More people have climbed Everest than have sailed around the world solo, non-stop and unassisted in the Vendée Globe, the yacht race known as “the Everest of the seas”.
OK, so the event has only existed since 1989 and, since 1992, only taken place every four years. But still, more people have been into spacethan have completed it. Of the 33 skippers who will set sail on 8 November from les Sables d’Olonne in France, maybe half will make it down the Atlantic, across the Indian and Pacific and back up the Atlantic again.
Those that do will typically have sailed roughly 52,000km or 28,000 miles. (The Earth is only 40,075km or 21,638 miles around.) The record is just over 74 days, but some competitors can take as many as 150. And for however long they take, they’re alone. When they pass Point Nemo (Latin for “nobody”) in the south Pacific, the “oceanic pole of inaccessibility”, AKA the farthest point from land on the planet, the nearest human beings are aboard the International Space Station. It’s isolation as a competitive sport.
The Vendée Globe is the single most difficult sporting event in the world, says Alex Thomson. The Bangor-born sailor is bidding to win the race after four attempts and the best part of two decades. In 2004-5 and 2008-9, he failed to finish, both times because of boat damage. In 2012-13, he finished third. In 2016-17, he finished second, in the second-fastest time in the Vendée Globe’s history: 74 days, 19 hours and 35 minutes.
“Tell me another sporting event that goes on for so long,” says Thomson, who will essentially work, eat, sleep and repeat for the duration in an area of two square metres. “Tell me another sporting event that takes you to the most isolated parts of the planet, some of the most dangerous. Tell me another sporting event where you are completely on your own, where you’ve got to make every decision.” Although he remains in contact with the outside world during the race, the only advice he’s allowed is from his team or the race doctor on how to repair damage to the boat or himself.
During those 74 days, 19 hours and 35 minutes, Thomson didn’t sleep for longer than an hour at once. The non-stop nature of the Vendée Globe demands near-constant vigilance, as does single-handedly skippering a boat of a size that would more typically be crewed by ten. Costing £5.5m and custom-built almost entirely from carbon fibre, right down to the tilting toilet, the seventh iteration of his 60ft monohull, christened Hugo Boss after his longtime sponsor, goes faster than the wind thanks to the wing-like hydrofoils that lift it out of the water to reduce drag. The hull isn’t painted black: it’s bare carbon.
Thomson will try to get four-and-a-half hours of sleep a day, broken up into naps of 20 to 40 minutes – longer if he can. He’ll set an alarm for 20 minutes, see what’s going on then hopefully go back to sleep. “It’s a bit like getting up to pee in the night,” he says. “You can kind of do it automatically, without waking up.” Except he’s sailing the yacht equivalent of a Formula One car. During the solo transatlantic sailing race La Route du Rhum in 2018, his electric-shock wristband alarm didn’t charge properly and he woke up to find the boat on rocks off Guadeloupe. And Hugo Boss is custom-built for speed, not comfort: his “cabin” is a nerve centre of wires and screens. There’s no wood panelling.
Discipline is “absolutely the most important part” of offshore sailing. But if Thomson’s doing badly, he tends to work more and sleep less. And when he’s so tired that mental arithmetic is a struggle, it’s hard to even know how much he’s sleeping. Conventional wearables can’t help, because the boat is always moving. So for this year’s Vendée Globe, his technology partner Nokia Bell Labs devised a system that gives him real-time data on his sleep patterns, energy levels and physiological stress, telling him when he really needs to rest. Whether he will is another question. Rotating cameras meanwhile will allow him - and, for the first time, fans at home - to monitor his progress from multiple angles.
Thomson has to be ready to jump out of “bed” - a sleeping bag on his fold-down nav seat - and into action with no warm up: maintaining flexibility and avoiding injury are critical. To prepare, he does strength training 3-4 time a week, including rows and band work to counteract the effects of sailing, which overworks his pecs and traps in particular: he comes back from the Vendée Globe with a bigger upper body and legs “like a chicken’s”. He also does 45 minutes of cardio a day, including swimming (which mimics rotating “the grinder”, the winch that raises and trims the sails), cycling and hill sprints. The perpetual motion of the boat tests his core strength and balance. He can get thrown about like he’s playing rugby and wears a helmet at speed. He tries not to go on deck.
The physical demands come in “peaks and troughs”: at times, Thomson can barely move for six hours, at others, he can burn up to 1,000 calories in sixty minutes, and 7,000 a day. Over the course of the Vendée Globe, he can lose up to 12kg. There’s no kitchen on the boat: just a portable gas stove for boiling water. His meals used to all be freeze-dried to save weight, but he’s gotten fussier, so now 30 per cent are vacuum-packed and at least look and smell like real food. He aims to consume 20-25g of protein five times a day. He eats a lot of peanuts, pork scratchings (for protein and calorie-to-weight ratio) and, ever since he unwrapped one as a present while on board, Christmas cake: “It makes me feel good, gives me loads of energy and mentally it makes a difference.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thomson considers the Vendée Globe less a challenge of body than mind. He works with sports psychologist Ken Way, who assisted Leicester City Football Club to the Premier League title. Their relationship dates back to when Thomson was 16 and his mother died. Thomson, now 46, and his father saw Way for hypnosis, which neither of them really believed in then: “But the effect was measurable.”
Barrelling down waves at 40 knots in the cold water of the Southern Ocean 2,000 miles from land, where the only rescue that’s going to come is from another competitor, can feel exhilarating during the day. But the night is dark and full of terrors that Thomson’s mind wanders to: big waves, icebergs, whales and more. Using a technique called “the helicopter view”, Thomson visualises looking down from cloud level on the boat, which he can now see isn’t going too fast. The waves aren’t too big. There are no icebergs. No whales. That change of perspective helps him to calm down and, however briefly, sleep.
Still, Thomson can get “grumpy”. He’ll scream at the sky to give him its worst, then, half an hour later, apologise: “Sorry about that.” To improve his mood, Way has taught Thomson to rub the bridge of his nose, which reminds him of a happy time in his life, or smile, which triggers the corresponding emotion: “It’s a simple thing, but I totally believe in it.”
On Thomson’s first Vendée Globe, when the enormity of three months alone at sea hit him, he curled up into a ball. Now, he (mostly) knows what to expect. Way has advised him to break the race up into stages, but he just thinks of it as one almighty “battle”: hard, scary, even life-threatening. That way, he reasons, the reality (hopefully) won’t be that bad. In fact, one of the biggest threats is his own complacency when things are going well: Way taught him to relate the feeling of invincibility to the stomach flip of a near car-crash, so his automatic response is a hit of adrenaline and heightened alertness.
And Thomson does work in goals, the big one being finishing. When something demotivating happens, like his starboard foil breaking just weeks into the 2016-17 race, he reduces his goals right down to, say, eating a packet of food. Achieving that, however small, makes him feel better. Then he gradually ramps his goals back up. Despite the huge performance deficit, he finished just 16 hours behind the winner.
Three months isn’t actually all that long a time, Thomson says, when you try and remember the detail of what you did therein. And he draws a distinction between isolation and loneliness: you can feel lonely in a big group of people. He’s isolated, not lonely. Again, that change in perspective helps him deal with it more easily. If he wants someone else’s opinion, he pretends to be them and has a conversation with himself (another Way trick).
Thomson really speaks to his team and loved ones daily during the Vendée Globe. In the 2006-7 race, his father suffered a heart attack while Thomson was in the Southern Ocean, which was “difficult”. Now a father of a son and daughter himself, Thomson has developed as a sailor and person, and created a “better balance” in his life. But it’s tough – especially for his son, who’s nine and understands what’s going on, and for his wife, who’s left with the responsibilities while he does what he loves. He reminds himself that he’s playing a game, which helps him remember what’s important. He feels privileged.
Besides, Thomson won’t be alone. He always names the first of the “majestic” albatrosses that follow his boat, sometimes for weeks, George. He doesn’t know why - the name just popped into his head: “So I’m looking forward to seeing George.”
Follow Alex Thomson onboard HUGO BOSS in the Vendée Globe via alexthomsonracing.com/the-hub.
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