Down a fizzing phone line from Antigua, yachtsman Brian Thompson is explaining the finer points of his current vessel. “A lot of people call these boats supercars,” he says, “but they’re so much more.
For me, they’re more like Dakar cars. America’s Cup boats are Formula One, really they can only sail in flat water – on a circuit, so to speak. Our boat is a cross-country racer, a rally car; it’s built for speed… and rough conditions.”
The boat in question is Phaedo³, a 21m trimaran in the MOD70 class. It’s a carbon-fibre wonder designed with the express purpose of being, well, an express: this multihull racer is capable of hammering across the waves at speeds of up to 75kph.
Thompson, Phaedo³’s British co-skipper along with American owner Lloyd Thornburg, is speaking from Antigua’s Falmouth Harbour, where the duo are about to kick off their 2017 campaign with the RORC Caribbean 600, the headline event of that region’s racing season. Listing the islands that mark the waypoints of the 965km blast – Antigua, Anguilla, Monserrat, Guadeloupe, St Kitts & Nevis – it’s hard to envisage this kind of racing as anything other than the preserve of ‘thrillionaires’ with an overactive adrenal gland, and a heap of money to burn.
Thornburg certainly fits the image of a time-rich, high-net-worth speed-freak. The 36-year-old son of an investor whose fund manages $55 billion in assets, he flies his own private jet, skydives, and drives fast cars. In light of those pastimes, racing high-power yachts is an almost too prosaic extension of a lifestyle few will find tangible. But while it’s easy to raise an eyebrow at so gilded an existence, Thornburg’s wide-eyed, undiluted passion for his sport and the boat he races is infectious.
“I started out wanting to sail around the world,” he explains, “so I built a boat for that – a catamaran – and sailed it across the South Atlantic to the Caribbean. I decided to race it, and we had a bit of success, but then we really got into racing and entered the Transpac [from LA to Honolulu] three or four years ago.” It was in that race Thornburg encountered Thompson. “It was quite a lonely, long motor back, and we were already planning and talking about what else was out there,” says the former.
Thompson’s CV reads like a catalogue of must-dos at the outer limits of ocean racing. As well as being the first Briton to break the round-the-world sailing record twice, the 55-year-old has won the Volvo Ocean Race, the Jules Verne Trophy for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe, and finished fifth in the Vendée Globe solo round-the-world race in 2009. In conversation, the pair appear to compliment each other perfectly, Thornburg’s machine-gun delivery being offset by Thompson’s often more phlegmatic view of racing. There’s a clear meeting of minds, as proved by the pair’s decision – after discussions on the route home from Transpac – to move into MOD70 trimarans.
“I’d been taken out on a test sail, and I got the chance to drive one for 10 minutes,” says Thornburg. “It was a mind-blowing experience.” Entranced, he tried to charter a MOD70, but failed to secure a boat. The dream of racing the cutting-edge trimarans seemed to be fading when, in late 2014, Thompson called to say one was on sale in France. Thornburg didn’t hesitate: “It was now or never. So we leapt; we just dove in. That was the beginning.”
Since then, Thornburg and Thompson have made Phaedo³ arguably the most successful yacht of its kind on the planet, with a slew of records to their credit, including breaking the Bermuda-to-Plymouth transatlantic record by more than a week, then smashing America’s Cup hero Sir Ben Ainslie’s record for sailing around the Isle of Wight by almost half an hour. Most recently, the boat set a new benchmark for the run from Monaco to Port Cervo in Sardinia, breaking the record by more than two hours.
“It was a huge leap going from the catamaran to the trimaran, but it really brought the thrill of motor racing,” admits Thornburg. “A lot of it has to do with the hardships and the extremity of being onboard, screaming along offshore at night, with 50 knots of apparent wind in your face, freezing cold and getting thrown around the boat. It’s probably the hardest sport to show how extreme it really is because all the starts and finishes generally occur in pretty benign conditions. But it really is amazing.”
Thompson concurs, adding that the boat is capable of so much power that the key to success is often not to push for more speed, but to harness what’s being generated by the trimaran.
“A lot of the time you’re slightly de-powering the sails you have, changing course to be in a position where you could easily escape if you get overpowered, and also, in the bigger sense, changing to smaller or larger sails. It’s like a car engine, except here you can change cylinders in the engine. You have a lot of choices to make about what sails to put up; what course to steer to keep it fast and safe. Anyone can go fast for a while, but to go fast and safe consistently is an absorbing challenge.”
For Thornburg, the extremity is a fundamental part of the attraction. “You’re always one bad decision away from the limit; from – to use a motor-racing analogy – putting it in the wall. Where it becomes really extreme is if it’s raining at night. It’s like being an instrument pilot: you’re only looking at the instruments and working on feel as you barrel into the darkness.”
There’s also the thorny issue to trying to stay in control while battling not only the elements but also human limits, particularly tiredness. “You can only really sleep when you’re happy there are no massive decisions to make, and also that the boat is sailing safely,” says Thompson. “It’s a matter of looking at the weather visually, and at the forecast, and saying, ‘OK, I think there are a couple of hours of stable conditions, so it’s safe to have a rest.’ And you have to do that, otherwise you’ll make bad decisions.”
Thornburg’s assessment of the likelihood of grabbing useful rest is more blunt: “It’s like trying to sleep in the back of a pick-up truck driving down a dirt road at more than 100kph!”
It’s not only sleeping that becomes a struggle; even the simplest of tasks can become problematic when Phaedo³ is at full speed. “It’s extreme in everything,” Thornburg adds. “It’s hard to put your wet weather gear on, and you’re tired before you even step on deck, because it can be that difficult to hold your body in place. Once you’re on deck, it’s like being sprayed with a fire hose. Everything’s a challenge when it’s going fast – even the basics, like making tea or eating, become really difficult.”
It’s not only in the heat of battle that mistakes can be made, however, as the crew found out in last year’s Rolex Middle Sea Race. After opening up a solid lead over rival boat Maserati, the crew of Phaedo³ made a huge navigational error, effectively turning the wrong way as they headed for the island of Lampedusa, off the south-western tip of Sicily. By the time the mistake was rectified, they were more than 100km behind Maserati. The race was over.
“The navigator entered the waypoint into the navigation computer several days before the race and did all the analysis with the course plotted incorrectly,” says Thornburg. “There are all these other forces around when you’re at sea, things that can really force an error, and this was simply a mistake made in a hotel room three days before the race. We did round an island, just not the right one!”
The team made up for the catastrophe in spectacular style when they next met Maserati, in the RORC Transatlantic Race last December. “We were heading over the top of Tenerife, and Maserati was just maybe 7-8km behind us,” says Thompson. “We had to decide which side of Las Palmas to go through, so we took the gap between it and Tenerife, which carried the risk of light air. Maserati hacked off to the north and went around the top of Las Palmas. We managed to get through a period of light air and accelerated away. We finished almost 500km in front.”
While the heroes’ welcomes that await in finish-line ports, along with the records the yachtsmen chase with assiduous glee, are the obvious spoils of racing, for Thornburg the rewards extend far beyond the accolades. “With all the technology at our disposal in our everyday lives, a lot of us have scattered minds, and there’s something calming about the sea. The very act of being in this limitless environment, having an endless horizon before you expands your thinking. This openness, being in this sort of formless world, is very relaxing and very interesting.”
It’s this simplicity that Thornburg says is the ultimate draw: a distillation of life into a series of singular moments of clarity. This, he says, is the real thrill of racing a boat like Phaedo³. “When we’re out there, the focus is so singular and so clear. When you can get really hurt and there’s real danger involved, you’re not thinking about the electricity bill or whatever else. I guess people describe that as the flow, or the zone. To be able to sustain that flow for so many days is… incredible. Just incredible.”