British yachtsman Alex Thomson stood on board his damaged yacht, Hugo Boss, moored to the quayside in Guadeloupe over the weekend and told the assembled media that he did not deserve to win the Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe.

Thomson had been leading the 3,542-nautical mile solo transatlantic race almost from the start on November 4 off Saint Malo and was approaching the Guadeloupe archipelago when he over-slept, allowing his boat to hit the rocks on the northernmost tip of Grande Terre island. In order to save his boat from being wrecked the 44-year-old sailor from Gosport, England, had to start his engine to get back into deeper water. Although he managed to complete the race and was the first in the 20-strong IMOCA class to cross the finish line earlier today, he was subsequently handed a 24-hour time penalty by the race jury for using his engine.

This means that Thomson, with a 24-hour penalty applied, would eventually drop to third overall with Paul Meilhat on SMA the winner and Yann Eliès on UCAR-Saint-Michel second overall.

A clearly hugely disappointed and at times emotional Thomson put a brave face on his fate. The grounding that caused apparently only superficial damage to the bow, stern and one foil on the starboard side of his boat, came in the closing stages of what would have been a thumping victory and his first major race-win in his 20-year professional career.

“It’s a real shame for me and the team to be in the position that we are in,” said Thomson who has been third and second in consecutive Vendée Globe solo round-the-world races. “The jury has decided that I have a 24-hour penalty which will mean I will not win the race. How do I feel about that? Well I think that is very fair because I don’t think I should win the race after hitting Guadeloupe.” This was greeted with spontaneous applause from his audience.

“This sport is about detail and, in the final last minutes, I didn’t get the detail right. Like I say, to be last night grounded on the rocks, I just feel very lucky to be here with the boat with very little wrong with it – a few holes but I sailed here under my own steam so I feel very fortunate,” Thomson added.

Paul Meilhat celebrating
Meilhat celebrating his biggest win to date on the dock in Guadeloupe.Yvan Zedda

Brandishing a piece of rock that he must have found inside the boat which he said would be a souvenir of his collision with Grande Terre, Thomson explained that he had gone to sleep knowing he would soon come close to a gybe point off the coast. However, a wristwatch that he wears that is designed to give him an electric shock to wake him, failed to go off because it was out of charge and he slept through the audio alarm.

“I slept through – I didn’t hear it – and when I woke up the alarms were going and the boat was strange,” said Thomson. “I went up on deck and I could see Guadeloupe – I didn’t know it was Guadeloupe – I couldn’t understand what was happening until I looked at the chart and then I could see I was on Guadeloupe…haha...I had arrived!”

In his predicament and having to explain what happened Thomson could have been forgiven for struggling to keep his composure, but he did that and not only spoke fluently but saluted Meilhat who at that stage had about 150 miles to go on a boat that does not have foils.

“I hope Paul will win,” said Thomson, his voice momentarily cracking. “You know, he has done a really great race on a boat without foils and I look forward to welcoming him tomorrow. He should be the winner.

“For me,” he continued, “all I can do is live and learn – it’s the land of hard knocks as we say in England. You have to try and stay strong; you have to learn, you have to be better and ultimately, obviously, I wanted to win this race. But the aim is to win the Vendée Globe and I think I’ve proved in this race that I can win the Vendée Globe.”

So, Thomson’s last competitive outing in this spectacular Hugo Boss yacht has come to a very unsatisfactory conclusion. The Briton charged out of Saint Malo at the start and then took a lone course to the north of the fleet that was typically courageous and then never looked back. He pushed hard almost all the way, setting a pace that no one else could match. Now his focus is on his new boat that will be delivered to his team next summer.

When Paris-born Meilhat crossed the finish line himself at 20:23:18 local time (01:23:18CET today) after enduring some frustrating calms on the west side of the Basse Terre island, he had been at sea for 12 days, 11 hours 23 minutes. More importantly he was some 11 hours and 48 minutes inside the British skipper’s total elapsed time, that included the 24-hour penalty.

This is the biggest career win for Meilhat who started in sailing in Laser and 49er dinghies and has previously won the Transat AG2R La Mondiale double-handed transatlantic race alongside Gwénolé Gahinet. He retired from the last Vendée Globe in 2016 while in third place in the southern Pacific and a year before that had to be rescued from his boat in mid-Atlantic after suffering serious rib and pelvic injures during a storm.

Alexis Courcoux
Alex was the first in the IMOCA class to cross finish line of the 2018 Route du Rhum, but was subsequently handed a 24-hour time penalty by the race jury for using his engine.Alexis Courcoux

This win in the 11th edition of the Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe comes at a timely moment, underlining Meilhat’s class just as his four-year relationship with SMA comes to an end as the French insurance company withdraws from sailing. It is a bitter irony that he will leave Guadeloupe with neither a boat nor a sponsor for the next Vendée Globe solo round-the-world race for which he would undoubtedly be a favourite, given the right machinery.

An emotional Meilhat told the French and international media assembled on the victory pontoon: “This is my first big win, I wanted to sail a good race as a reward for all the support I have had. This is payback. Before the start I knew what I could do and what I am capable of. And I wanted to profit from the course, to feel like I am moving forwards.”

Meilhat paid a warm tribute to Thomson whose error – failing to wake-up before Hugo Boss sailed into a rocky cliff under auto-pilot - handed him his first transatlantic solo race win. “I can’t believe this has happened,” he said. “Alex’s mishap leaves us chilled because we were all attacking so hard, like mad things. When we put ourselves in situations of extreme fatigue mistakes can be expensive. And in this case for the sake of 100 metres it could have been so much worse. I am just happy he is OK and the damage to his boat is not too bad.”

“I'm a big fan of Alex,” he added. “He's sailing incredible races with the choices he makes, his speed, his style and he's a great guy. What you need to remember is the talent he has. You have to absolutely remember what he did on the racecourse. He is the extraordinary character, whether he won or not. It's really good to have guys like that with us on starting lines."

Then Meilhat returned to his own future. "In 2019, ideally, I want to continue to progress towards my goal of being at the start of the Vendée Globe 2020. I am open to any proposal! Build a new boat, modify this one, everything is possible!"

Elsewhere on the racecourse the French sailor Lalou Roucayrol who capsized in his Multi50, Arkema, about 1,000 miles east of Guadeloupe has now been safely picked up by Pierre Antoine whose Olmix is leading the Rhum Multi class (and due to finish soon). Meanwhile Erwan Le Roux on FenêtréA-Mix Buffet has become the second Multi50 skipper to finish the race behind class winner Armel Tripon on Réauté Chocolat. On the other side of the Atlantic the female skipper Claire Pruvot on Service Civique has been rescued by a cargo ship after she crashed into it, seriously damaging her Class40 yacht about 460 miles due west of Cape St Vincent. She is said to be safe and well.