me understand how small we are as the
human race, and how powerful the ocean is.

“We are a tiny cog in the wheel. It’s strange that our planet is called Earth
when most of it is covered by water. We know less about our oceans than we
do about the Moon.”

Thomson is meant to be discussing his latest non-stop global challenge, the
23,000-mile Barcelona World Race, setting off from the Spanish port at 1pm
on New Year’s Eve with the return scheduled for late March.

It is a double-handed race, with each of the eight competing boats crewed by
two, and Thomson will sail his boat, Hugo Boss, with Pepe Ribes. It is the
only race of its kind – yet time and again Thomson’s conversation finds its
way back to the ultimate in ocean racing… the Vendee Globe.

Once every four years, a field assembles for the test unlike any other.
Thomson has entered three times before. Twice his boat failed him (once
almost at the cost of his life), but in February last year he attained
membership of one of the most exclusive clubs on the planet, finishing third
in 80 days, 19 hours, 23 minutes – fully two weeks under Ellen MacArthur’s
famous circumnavigation in 2001 – to become the fastest British solo
non-stop global sailor in history.

It does not require powerful insight to observe that Thomson’s very heart
beats for November 6 2016, the start of the next Vendee Globe.

“The pleasure of round-the-world racing is performing and doing well and
winning,” he says. “There isn’t any other pleasure. Double-handed is
actually much tougher physically because two can push the boat much harder.

“But mentally it’s far easier than the Vendee Globe, because in this one, when
it’s my turn to sleep I can switch off, knowing Pepe is in charge, whereas
solo you can never rest properly because you’re thinking you might crash
into something or there’s going to be ice or the wind’s going to come. The
danger and isolation are extreme. You can’t wave a flag and say, ‘I’ve had
enough, get me off.’ Only polar exploration is anything like it, but even
that’s not a competitive environment.”

Small wonder that Thomson is not much given to calm repose. Even during the
interview he shifts constantly in his chair.

Perhaps it is not so surprising, given the instability of his formative years.
He was born in the village of Rhosneigr, on Anglesey, where his father was a
search-and-rescue helicopter pilot at RAF Valley (where the Duke of
Cambridge performed the same duty), but the family moved frequently – to the
Middle East, Cork, Shetland and Gosport.

Always the outsider, Thomson attended 11 schools; and amid all that, his
mother died from bowel cancer when he was 16. Fewer than 12 months later,
his father met the woman who would become his second wife.

“The relationship is good now, but it was difficult to accept at the time. I
became good at making the best of difficult situations.

“I got used to being one of the unpopular kids. I didn’t want to be one of the
others. I wanted the difficult side, because it made it more interesting.”

At 11, he discovered sailing, and his course was set. He never wanted to do
anything else. In 1999, at 25, he became the youngest-ever skipper to win a
round-the-world yacht race.

Among his Clipper crew was the Air Miles magnate Keith (later Sir Keith)
Mills, who has personally backed Thomson ever since, helping establish
landmark sponsorship by Hugo Boss, whose name all Thomson’s competition
boats now carry.

In 2005, he also found time for a bit of internet dating, and met his wife,

“She challenges me,” he says, with a wolfish grin. “To do what I do, you have
to be quite opinionated that you’re always right. That wouldn’t be good in a
relationship. Kate doesn’t allow me to be like that.”

Their son Oscar will be four next month, while baby Georgia arrived last June.
“The sleepless nights were never a problem for me,” grins Thomson, who has
endured far worse.

Just before Christmas they moved into the first house they have owned, an
1830s “wreck” in Gosport which Thomson has been fixing up. But ocean racing
is always on his mind.

“Kate craves stability. We both suffer when I’m away, although she wouldn’t
necessarily agree with that. Being at sea five months of the year is normal
for me, and I’m as comfortable there as at home. I don’t know what else I’d
do if I couldn’t sail. I’ve thought about it because at some point I’ll have
to stop.

“Will I ever be satisfied? I don’t know. To me, success is winning the Vendee
Globe. But if I did it, I think my definition of success would change.”

What Thomson is really seeking somewhere across those thousands of ocean miles
is a point of resolution, the certain knowledge that he has had enough. So
the real question is not why he continues, but how he can stop. He has yet
to find the answer.

Hugo Boss sailor Alex Thomson will be taking part in the Barcelona World
Race. For more details, see alexthomsonracing.com

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