Fingers crossed — because the French government could yet intervene to stop it — it now looks reasonably certain that this year’s Vendée Globe solo round-the-world race will happen, starting on November 8.
The skippers and their boats are arriving at the start port of Les Sables-d’Olonne on the French Biscay coast. But the atmosphere is anything but normal with France in partial national lockdown and with the teams facing the very real — and terrifying prospect — that if their skipper tests positive for Covid-19 before the start, then he or she will not be able to join the race.
The one caveat is that if they are found to be clear of the virus within a 10-day window after the start then they can set off. But the Covid rule on participation — which to some seems absurd in a solo round-the-world race — is a sword of Damocles hanging over all 33 skippers from eight nations, whether they be superstars at the front of the fleet or those on limited budgets sailing older boats in the lower reaches of the field.
The dilemma in the next couple of weeks is that skippers still need to fulfill media commitments and to work as hard as they can for their sponsors — albeit behind face masks and Perspex screens — but they cannot afford to take risks that might compromise years of work to get to the start line of the toughest race in world sailing.
From an international perspective (and in a field with no American entry) the big story of this year’s race has to be the fortunes of the British IMOCA veteran Alex Thomson. He will start the Vendée Globe in his latest Hugo Boss-sponsored $7 million vessel among the hot favorites, alongside three French sailors, Jérémie Beyou on Charal, Thomas Ruyant on LinkedOut and Charlie Dalin on Apivia.
Thomson is a phenomenon not just in sailing but in sport. (His story, by the way, is a great sell to friends who may not be interested in sailing as such, but love a good sporting drama). The single most remarkable fact about him —given his high profile and his undoubted ability — is that in more than 16 years sailing in the IMOCA ranks, he has never won a race.
Not only that but his career has been a roller-coaster mixing moments of success and fulfillment with the most appalling dramas and setbacks. In the former category the 46-year-old married Briton who has two young children, has set distance records over 24 hours in solo and crewed formats; he finished the 2007 Barcelona World Race in second alongside Australian sailor Andrew Cape and he finished the last two Vendée Globes in third and second place respectively.
In the latter category it is hard to know where to begin. Thomson retired from his first Vendée Globe in 2004 after the boat developed a hole in the deck; he was rescued in the southern Indian Ocean by fellow Briton Mike Golding in the 2006 Velux Five Oceans round-the-world race; his 2008 Vendée campaign was visited by catastrophe when his then new HUGO BOSS was hit by a French fishing boat while anchored outside Les Sables d’Olonne. He subsequently retired from the race after 24 hours. He retired from the 2009 Transat Jacques Vabre after hitting something in the water and abandoned the same race in 2015 when another new Hugo Boss capsized when he and Spanish sailor Guillermo Altadill had to be rescued by helicopter off the north coast of Spain.
You might expect the pattern of disasters to abate as he got older but the last few years have been no different to those preceding them. In November 2018 Thomson suffered possibly the most humiliating of all reverses that have been inflicted upon him — or, in this case, that he has brought upon himself — when after leading the solo 3,500-mile Route du Rhum almost the entire way from the start in St Malo in France, he decided to take a nap 65 miles from the finish at Guadeloupe. His boat ended up on the rocks when he failed to wake up and although he crossed the line first, he was demoted to third place because he had used his engine to save his boat. To say he had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on that occasion would be a massive understatement.
As if that was not enough, his build-up to this race has been heavily hampered not just by Covid-19 but by the fact that he and co-skipper Neal McDonald had to cut his new boat’s keel away in mid-Atlantic during last year’s Transat Jacques Vabre after they hit a whale at high speed. Ever since then the team has been playing catch-up to get the futuristic-looking VPLP/Pete Hobson-designed Hugo Boss race-ready for what will be his fifth attempt at the Vendée Globe.
Throughout it all Hugo Boss has stood by him, the German fashion house pumping millions into their British racer who has repaid the favor by running a disciplined and professional team whose ethos has seemed somewhat at odds with the results it has achieved on the water. And Thomson has been a good media property over the years, often in the headlines and scoring highly with his series of spectacular video stunts – his Keelwalk, Mastwalk and Skywalks – that have projected the sport well beyond the hardcore sailing audience.
“Charismatic, super-confident, fiercely competitive and a little bit flash,” as one profile described him recently, Thomson has remained remarkably level-headed, taking his setbacks and successes with equal aplomb. But there is no doubt in my mind that the weight of the load he carries — of not having won anything — is influencing what he does and what he says and what he might do on the racecourse this November. In the early years some of his disasters were blamed by critics on a reckless streak – something he denies, though he admits he pushes his boats hard – but an older and (possibly) more cautious Thomson is haunted by the sheer scale and repetitiveness of the setbacks he has had to contend with.
In the build–up to this race the psychology for him has been interesting. He has made no secret of the fact that there is only one result he is after. Having finished third and then second, only a win will do and that places its own very unique pressure on him — leaving a wide arc of potential failure — and it may well influence what he does on the racecourse.
“For me he has a target on his back,” commented the British team manager of Thomas Ruyant’s campaign, Marcus Hutchinson. “He’s here to win and if he’s not leading or makes a wrong call or a mistake and has to catch-up, that will be difficult psychologically — you wonder whether his motivation will be there to keep going.”
Thomson has chosen in the build-up to keep well away from his rivals, training and preparing in isolation in Britain from the team base at Gosport in Portsmouth. The first couple of days of last year’s Transat Jacques Vabre apart, he has not lined up his black foiling flyer against his rivals and has chosen to avoid all IMOCA events in the last few months — like the Vendée-Arctique-Les Sables D’Olonne Race and the Défi Azimut 48-hour race.
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In France, this has made him look to the sailing public like an outside invader, plotting to take the prize from their French heroes and become the first Briton and first non-French skipper to win the Vendée Globe. Instead of joining in with the others, Hugo Boss has been out playing on its own as Thomson and his team push the numbers ever higher on the performance spectrum.
When you ask him whether he has put himself at a disadvantage by staying away from the fleet, he sounds confident enough. His argument is that the team knows where their starting point was — and that was a super-quick boat that finished second in the last Vendée Globe, despite losing one of its foils after just two weeks (that boat is now owned by 11th Hour Racing led by Charlie Enright and Mark Towill). He says that, with that base point, they have made huge strides. But they are gambling that the others have not made even more progress during a build-up in which all the teams have been hampered by lack of time on the water.
The lone wolf approach could well be replicated on the water in the early stages of the race when, in the past, Thomson has shown no fear about leaving the fleet and sailing off on his own. Sometimes this high-risk strategy has paid off, sometimes not, but it would be no surprise to see him tack away in the first week as the leaders head down the Atlantic.
For armchair sailors, the Thomson conundrum certainly makes for fascinating watching. It’s going to be like a global version of the first cross in Cup matches of old — who will be higher and faster? Right now we simply have no idea and it will depend on all sorts of variables in these super-sensitive foiling thoroughbreds.
“I’d love you to write that he’s going to win it and he’s going to put everyone to shame,” added Hutchinson. “The question is though, is he going to be quicker than the others and for how long and at what angles?”
One aspect that you notice when listening to Thomson talk is how technical and numbers-driven his mind is. This team is not dreaming; it is drilled by hard performance stats. Looking like a cross between a spaceship, a weapons system and a submarine, with its fully-enclosed cockpit and sleek black lines, HUGO BOSS is now sailing with its second set of foils and Thomson is confident they have optimized it in just the right way — by not being too ambitiou
He has never said it, but you have to think that this is likely to be his last Vendée campaign. It’s either a win now or he walks away (though I’ve thought he might throw in the towel earlier and been wrong). Not just as a fellow Brit, but as someone who has watched his trials and tribulations and occasional successes over 20 years, I would love to see him be handed a full deck of cards and romp his way round the world to make history. But I will be crossing everything until the very last mile on the last record-breaking day.
On his way to Les Sables in the new boat, Thomson summed-up his feelings as the moment of truth draws near once again.
“This is 20 years of my life,” he said, “So yes, this is what we’ve all been waiting for and what we’ve all been working toward. Obviously, the goal is to go out there and win it. But to get there, first you have to finish. And this race is very, very tough to finish. But, if we can get to that finish line, then I’m sure we’ll be in contention for the win. A win would certainly validate everything that we as a team, together with our partners, have put into this journey.”
I would only add that a win in this Vendée Globe would dramatically and completely transform a career that needs this one epic victory to give it the stamp of greatness.