Dee Caffari on Alex Thomson's VG performance and the future of British ocean racing
Like many thousands of people around the world, Dee Caffari was glued to the thrilling finale of the Vendee Globe as Alex Thomson hounded Armel Le Cleac’h up the length of the Atlantic.
And after the exhausted but elated Hugo Boss skipper finally crossed the line exactly 13 hours behind his French rival to claim second place, Caffari reckons his incredible achievement will provide a major boost to British sailing for years to come.
“Kids look to athletes for inspiration, and most of them come from football or rugby or cricket – the mainstream sports,” said Caffari, who finished sixth in the 2008-09 edition. “Now they are seeing sailors in that category; they are seeing the physical and emotional and mental sides that go into it. The perception is changing from the red-trouser bridge to athletes who leave nothing out there.
“That race was awesome. They are absolutely empty. They have given it everything – you could see it in their eyes. With the Vendee Globe, you can’t leave anything in the tank.
“The race he has had has been phenomenal, yet he must be confused – ‘I know what I have done is amazing but I had an opportunity to win’. And he’s put 16 years into this. You can always go through what-ifs, but you also have to accept that’s part of the Vendee Globe.”
Caffari was one of seven British skippers to set off from Les Sables d’Olonne in 2008, and the only way they could garner mainstream coverage was to club together and pay Channel 4 to take up the TV rights.
Thomson may be the only British sailor in the Vendee this year, but he has captured attention around there globe with his social media videos, fearless sailing and struggle with adversity after his record-breaking boat was crippled by the infamous Atlantic collision two weeks into the race.
He had been lumbered with the reputation of a boat-breaker, a risk-taker who could push the boundaries of his sport. By his own admission, he likes to sail a boat like he stole it, and his publicity stunts – the three walks; keel, mast and sky – were sneered at, not least by French media who dismissed him as a rock star sailor of little substance.
This Vendee Globe has changed all that. Even the French have taken him to his hearts, and there is a growing respect and acceptance that perhaps this very French race could do with a more international flavour.
Thomson has opened eyes in Britain too. Olympic sailing scores highly in the media, though only during the fortnight of each Games, but Caffari feels the way the world has tuned in to Thomson’s exploits changes the outlook for the sport in general, and offshore sailing in particular.
“In 2008 we struggled to get coverage,” she said. “But now we’ve had Ian Walker win the Volvo Ocean Race, we’ve had Ben Ainslie’s America’s Cup challenge and him winning the World Series, and Alex Thomson’s amazing performance that matches Ellen MacArthur’s of 2001. There is much higher interest in mainstream media. It’s an exciting time.
“Sailing was considered elitist, not accessible. Yes it was covered well during the Olympics, where Britain are good, but this shows how good we are outside of the Games.”
And should Thomson decide to have another crack at the Vendee in four years’ time, he could have a compatriot beside him. He took on the French all on his own this time round but Caffari is working with Vendee2020Vision, a project born out of the Artemis Offshore Academy, which is aiming to put a credible British challenge together because, in their words, “it’s time we ruled the waves again”.
And the project will be using Thomson as the perfect example of how to run a special relationship with your sponsor.
“He has kept Hugo Boss in sailing for 16 years, and he has introduced Mercedes to the sport,” said Caffari. “He has had to think outside the box to appeal on a global scale. We are using him as an example of how to run your relationship with sponsors.
“He has done the stunts and raised the profile, and now he is delivering out on the race course. His communication throughout the Vendee has been brilliant with his Facebook videos and his Q&As with fans. He has shown that for companies looking at sponsorship this is such an open sport with so many possibilities.
“You need to deliver in the boardroom as much as you do on the water, and that is behind Alex’s success. You have to be a multi-faceted athlete with a real intellect, and we are trying to give these young sailors all the tools.”
The training of Vendee2020Vision sailors includes networking and pitch development coaching, and testing their pitches in a Dragon’s Den-style ‘real’ environment, presenting to executives from Harrods and accountants Grant Thornton.
One of the sailors, Will Harris, who won the rookie prize in the 2016 Solitaire du Figaro, said: “It is truly inspiring to see Alex giving all he has got. He is putting British solo ocean racing back on the map and doing something I hope will encourage a growth of British solo sailing.”
Simon Clay, CEO of Whitecap which runs the project, added: “What Alex is achieving is remarkable and the result of an extraordinary effort by him and his team with the support of his long-term sponsor, Hugo Boss. He is setting the benchmark in solo ocean racing and sailing sponsorship. I and the Vendee2020Vision team are working hard to ensure that his success results in continued success by British competitors in the next edition of this remarkable race in 2020.”
For more information about Vendee2020Vision, go to www.whitecapltd.com/vendee-2020