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  • 'It's about the strength never to give up.'
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    'It's about the strength never to give up.'

    Non-stop around the world. 74 days alone on his boat. Coming in a close second. Alex Thomson was the hero of the Vendée Globe sailing race. How did he cope with the solitude, the fear, and the setbacks?

    Interview: Marc Bielefeld

'I am still tired. More tired than usual.'

Mr. Thomson, have you caught up on your lost sleep yet?

More or less. But I am still tired. More tired than usual.

Really? You’ve been back on land for six weeks now.

Yes, well. Throughout the 74 days that I spent at sea, I never slept for more than an hour at a stretch. In fact, most days I slept just 20 to 40 minutes every two to four hours. Certainly not more. It takes a while for your sleeping routine to return to normal.


'I trained with two researchers on sleep.'

That sounds unbearable.

That’s just how it is in a race like this. You’re on your own in the middle of the ocean on an 18-metre yacht that’s cranking along at 60 km/h. There’s always something to do.

Isn’t sleep critical under those circumstances?

You do sleep – it’s just a different routine. I trained before the race with two researchers on sleep. I called them the Sleep Police. I started training three weeks before the race so that I could get by with just 20 minutes of sleep every two hours.


'Everything is a blur.'

Sleep deprivation is consi­dered a form of torture.

You have to train your body to cope without deep sleep. And it can. But sure – you’re constantly battling with fati­gue in a race like this. Every day you’re sailing just this side of complete exhaustion. It’s like the raptures of the deep that divers experience. Faced with a simple arithmetical problem – say, 45 divided by nine – your brain just shuts down and you can’t do it. Everything is a blur.

Did you lose weight?

After an earlier race, I had lost ten percent of my body weight. So I took along more food this time. Dry rations mainly.


'No cot, no cupboards, no sink.'

How do you cook on board?

Well, this is my kitchen (referring to a photo on his mobile phone). A small gas stove – that’s it. I heat up the water, stir in the food ... and dinner is served! The yacht is trimmed for performance – it’s brutal – there’s not a single gram of excess weight. No cot, no cupboards, no sink. The toilet is a small carbon fibre bucket designed especially to stay upright even when the boat is tilted at an angle of fifty degrees. There is a small mattress that I can throw down somewhere depending on the sailing conditions. The boat is a carbon fibre coffin. I don’t even listen to music on board.


'I’ve got to feel exactly what the boat is doing.'

No break at all?

I want to be completely in touch with what’s going on during the race. With my senses and my emotions. I’ve got to feel exactly what the boat is doing, what the wind is doing, and the sea. Music would only be a distraction. If sea grass wraps itself around the rudder, I can feel it immediately.

That must be utterly exhausting.

It is – I can get quite grumpy out there. I scream at the wind, yell at the skies.


But there are ways to put yourself in a positive state of mind. I rub the bridge of my nose, for example – it’s a sensation that I associate with a particularly beautiful moment in my life. It’s a mental trick. These things take a while to train. But they work.

To the French, the ocean is a woman; the Italians refer to it as a man. Hemingway once referred to the sea as the “most enchanting whore” he’d ever met. What is the sea to you?

It’s my playground.


'You’re not going to survive this!'

How do you train for the race besides sailing?

I do ten hours of fitness training per week. Endu­rance and strength. But mental training is far more important when you’re racing around the world. I work with a sports psychologist.

And what do you do together?

We talk through all the things that might happen during the race. How can I motivate myself if something terrible happens? What can I do to keep my cool when I’m sailing through a hurricane in the Southern Ocean with a ten-metre swell and there’s nobody around for thousands of nautical miles? When that happens, your whole mind is screaming: You’re not going to survive this! You’re going to die! But there are techniques that can help you to cope.


'I project my mind to cloud level.'

Can you give us an example?

Going below deck when the boat is moving at top speed can be rather terrifying. The waves crash against the hull and raise a terrible racket. When it’s pitch black and there’s a strong wind howling, it just strikes fear into your heart. It’s a very primal reaction. I use a visualisation technique. Instead of seeing myself on board the yacht in the cockpit or on deck, I project my mind and my perspective to cloud level. It gives me a broader perspective on what’s happening. This trick helps a lot, but it takes months to learn.


'Your adrenalin levels are sky-high.'

How exactly does it work?

In my mind, I can actually see the boat from above. And the sea. And I can see that there are no icebergs ahead, no drifting containers, no whales. And that reduces my adrenalin level – your adrenalin levels are sky-high when you’re racing. That slows my heartbeat in turn and helps me to get some rest and some sleep. You’d eventually lose your mind otherwise.


'I had some dark times to get through.'

Winner Armel Le Cléac’h reached Cape Horn with a lead of 800 nautical miles. You managed to whittle that down to just 37 miles, despite a broken foil. In the end, your AIS collision warning system failed. How did you deal with that?

After breaking the foil, the next 60 days were incredibly frustrating. I had some dark times to get through. I fell behind, and then made up ground again. After passing through the doldrums at the equator, I failed to catch a good wind. In the end, my only hope was that something would go wrong for Le Cléac’h. In a situation like that you’ve got to keep believing that you can still win – just to stay motivated. The odds were against me of course.


'I have pictures of my family all over the yacht.'

If men spend too much time at sea, they can become something of an eccentric. Would you still describe yourself as normal?

I think so. When I set sail I’m going out there to do my job. And I’m just a small cog in the big wheel that’s our team. I don’t get lonely when I’m at sea. I have pictures of my family all over the yacht. And I don’t need to have someone around to know that there are people who are thinking of me and who miss me. How could I possibly feel lonely? Isolated, yes. But not lonely. Besides – I can talk to them on the satellite telephone whenever I want. That is, if I can get a good signal. There were perhaps three or four days when I didn’t talk to anyone.


'It’s like playing rugby.'

Do you see land at all during the race?

The Cape Verde islands, Cape Horn, one of the Azores islands. And that’s it. Not many ships either. I did spot a fishing trawler on my radar south of New Zealand. Otherwise just the sea and the sky.

And the albatrosses.

Yeah, you see them every day in the Southern Ocean. And I have a ritual. I always give a name to the first albatross that I encounter on my journeys. And I always call him George. These giant birds will stay with you for weeks at a time. They like to fly along beside and above the yacht. Wonderful.


Do you take any safety precautions on deck?

I try to go on deck as little as possible. Each situation is different: you have to do a personal risk assessment each time you leave the cockpit. On the last race, the yacht reached a top speed of 37.2 knots – that’s almost 70 km/h. When a wave hits you at that speed, anything that’s on deck goes overboard. The yacht is constantly accelerating and decelerating as it moves through the waves. You get thrown to the deck and tossed about the yacht. It’s like playing rugby. I wear a padded helmet when I go below deck at speed.


'You’re at sea alone.'

The roughest conditions that you encountered?

The wind was blowing at 40 knots, with gusts of 50 knots – that’s a force ten to eleven wind. I was 1,300 nautical miles south of Tasmania, sailing in a seven-metre swell with water temperatures of around zero degrees. The wind-chill factor was –15 degrees. It was bitterly cold.

Do you risk your life racing the Vendée Globe?

You’re at sea alone. Ultimately you’re potentially risking your life each time you race offshore. But I can’t think like that – if I did I wouldn’t do it.


'It’s a privilege.'

Why do you do it? What is it that drives you?

A sailing race like this presents a very special challenge. There are far more astronauts than there are people who have raced single-handedly around the world. To experience something like that – it’s a privilege. And then there’s the competition. Sailing as fast as you can and as good as you possibly can. Mastering your vessel, defying the sea. You have to grapple with yourself. And with the elements.


'I love yachts.'

Is there anything else that drives you?

There’s my yacht. I love yachts. I race an 18-metre-long IMOCA 60. It’s a racing machine. It was custom-built for me with a price tag of several million dollars. I had complete control of the design: the width, the size, the height, the sails. The cockpit layout. It sounds like a dream, right?

There must be more to it than that.

You’re right. There’s something else about boats of all sizes. There comes a moment when you head out to sea and lose sight of land that you realise just how small you are. It’s a humbling experience. It’s just you and nature.


'Water and more water. It was too much.'

You’ve spoken about the competition. But what else do you experience out there?

The 2004 Vendée Globe was the first race that took me out into the Atlantic on my own, and I remember being quite overwhelmed by the situation. I thought to myself: so this is it for the next 90 days. Water and more water. It was too much. I lay down in the cockpit and – probably subconsciously – curled up in the foetal position. I rolled myself up into a little ball.


'It’s the greatest sporting challenge there is.'

Even some sailors say that you have to be crazy to compete in a race like that.

I think you’re just taking yourself to another level. A race like the Vendée Globe offers an extremely pure experience. You’re not allowed to take anything on board or set foot on land once the race has started. No assistance whatsoever is allowed. It’s the greatest sporting challenge there is on Earth at the moment. It tests the competitors’ physical and mental fortitude.

Do you take a talisman with you?

Yes, “Speedy, the Turtle”. A cuddly turtle that my son gave to me to take along.


'I believe that success is born from happiness.'

What have you learnt from these races?

I’ve notched up 400,000 nautical miles in my life so far. I’ve made nine attempts to sail around the world. I have learnt a lot along the way. I learnt that it is human nature to want to be the best. The best photographer, the best footballer, the best sailor. Most people believe that success is what makes you happy. But I’ve learnt to see things differently. Instead, I believe that success is born from happiness. This has taught me to put a premium on feeling good. I have also come to understand that success isn’t always reflected in the results. It’s the journey that counts.


And that journey has to be tough, it has to be hard, or it wouldn’t mean anything. Ultimately, at sea and on land, it comes down to one thing: you’ve got to have the strength to keep going. The strength to never give up.

Will you compete in the next Vendée Globe?

I finished 3rd, then recently 2nd in the last race. I think it’s time to seal the deal!