Sailing, Racing and CRAZY Stunts! – 5 minutes with Alex Thomson

Sailing, Racing and CRAZY Stunts! – 5 minutes with Alex Thomson

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One of the most exciting and talented yachtsmen of his generation, Alex Thomson is the youngest skipper to win a round the world yacht race (1999’s Clipper Race, age 25), and has already broken three sailing world records:

  • 2003: Monohull singlehanded 24-hour distance record (468.72nm)
  • 2007: Monohull (up to 60 feet) 24-hour distance record with Andrew Cape: (501.3nm)
  • 2012: Monohull (up to 60 feet) singlehanded transatlantic sailing record (8 days, 21 hours, 8 minutes and 31 seconds)

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He cemented his reputation as one of the greatest in the sport when he finished the 2012/2013 Vendée Globe in third place, breaking the British record along the way.

But even a solo sailor needs a dedicated team, and Thomson is no different. Founded in 2003, and completing their first race, Transat Jacque Vabre, that year, the team at Alex Thomson Racing has been pivotal to his success.

He’s backed up by a permanent staff of 12 people, with a combination of shore crew and technical crew working full-time on the IMOCA 60 Hugo Boss. Each is an expert in their own field, boasting skills in rigging, electronics, composites, naval architecture, project management, sponsorship, logistics and digital media.

The team and boat are based at Haslar Marina in Gosport but are often located worldwide when the boat is in a foreign port.

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Ross Daniel, Operations Manager, holds responsibility for ensuring Hugo Boss – Thomson’s IMOCA 60 race boat – is race ready.

Daniel is overall project manager for all yachts and their crews. Having joined Alex Thomson Racing in 2003, he has worked closely with Thomson ever since to prepare the Open 60 yacht for single-handed round the world challenges. A talented sailor in his own right, he competed in the 2009 Transat Jacques Vabre with Thomson as his co-skipper. Daniel has overall responsibility of the technical team and ensures all standards are met and the boat is always ready for action.

Will Jackson joined Alex Thomson Racing in 2008 as Rigging Manager. As part of his role, Jackson helps to prepare the boat and get her ready for any upcoming challenge, services and inspects the rig and rigging components, performs routine maintenance, keeps strict control of weight studies for components, and manages all aspects of sail maintenance and configuration.

Over the years, Thomson and his team have become renowned for their daredevil stunts. The first, Thomson’s keelwalk, came about when he was competing in the Round the Island Race, and the stunt was such a huge success with his sponsors that he decided to build on it. The idea for the mastwalk came to Thomson when he was racing in the 2012-13 Vendée Globe – his boat broached and the mast was lying flat. The two stunts – #keelwalk and #mastwalk – have now been watched online by more than 4.5 million people around the world. A third stunt, #skywalk, was unveiled in March 2016.

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Thomson has been sponsored by Hugo Boss since 2003, making their relationship one of the longest and most coveted in sailing and sports sponsorship history. The new Hugo Boss yacht – launched in 2015 – was two years in the making and was designed and built with one key, overarching objective: to be sailed around the world by Thomson in the 2016-17 Vendée Globe.

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The yacht is 5% lighter than Thomson’s previous boat, an improvement which the team firmly believes will help him to sail quicker than ever before, and was designed in partnership with world-renowned industrial designer, Konstantin Grcic. Grcic designed a large section of the boat’s interior, including the navigation and sleeping areas, as well as the aesthetic finish of the yacht. Perhaps the most exciting design feature of Hugo Boss is that the yacht is, for the first time, black.

Traditionally, racing yachts are white, because the colour reflects heat. Black, meanwhile, absorbs heat which, in usual circumstances, would make living conditions onboard unbearable for Thomson, and could lead to parts of the boat’s structure melting. However, the team worked in partnership with chemical engineering company BASF to develop a black paint that both reflects heat and is suitable for a marine environment.
The end result is a totally unique, visually stunning yacht.

5 Minutes with Alex…

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Marina Tell us more about your sailing history and racing background…

AT I started sailing as a young child. My dad was a search and rescue pilot in Gosport, so we lived close to the water and I always loved to be out on the boat. Since then I’ve never been far from the sea.
In 1999, when I was 25, I won the Clipper Round the World Race, becoming the youngest round the world race winner – a record I still hold. The win inspired me to join the solo racing scene. I made my mark by breaking the single-handed world 24-hour monohull distance record in 2003, and I broke my own record again in 2007.

In 2004 I set my sights on the ultimate in offshore solo racing, the Vendée Globe. Unfortunately, my two solo round the world attempts were met with frustration when structural failure forced me to retire early from the Vendée Globe 2004 and the Velux Five Oceans Race in 2006.
I went onto a second place podium finish in the double handed 2008 Barcelona World Race, before, once again, focusing on the Vendée Globe – a race which is, without doubt, one of the toughest and most dangerous sporting challenges in the world.
However, three weeks before the Vendée Globe was due to begin, in November 2008, my boat was struck by a French fishing vessel – 2008 just wasn’t to be my year!

when you’re in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by nothing but water, it’s not just a case of giving up and going home!

Marina Which of your many achievements are you most proud?

AT In the 2012-2013 Vendée Globe I successfully completed the race, finishing in third place. My race time of 80 days, 19 hours and 23 minutes set a new British record, so that was a particularly special achievement for myself and the whole team.
Ever since then, as a team, we have been focused on the 2016-17 Vendée Globe, where we aim to take home the victory.

Marina Have you experienced any catastrophic moments at sea?

AT During the Velux Five Oceans in 2006 the keel on Hugo Boss broke when I was more than 1,000 miles from land in the Southern Ocean. A temporary repair was not enough to provide a solution and I was forced to abandon the race, because it was just not safe to continue. But when you’re in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by nothing but water, it’s not just a case of giving up and going home!

The nearest competitor in the water was my British opponent, Mike Golding, who was about 70-80 miles away. He was informed by race control of what had happened to me and he turned around and came to my rescue, which meant battling some serious headwinds. Even when Mike was able to reach me, the rescue was far from easy. We spent one night within close proximity to one another, aware that the conditions made a rescue attempt that evening too dangerous.

The following morning I left Hugo Boss and launched myself into a life raft with my Crewsaver survival suit on. The water was freezing and, without my survival suit, I knew that if I was exposed to it I’d have a matter of minutes before my body would start to shut down. We also battled with engine problems and 15 foot swells, which made everything so much harder. After four hours we finally managed to manoeuvre ourselves to allow for me to be pulled into Ecover by Mike.
That was probably the lowest point of my career to date. I had lost Hugo Boss, the boat that had been so important to me for the past three years, been forced to abandon the race and caused another competitor to ruin his chances as well. But I was alive. And that was all that mattered at that moment in time. It was a pretty terrifying experience.

Marina Is there one item that you would never travel without?

AT My Hugo Boss Regatta watch. When I’m alone at sea, I always need to be aware what the time is, and I need a watch that is wholly reliable, even when wet.

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Marina How do you make being a professional sailor your business?

AT I am fortunate enough to have a fantastic sponsor in Hugo Boss. Our relationship is a solid one, and one which has been in place for many years now. Together, Hugo Boss and Alex Thomson Racing have created a powerful brand. In terms of the team set up, there are many components in place to make sure the business runs smoothly! There are, of course, commitments that come with a career as a professional sportsman. I spend a lot of time travelling in between races to meet with partners, sponsors and media. But this comes with the territory and, ultimately, all of this activity allows me to continue to do what I love.

Marina What are your favourite places to sail, in the UK and beyond?

AT I lived in the Shetlands Islands for four years between the ages of 11 and 15, and it’s still one of my favourite places in the world. It’s always a nice moment when I spot the north shore during the Round Britain and Ireland Race. It’s a unique place: so stark and raw in its beauty. Particularly in the endless days of June. It honestly feels like you’re at the edge of the world.

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