Is Alex Thomson Dressed For Success?
Alex Thomson is the UK’s premiere solo ocean sailor but he is perhaps best known for his high profile publicity stunts aboard his IMOCA 60 in collaboration with his long time sponsor Hugo Boss. We have seen him keel riding, mast walking and most recently kiteboarding from the mast tip – always dressed tip to toe in Boss clothing.
A gritty third place performance in the last Vendee Globe in an older generation boat than the leading pair made him one of three Britons to stand on the VG podium. Now Thomson is back for his fourth tilt at the world’s toughest offshore challenge with a highly competitive state of the art yacht and has his sights set firmly on becoming the first ever non-French winner.
Thomson’s involvement with sailing began when he was a young child. His father was a search and rescue pilot in Gosport just across the water from the historic naval city of Portsmouth.
“We lived close to the water and I always loved to be out on the boat,” Thomson recalls. “Since then I’ve never been far from the sea; it’s always been important for me to live close to the water, even when I’m not on it.
“Sailing has been a huge part of my life since I was a youngster. Back then it was not something that would pay the bills, so I obviously had to have other jobs. I was a professional fisherman at one point and I did normal jobs like any teenager, but sailing was always my passion.”
Thomson’s transition into full time professional sailing was triggered when he skippered the winning crew in the 1998/99 Clipper Round the World Race.
“After that win I decided to go pro,” says Thomson, who remains the youngest ever Clipper winning skipper. “I had always wanted to be a helicopter pilot, but my eyes weren’t good enough. So, pursuing one of my great passions as a career seemed like an obvious choice. But you don’t do this for the money; you do it for the love of it.
“For me, sailing presents the ultimate challenge; it requires me to push myself to the limit, both physically and mentally and allows me to put everything I have into competing.”
As fate and fair winds would have it, among the members of Thomson’s amateur crew paying to experience ocean racing first hand was prominent British entrepreneur Sir Keith Mills – founder of Air Miles and later Nectar Card.
Thomson and Mills hit it off during the businessman’s two Atlantic legs and have been friends and business partners ever since, with Sir Keith playing an instrumental role in pairing Thomson up with Hugo Boss to back his quest to win the Vendee Globe.
Despite crashing out in his first two attempts Thomson earned an ocean of respect from sailing fans and his competitors by fighting his way into third in the 2012-13 edition despite being hampered by problems with his hydro-generators that regularly forced him to sail without instruments to preserve power.
As he prepares for his fourth attempt at the punishing 24,000-mile solo, non-stop around the world race, Thomson’s determination to lift the trophy burns as strongly as ever.
“It has always been my dream is to win the Vendee Globe,” he says. “I am naturally a competitive person and the Vendee Globe is the ultimate challenge left to man. We have all worked so hard for this and as a team that is our main goal.”
The British skipper’s campaign was dealt a body blow last November when he and his co-skipper had to be airlifted to safety from the Atlantic when their multimillion dollar yacht was upturned and dismasted by a rogue wave shortly after they retired from the Transat Jacques Vabre Race.
Happily, Thomson’s team located and retreived the stricken yacht several days later and after a major refit and some structural reinforcement this winter Thomson’s black-hulled beauty was better than ever.
“The capsize of the boat last year was extremely difficult for me and the whole team,” Thomson told us, adding: “I am overwhelmed with the hard work everyone put into getting the boat back into prime condition.”
Vendee Globe skippers learn how to live with the constant threat of this sort of disaster befalling them but although Thomson can’t imagine any other life for himself other than sailing, he admits that racing the ocean solo can often be painfully lonely.
“Sailing has always been part of my life and I would still do what I do even if it wasn’t my job,” he says. “There is no better feeling than riding the waves in the Southern Ocean with the wind in your favour, knowing that you are gaining ground or extending your lead over competitors.
“The main disadvantage is that my job takes me away from my family, often for several months at a time.
“In solo races, there isn’t the security of having someone there to share the highs and lows with, which is tough. There are times when I feel lonely and I miss my wife and kids. But at times like that, I have to remind myself that it is my decision to do this and to put myself through the challenge.”
The jet black Hugo Boss yacht represents the very latest thinking in ocean racing design and technology, just one example of which is the revolutionary deck paint which stays cool to the touch even in the hottest sunshine by absorbing only a fraction of the sun’s radiated heat.
Like all the expected front runners the hull of Thomson’s boat is a VPLP-Verdier design and sports a set of the much speculated about ‘foiling’ dagger boards – a.k.a. dagger foils.
Unsurprisingly Thomson is quite tight lipped about the thinking behind the Hugo Boss foils which increase the average speed of the boat dramatically when reaching or sailing downwind.
“Yes, our foils are quite different,” he says simply. “We have worked with many different people but mostly the concept came from in-house.
“From a sailing point of view our foils make the boat much easier to sail because they increase the overall righting moment of the boat. The only risk is hitting something; the rewards can be huge.”
Thomson got to measure up against his main competition this summer in a breezy transatlantic race from New York to Les Sables D’Olonnes. After leading for much of the race he had a frustrating time in the Bay of Biscay and had to settle for third place but declared himself happy with his boat.
“This result has put us in a fantastic position ahead of the Vendée Globe,” he said at the time. “We are incredibly confident that we have built a racing yacht which is capable of winning the race and its performance over the past 10 days has only reinforced that.”