Eight years ago, Alex Thomson was sailing the Southern Pacific during the Velux 5 Oceans, a solo round-the-world race. “It’s the best and worst place to sail,” he says. “There are hurricane-force winds coming from behind you, and you get these massive, fifty-foot swells. If you end up in the water, you can count your life in minutes. It’s one of the most isolated places in the world, and there’s no rescue service.”
Midway between Africa and Antarctica, Thomson lost his keel, the half-ton fin on the belly of the boat that keeps it level. He capsized and was forced to abandon ship in a life raft. The rules of the sea dictate that the nearest boat must respond to a distress call. In this case, Thomson’s bitter rival, Mike Golding, skippered the closest one, “which was less than ideal, as we’d had a big falling out before the race,” Thomson says.
It took three days to reach him, but Golding rescued Thomson, disqualifying himself in the process. Making matters worse, once Thomson was safely on board, Golding’s mast snapped, and the pair had to work fifteen hours in blizzard conditions to repair it.
Welcome to the punishing world of single-handed yacht racing.
“We spent the next eight days sailing to Cape Town and became the best of friends,” Thomson says.
When he was eleven years old, Thomson was introduced to windsurfing. At fourteen, he moved up to dinghies. He skippered his first racing yacht at twenty-one, and four years later became the youngest sailor ever to win a round-the-world race.
Most offshore races are crewed by two or more sailors, and Thomson’s team was successful from the start.
“But I have to say, I’m becoming more antisocial and beginning to prefer the single-handed side of it,” he says. “It’s a real adventure. You’re not defined as a trimmer or a driver. You’re a jack-of-all-trades. You’re the navigator, the doctor, the maintenance man.”
The pinnacle of the sport is the Vendée Globe, the world’s only unassisted, nonstop, round-the-world race, which runs every four years. “It’s one of the few tests of human will still around,” he says.
Thomson is currently training for his fourth Vendée, competing in an Open 60 class yacht designed by legendary naval architects Finot-Conq and named for his team’s sponsor, Hugo Boss. “The Vendée is to sailors what the Olympics are to other athletes,” he says. “You’re sailing alone in a boat that should be crewed by ten people. I find that very interesting.”
Thompson at the top of his mast.
Water-repellant suit HUGO MOSS MEN'S FALL/WINTER 2014
It’s difficult to serve up trading card–style stats or evaluate particular skills when it comes to racing. Single-handed sailors are more adventurer than athlete. But a few numbers illustrate the enormous challenges presented by an unassisted spin around the globe: “Three thousand people have been to the top of Everest. Six hundred people have been to outer space. A hundred have finished the Vendée,” Thomson says.
Before placing third in the 2012 Vendée, Thomson finished twice in the bottom half. Which is to say, he didn’t finish at all, though he was hardly alone. Roughly fifty percent of the boats that start the race run into mechanical problems, or worse.
“Anything can happen, whether you hit a fishing boat in the middle of the night or you mess up on navigation and come too close to land. Each boat is made up of twenty thousand individual custom components, and they don’t last. If you want to finish first, first you have to finish,” he says.
These are not racing yachts in the classic sense, all teak and polished brass. They are stripped-down, carbon-composite shells engineered solely for speed. The first thing sacrificed to velocity—because it’s the last thing needed to win—is comfort.
There’s neither a toilet nor a bed onboard. The food is dehydrated. Step foot on dry land and you’re disqualified. Anyone else steps foot on your boat, you’re out. Thomson will sleep only twenty minutes every three hours to maintain his punishing schedule: around the world in eighty days.
“The mitigating factor is competition. I simply would not put myself through the brutality of the lack of sleep, the shit food, and the loneliness without the competition. I’m the type of person who plays tennis and leaves with scrapes and bruises.”
Outside the yachting world, Thomson is known for two stunts that developed out of extreme maneuverability drills: the “keel walk” and the “mast walk.” They may not win races, but they put back into yachting what the rigors of racing deplete.
“They’re just a bit of fun,” he says.
Thompson mid-"mast walk."
Wool suit HUGO BOSS MEN'S FALL/WINTER 2014
written by Erik Rasmussen photography by Alex Thompson Racing Team