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(Original link: theguardian.com)
The round-the-world sailor is confident he can win the sport’s toughest race, the Vendée Globe, in his £5.5m boat. A lex Thomson has a new toy, and, judging by his Cheshire Cat grin, he likes it a lot. It is the latest in a line of boats called Hugo Boss, after the principal sponsor, and the one he hopes will finally deliver the prize he so craves.
The Vendée Globe single-handed round the world race is the toughest test in sailing. The course runs from Les Sables-d’Olonne in Western France down the Atlantic, then clockwise around Antarctica, leaving the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin and Cape Horn to port before returning to Les Sables-d’Olonne.
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The next will be Thomson’s fifth attempt; the first two he didn’t finish, because of a holed deck and a cracked hull. In 2012-13 he came third. Last time out, 2016-17, he was runner up; he almost certainly would have won if it hadn’t been for a broken foil, the curved blades that protrude from the hull and are revolutionising the sport by making boats pretty much fly. You can see why Thomson feels the next Vendée Globe, which starts in November next year, belongs to him. No non-French sailor has ever won.
The early signs from the new boat are good. You’d hope so, given the numbers: 30,000 man-hours in design, 50,000 in the build, over 100 people involved, at a cost of £5.5m. It (I’m finding it hard to call a boat named Hugo Boss she) looks like how you might imagine Batman’s to look like; all black, apart from a shocking pink coachroof, keel and rudders. The huge curved foils have pointy fin-shaped ends, so that when they’re working and the leeward one is party submerged, it looks as if the boat has its own accompanying outrider shark. Well weapon, Nathan Barley might say.
We’ve come out from Portsmouth harbour into the Solent, which is grey and flat, and we’re scorching along. In 19 knots of wind we’re hitting 30, 31, over 32 knots. Sixty kilometres an hour. Spray is flying over the deck. The old adage about sailing being like sitting under a cold shower ripping up ten pound notes needs updating for this – standing in front of water cannon throwing bitcoins down the drain?
No wonder Thomson, gripping on to the tiller with both hands, is smiling. As well as shouting into his headset: “more on the jib … tighten the vang … what’s the angle of attack … are we going to miss that ferry?” Today he has help, three crew members (in total there are 25 on the team, including designers, sailors, systems and software engineers, PR and Marketing). The three crew are down below, grinding and trimming, canting the keel, changing the angle of the foils. I’m finding it hard to imagine how it’s possible to do all this alone, for 70 days.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Alex Thomson onboard the 2019 Hugo Boss. Photograph: Graham Snook/The Guardian
Our interview has to wait until we’re safely tied up back in Gosport. This is an exciting time to be involved in sailing, says Thomson, particularly with the development of foils. “Who would have thought 15 years ago that we would be doing 32 knots in 19 knots of wind? What happens in the next five years?”
And yet the sport doesn’t get the attention in Britain as it does in just over there on the other side of the Channel. Almost everyoneknows of the Vendée Globe in France, school children follow it, and sailors are sporting heroes. “They genuinely understand it, and what we have to go through,” says Thomson.
Sailing still has an elitist reputation in Britain. “That comes from the old days,” he says. You don’t have to spend £5.5m to get on the water. “Go to any sailing club in the country, you’ll see Crew Wanted notices on the board. You can sail for nothing, I don’t think people realise that. In France they believe – this is the fundamental difference – that if you take a kid and put them in a single-handed boat you’re going to teach them independence, if you put them in a double-handed boat you’re going to teach them teamwork and communication. They believe sailing teaches life skills, we don’t.”
Forty-five year old Thomson is probably better known in France than he is in his own country.Recently in France he was stopped at the lights and a workman in high-vis “turned around, looked me in the eye, and said: [adopts comedy French accent] ah, you Alex Thomson’. That would never happen in England.”
They must hate him over there, the imposter in their race? “Le Rosbif,” he laughs. “Over the years they have definitely warmed to me. They are respectful, I think they are worried about us.”
Not like Chris Froome getting booed in the Tour de France then? Not at all, says Thomson, he will be cheered by the huge crowds that gather when he sets out from Les Sables-d’Olonne next year. Actually they want a non-French sailor to win. “They need that for the race to be properly internationalised … we are the only non-French team, with the budget and the experience, that could win...