“Trapped in Greenland we were anchoring to icebergs and drinking whisky with ice hundreds of years old”
Alex Thomson is a yachtsman who competes in round-the-world races, including the Vendée Globe, the only solo non-stop round-the-world race and sailing’s ultimate challenge.
Where do you go to think?
I wouldn’t say I have a regular place to go, but when I’m on the boat sailing for months at a time solo, I do an awful lot of thinking. You do learn the ability to clear your mind when you’re on your own.
What are the everyday pleasures that you can’t live without?
Well, I live without all pleasures when I’m on the boat. No sink, no toilet, no bed, no fresh food. I desalinate my own water; I have nothing. The essentials are: food, water and some contact with my family. We’ll speak everyday on the satellite phone.
To whom do you look for advice most often?
One of my main mentors and great friend is Sir Keith Mills. He was deputy chairman of the London Olympic organising committee and he was hugely influential in my career. Someone who’s got amazing values. If I have anything, he’s the man I call. He generally tries not to hold too much of an opinion, he’s honest, and he helps me make decisions, rather than telling me what to do. Most people don’t advise like that.
During bad moments on the boat, I have a technique I can use to instantly make myself feel happy: I squeeze the bridge of my nose between my thumb and my index finger and think about the births of my children
What’s the best thing you’ve done for someone else?
I’ve done close to 500,000 sea miles, and so I’ve been in many situations, where I’ve either been the main party or part of saving someone’s life. But also, I feel that doing my job inspires a lot of people. One of my chief objectives is to be an ambassador for sailing, because I really believe that it adds value to people, giving them skills that can improve and help their lives away from the water.
What’s the best thing anyone’s done for you?
In 2003, Keith Mills said to me, ‘I believe, Alex, that you can win the Vendée Globe and I am going to provide you with all the tools you’re going to need to be able to do that.’ The following week, the two of us met at Shoreham airport, flew a little plane to Brest in France, where we met a French sailor and Keith bought a boat for me, for €1.1m. I was astonished. That’s what launched my career. His belief in me, to put his hand in his pocket and risk that amount of money, was amazing.
Where’s the best place you’ve ever been?
Part of my family is from Jersey in the Channel Islands. There is a reef of rocks halfway between Jersey and France called Les Écréhous. In that place, the tide moves the water up and down by 12m. At high tide, just a few rocks show, an area about 10m by 10m. At low tide, it’s about a kilometre square, full of seaweed, fish and lobsters. My grandfather, in 1953, built a hut on one of these rocks; 13ft by 15ft; tiny. It’s my absolute favourite place in the world. I love it, because your life at that point is governed by the rise and fall of the tide. I go once a year and try to spend three or four nights there with the family. I went as a kid and now I take my kids. A wonderful place. The island is actually owned by the Queen. My grandfather effectively leased the rock from the Crown for £1 a year. I think it’s about £30 a year now.
What’s the best thing you can cook?
I’m good at the bog-standard stuff: lasagne, spag bol, shepherds’ pie, cottage pie. But the thing I am the best at is a roast dinner. And that’s because of the gravy. It all starts and finishes with the gravy.
How do you make yourself happy?
I don’t generally need to be made happy, but in my job there are good moments and bad moments. Generally, the bad moments come when I’m not performing: same for any athlete. I’ve worked hard with my sports psychologist to have a physical and visualisation technique that I use to instantly make myself feel happy. I squeeze the bridge of my nose between my thumb and my index finger. We worked very hard to relate that movement to one of the happiest moments in my life, and by practising that technique over and over and over again, just by touching the bridge of my nose, I can take myself back and feel as happy as I felt the happiest moment of my life. What is the happiest moment? It’s the births of my children; I’ve got a five-year-old and a two-year-old.
Name the art or culture that most inspires you or enriches your leisure time?
I’m not big on traditional art stuff. I look at my boat, how the designers create the things that work on it and what they produce – from drawings to the physical building of things – and I am more than inspired by the people who do that. My boat took 40,000 man-hours to build. It’s an 18m boat, a big thing, and every square millimetre has been handcrafted and I find that enormously inspiring.
Can you name something you’ve bought that you would never give away?
I am obsessed with kitesurfing on my hydrofoil, which is made by Slingshot. It is my most valuable possession. I won’t even let my wife touch it! Its monetary value is irrelevant. I’m obsessed because I think using it is as close to flying as someone can get. You mainly see kite surfers on boards, bouncing up and down, but on a hydrofoil, once you get to certain speed, you lift out of the water and lose all the friction, all the noise and all the feeling, and it feels like you are flying.
When was the last time you were pleasantly surprised?
About five weeks ago. We just spent an awful lot of time and money on the new boat, and the first time we sailed against other boats properly was on May 29. By the next day, we had found out that two years of design and building, the millions of Euros we’d spent, we had a fast boat. Let me tell you: I was definitely pleasantly surprised.
When was the last time you made or created something?
This new boat. Second time I’ve been involved in making one, €4.5m spent this time. But it’s not me really: I’m only one tiny cog in a team of people. I lead the team, and the boat is made for me and I know everything about it. But without the experts in their fields, I’d have nothing. We hammer everything out together, blood, sweat and tears.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Aside from becoming a father, finishing third in the Vendée Globe in 2012, having spent about nine years of my life trying to win it. It was a huge milestone for us.
What do you consider humankind’s greatest achievement?
Putting a man on the moon in 1969. To show how little people know about our world, that year was also the first time someone sailed solo non-stop around the world. Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, another friend and mentor of mine. It took him nearly a year, and they had a team of psychiatrists waiting for him on the dock when he returned. Their verdict? Completely mad! There was nothing wrong with him, but people, even experts, couldn’t comprehend someone spending that amount of time alone. Even now, people struggle to understand what I do, to choose to be alone for three months at a time.
Who best demonstrates, or has demonstrated, the courage of their convictions?
Ellen Macarthur. She went out there and competed in the Vendée Globe, when everyone thought she was too small and not strong enough. With an enormous amount of determination, she proved everyone wrong. She finished second and could have won the bloody race! She inspired me and many, many other people.
What song could you sing most completely right now?
The Peppa Pig theme tune. With some words changed [sings theme with expletives; bursts out laughing]. If you have kids, you have to take them to Peppa Pig World. [Long pause.] It’s just down the road from where we live.
What’s the best journey you’ve ever been on?
In 1998, I went on an expedition to Greenland with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and Sir Chris Bonnington. It was the most amazing adventure I’ve ever had. We got trapped by ice and had to get a helicopter to get people in and out. We were anchoring to icebergs and drinking whisky with ice hundreds of years old. It was just an enormous adventure playground. We sailed there, stayed for three months, then sailed back to Scotland.
If you could do one thing to change the status quo, what would it be?
Pollution of the oceans. The amount of rubbish I see in the water; that huge island of plastic the size of Wales that’s just off Hawaii. The way we treat the planet is awful, and it needs to be dealt with.
You have one trip in a time machine: where and when would you go?
I’d set the date for Easter Sunday, 1991, and have one last cuddle with my mother on the day she died.
If money were no object, what would you buy and why?
I’d buy a big cruising boat. My boat has no comforts on it, and my wife and I have decided that before the kids to go secondary school, we’d like to take a year out together and sail around the world. Across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, all the way around the world. Give the kids a different kind of education and spend quality time together as a family. So I need a boat for that, and it would be nice to have some relative comfort. Like toilets and beds.
Follow Alex Thomson’s progress in the 2016 Vendée Globe starting November 6, on the Alex Thomson Racing Facebook page: www.facebook.com/AlexThomsonRacing
The photograph of Alex Thomson was taken by Yves Sucksdorff.