Alex Thomson is taking part in his fifth Vendée Globe campaign
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Alex Thomson has seen it all in his 20-plus years sailing around the world. This is his fifth Vendée Globe campaign and he has been forced to retire from two of them. He has never known a start to the race like the one he has just experienced.
“It was a pretty intense first week,” Thomson, speaking to Telegraph Sport via a WhatsApp call from somewhere approaching the latitude of Rio de Janeiro. “To have to deal with that huge frontal system to begin with. And then a series of secondary lows, then Tropical Storm Theta… I’ve never known a start like it.”
Thomson and his 32 competitors in the non-stop, unassisted, round-the-world race were battered by winds approaching 50 knots off the north-west coast of Spain, with waves five metres tall, as they struggled to keep their IMOCA60 yachts in one piece. Some were luckier than others. Thomson’s big rival, Frenchman Jérémie Beyou, had to sail 600 miles back to Les Sables d’Olonne after suffering damage to his boat Charal.
Beyou has since re-started but lies some 3100nm behind the leading trio, which comprises Thomson aboard Hugo Boss, and two Frenchman, Thomas Ruyant on LinkedOut and Charlie Dalin on Apivia.
These three are now forging ahead, profiting from a fast slide down the face of a cold front, while the slower, older generation boats are still battling through the Doldrums.
Official standings at mid-afternoon on Saturday had LinkedOut just edging ahead of Hugo Boss, who had led since midway through the first week.
Thomson will not be unduly concerned. The way the positions are calculated favours Ruyant’s course as he is some 100 miles east of Thomson and therefore closer to the racing line.
But Thomson is still further south. “I’m really confident,” Thomson said looking ahead to the next few days. “The boat will be in conditions it loves, conditions we’ve prepared for. The boat has got very little wrong with it.
“At this stage of the race I couldn’t have asked for any more. In some way it’s better than last time [when he finished second]. Now really there are only two contenders here. And I’m confident. With Apivia, in last year’s Transat Jacques Vabre, I sailed past her downwind, 15 per cent faster. And fundamentally she has got the same set-up as she did then.”
Thomson, whose revolutionary £6million yacht has him sitting in a fully-enclosed cockpit out at sea (“At the moment it’s 84 per cent humidity and it’s 31C… an air conditioning unit in here would be lovely”), did have words of sympathy for his rival Beyou.
“It can happen to anybody,” he said. “That’s the problem with this race. I sent him a note just saying ‘I feel for you bud. I know exactly how you feel’. And just to remind him that there is so much work done in preparation. That to me is half the game. And I wanted to remind him that he won that race by a country mile. He did everything right.
“I got a nice note back. He’s a good bloke. It’s good to see him out on the course again.”
There can be no dwelling on the misfortune of others, however. Thomson and his fellow leaders may be speeding along at 27 knots now, but they are approaching a potentially lethal transition zone before routing east towards the southern tip of Africa.
“I’m really happy with my start,” Thomson concluded. “Particularly the way I managed to sneak away in the first week. I saw everyone doing sail changes, I figured everyone must be pretty tired, and I figured a way to sail down the front incognito and put myself in the right position before Storm Theta.
“A lot of people in France wonder how sharp I am [in terms of sailing]. They think you can’t do that style of racing unless you do the Figaro [single-handed feeder series]. I was exhausted. Absolutely exhausted. But I tell you what, I felt sharp.”