Sleep in short supply for Thomson as Brit bids to make history in Vendee Globe
11:28 GMT, 10 November 2012
Alex Thomson will spend the next three months with little more than two hours sleep in every 24.
During the next 90 days he will snatch on average 20 to 30 minutes of shuteye every four hours while he keeps his racing yacht on course to beat 19 other sailors around the world, unassisted and without stopping.
Time, day and night, and light and darkness will have no relevance to him.
Tough times: Alex Thomson hopes to become the first British winner of the Vendee Globe
The 38-year-old is aiming to become the
first British winner of the Vendee Globe, a race known as the ‘Everest
of sailing’ yet more people have climbed to the top of the mountain than
completed the round the world solo yacht race.
It happens every four years and an average of just 50 per cent of the sailors finish. Two have died in the previous five races. Brit Nigel Burgess was the first victim of the race back in 1992 when he drowned in the Bay of Biscay. Four years later a Canadian Gerry Rouf left the port and was never found again. His boat washed up on the coast of Chile.
‘If I fall off the boat I’m dead,’ Thomson says. ‘We work in an extremely stressful environment. Imagine you’re in a rally car with Colin McRae driving at full speed through a forest at night-time, it’s raining, you’ve got no lights on the car, no seatbelts, breaks and no windscreen. Your brain is telling you you’re going to die. That’s what it’s like when you’re in the southern ocean and you’re going down waves at 30 to 40 knots. You could slow down – but you want to win the race.
‘Your body adapts and gets used to the lack of sleep but you have to be disciplined. You start getting shorter periods where you become tired and need to sleep. Sometimes you don’t always sleep but you have to. If you don’t, you can become at best uncompetitive and at worst dangerous. You have to be on top of your game all the time, and if you’re not, you die.’
Thomson is well-aware of the risk. Back in 2006 while racing part of his boat broke and it capsized leaving him stranded. Sailing code meant that fierce rival Mike Golding, another Briton racing at the Vendee Globe this year, halted his race to go back for him. He spent 12 hours between the accident and being rescued, during which he admits he thought his time was up.
Golding sailed one loop in search of Thomson and could not find him but at the second attempt he did. He was in the eye of what was becoming a hurricane. He believes if Golding had missed him that second time he would have died.
Bossing the sea: Thomson risks death if anything were to go wrong aboard his yacht
The race attracts the likes of Zinedine Zidane who has been in previous years to watch the start, drawn by that fascinating aspect. During the two weeks leading up to the start of the race 1.6million people flock to the small fishing village of Les Sables d’Olonne on the west coast of France.
Three hundred thousand will line the banks of the river Loire today while the competitors are paraded along it in their racing boats and others mass along the seafront as the competitors head to the start line. Why is it so popular here ‘When we drive down that river they wonder if we’re going to come back again, that’s a big part of it,’ Thomson says.
The sailors are major celebrities in France and even the three Britons racing this year – Thomson, Golding and the only female entrant Samantha Davies – are figures of adoration. Spectators queue for up to two hours to be able to walk along the small pontoon that houses the racing boats. The competitors are in and out of their boats preparing but take time to stop for pictures standing on their boats. When they do – masses crowd around to take photographs.
But the most famous person to have taken part on the race from our shores is Ellen MacArthur. She became famous when she came second in the Vendee Globe back in 2001 and was the first woman to sail solo around the world without stopping.
‘The reason I’m here is because of Ellen MacArthur,’ Thomson says. ‘She raised enough interest back in England for the likes of me to raise money to do it. The first time anyone did this was in 1969, the same year we first put a man on the moon. It was a Brit called Robin Knox-Johnston and people thought he was mad and should see a psychiatrist. Since then less than 100 people have sailed solo, non-stop around the world but 3,000 have climbed Everest and 600 or 700 have been into space.’
Thomson’s yacht – called ‘Hugo Boss’ after his sponsors – is made up of 30,000 customised parts.
There is no bed, no shower and no toilet. He eats vacuum packs of food that contain 800 calories and all have the common denominator that they don’t taste very nice. There are five flavours for the entire three months.
Setting sail: Thomson before the start of the Vendee Globe in Les Sables
And there’s a lot that can go wrong – it’s why he can’t grab more than 40 minutes sleep at a time and usually takes just 20. The 20 sailors have behind them huge teams trying to ensure that doesn’t happen. It’s similar to a Formula One set up. Hugo Boss flew out 160 people this year just for Thomson, from a physio, to a sports psychologist, to someone whose job it is to don a scuba suit and clean the bottom of the 4million racing yacht.
They sailed in a 40million luxury ‘mega yacht’ as a main base on the pontoon. But things do go wrong. Since Thomson became the youngest person to win a solo round-the-world yacht race aged 25 he has attempted the Vendee Globe twice and never got round. Four years ago sailing the racing yacht to the tiny fishing village where it starts he hit a 300 tonne fishing boat.
The team managed to fix the damage before the race started but two days in he hit something submerged under the surface and the race was over. Four years preparation ruined. ‘It’s crushing,’ Thomson adds. ‘It’s brutal, really brutal. As a Formula One racer it’s not so bad you have 20 races in a year so you move on. We do this race every four years. It’s like our Olympics.’
This year is slightly different than the previous attempts. Not only did he break the world record in Transatlantic sailing just three months ago, since the last time he entered the race Thomson has got married and he will leave behind his wife and one-year-old child. It is interesting that only fathers have ever won the previous six races.
‘It’s changed with me having a kid and the responsibility of that,’ he says. ‘You’re much more careful. I feel older now. You start off being young with loads of confidence but then you get more experienced and you’re more relaxed. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think I could win. But a realistic aim is to finish. I want to do it for me and my family, for everyone behind me.’
If he makes it round to become the first Briton ever to win there are going to be a lot of sleeps before he gets to see them again – but they’ll be every four hours.
Alex Thomson is sponsored by HUGO BOSS