THE RED BULLETIN: How daunting is the Vendée Globe?
ALEX THOMSON: You have to put it into perspective. Three thousand people have climbed Everest; almost 600 people have been to outer space but fewer than 100 have sailed solo non-stop around the world. And in terms of racing, only about 70 have ever done it. In offshore yachting, there is nothing bigger than the Vendée Globe.
This is your third attempt. You didn’t finish the first two, but came third in 2012. What was missing that time?
Last time my boat was four years older than the winning boat. This time we’re turning up with a brand new Hugo Boss boat and we have levelled the playing field.
What do you feel gives you the advantage with this new yacht?
We’re now using aerofoil sections and wings to lift the boat out of the water – it’s a bit like when double diffusers were the thing to have in Formula One. Red Bull built the best one and it won them multiple championships. The right aerofoil section will give you a clear advantage.
Your preparations haven’t always been plain sailing. A year ago, the boat was capsized by a rogue wave 82 miles off the north coast of Spain. How did that incident set you back?
After we capsized last November we didn’t go back into the water until April. Since then I’ve done 10,000 miles, so about 40 per cent of a Vendée Globe. There are two considerations: on the one hand we’re trying to make the boat fast enough to win and on the other we’re trying to make it reliable.
We feel that we have a boat that is fast enough to win, the question is: are we reliable enough to finish?
How hard is the race, physically and mentally?
Boats of this size and power should be sailed by 10-12 people, 15 even. We’re doing it on our own. It requires immense discipline. You have to be disciplined about your eating, your sleeping, your work, because you have to be able to make rational decisions. We’re making decisions with risk minute-by-minute and if you’re not disciplined you make a mistake. The best case is that it’s going to cost you miles. The worst case is it could cost you your life. I consider it to be a war and anything less debilitating than war is a bonus. I don’t find it mentally hard. The first time I found it shocking. It was such a daunting thought to spend 90 days alone at sea. Now I think, ‘three months isn’t actually a long time’. It goes really quickly.
Is there anything you particularly struggle with during those months?
When you’re in the Southern Ocean – maybe 2,500 miles from land – there are no rescue assets, no shipping, there are no fishing boats. The winds are high and the waves are big. You feel incredibly isolated. When you’re at the top of the wave looking down it, we call that ‘The Runway’. It’s very steep and you’re already doing 20 knots at the top, so you know you’ll be doing 40 on the way down.
That’s exhilarating. But at some point you have to sleep. Imagine sitting in a rally car, driving at full speed, it’s pouring with rain, you’ve got no windscreen and no lights. Your brain is screaming that you are going to die. Adrenalin is flooding your body, your heart is racing and there is no way you can sleep in that state. By visualising looking down at the boat I can see that there are no icebergs, no shipping, no whales. That allows me to reduce my heart rate, the adrenalin levels go down and I can get 20 minutes’ sleep.
What are the toughest things you’ve faced?
I was rescued from the Southern Ocean in 2006 after the keel broke and the boat was going to sink. That was hard, being in a life raft 2,000 miles from land. For the whole of the Southern Ocean in 2012 I had no power: no lights, no computers, no radio, nothing. I managed to get to the finish with 5 litres of fuel.
It’s like The Martian where Matt Damon is stranded on Mars and has to improvise…
That’s exactly what it’s like! Coming up with ideas and somehow making them work. We consider that anything is possible. There’s always a way and ultimately the most important thing is to finish the bloody race!