Hugo Boss & Sharp
The Vendée Globe is a solo, non-stop sailing race around the world, beginning in France and ending, several gruelling months later, back where it began. It runs every four years and is among the most extreme, most demanding, and most glorified sporting achievements anywhere. Last year, British yachtsman Alex Thomson completed the race in 74 days, 19 hours, and 35 minutes — the second-fastest time on record. If you’re familiar with Thomson, this shouldn’t be surprising. He’s an experienced and decorated sailor with an almost superhuman talent for pushing limits. Don’t believe us? Google his name and you’ll find a series of stunt videos, each more impossible than the last — climbing the mast on the open water in a full suit, kite surfing onto a moving sailboat, riding on the keel.
But Thomson’s sporting life is more than just showmanship and technical prowess. He is the model of discipline and preparedness, and a true believer in the power and purpose of testing one’s breaking points. As Thomson trains for his next circumnavigation in 2020, he’s bringing his boat, Hugo Boss, across the Atlantic and down the St. Lawrence, stopping this month in Montreal and Toronto to show off the sport he loves. We sat down with him before he made the journey to find out about his life on — and off — the water.
How did you first get into sailing?
My dad was a helicopter pilot, so all I ever wanted to do was fly a big chopper. But as a teenage lad, I had my eyes tested, and they told me my vision was so bad I couldn’t even be a seaman in the navy. I started sailing anyway and eventually I turned it into my job.
What do you still love about it?
The thing I love about sailing is that feeling when you leave land. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a dinghy or a cruise ship — you start to understand how small we are as a human race. That perspective is humbling. And you never lose it.
What goes into preparing for a race? Physically, technically, mentally?
That’s a never-ending question, that one. There’s the physical side, which is flexibility, strength, and conditioning. It depends where we are and what we’re doing, but the reality is I spend probably a maximum of 10 hours a week at the gym. That’s justified to some degree by all the other training there is. I probably do 30 to 40 hours of mental training a year — and you could easily argue that I could benefit from more. I’m not a trained meteorologist but I train in meteorology to understand what the weather’s doing. I have to be able to navigate. I have to be a doctor, a maintenance man — the list is endless. It’s a constant prioritization, because you can’t do everything. That’s the bit I find fascinating: the constant reviewing of where you’re at and where to concentrate the resource to have the biggest impact.
Knowing how long you’ll be away and the dangers that await you, how do you psych yourself up to get out on the water?
Most people say they can’t understand choosing to spend three months out alone at sea. My answer to them is: “Well, what did you do in the last three months?” It is a long time, we all know that, but if you can recognize that it’ll go by very quickly and it won’t be so bad, I don’t bother with it. The loneliness side of it is interesting. It’s another thing people don’t understand. I separate the feelings of loneliness and isolation. You can feel very lonely in a very crowded room. I don’t feel lonely, because I have a great family and a great support network — so how could I? I can feel isolated and I recognize that, but separating the two emotions makes it easier. I choose to look at the glass as half full.
So take the Vendée Globe, an around-the-world race that you completed last time in 74 days. It’s day 62, you wake up, look out onto the open water. What’s going through your head?
There’s an internal drive, obviously. But I consider myself a small cog in a large machine. I’m answerable to the rest of the team. So I don’t really struggle with motivation. The job, really, is about discipline. It’s a self-management exercise in how to remain motivated and how to stick to the process. You’re constantly sleep deprived, so it’s recognizing when you’re in a position to make decisions. It’s a never-ending thing. Everybody wants to talk about what the race is like, but the truth is the race is, to some degree, the easy part. What happens before the race is what defines the race. We made choices six months ago that could define whether we win or lose in the next six months: who your designer is, who you’re going to work with, what your process is.
Tell me more about your team. Who’s on it? Who runs it?
We’re a very flat organization. Everybody’s opinion should be heard. That’s important because we all want to win, and the people on the team give up a lot for that. It affects their lives and their families’ lives. We go on the journey together.
The boat itself is an amazing piece of engineering. What sets yours apart?
It’s a work of art. This boat is completely custom-made for me around my weight, my height, my philosophy. It’s extremely ostentatious in some ways, but it’s a part of our family. It’s got a piece of our hearts in it. It’s such a privilege to have it. People ask me why I do what I do. Part of it is the preparation; part of it is the challenge, to do something so few others have done; part of it is to be in a race 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which is the right kind of event for me; but really it’s because someone gives me five million euros to build what I consider to be the world’s best toy.
What is your philosophy?
It’s about what do we need to do to win the Vendée Globe? The race is in 2020, and we have to sit down and work out what the most important bits are. Is it space? Is it power? We start building our new boat in six weeks, so I can’t really tell you what my philosophy is because it would give the game away.
You’re highly accomplished in your sport. What goals are still on your horizon?
The goal of our sport is to go non-stop around the world. Well, that’s understandable, no matter how much you know about sailing. Still, today there are less than 100 people who have sailed solo nonstop around the world — and there are 700 people who’ve gone to outer space. So our story is emotional, and it connects with non-sailors. Our sport is about human endeavour. It’s about adventure. It’s not about technical sailing, and I think that’s why it’s unique.
Who were your heroes growing up?
Sir Robert Knox-Johnston. He gave me my first big break. He’s an amazing fellow and mad as a hatter. He sailed around the world on a boat he built himself. He’s still around. I saw him a few days ago painting the bottom of his boat, planning his trip to Greenland. He’s an inspiration to all of us.
What do you do to relax when you’re on dry land?
I’ve got a young family — a seven-year-old and a two-year-old — so when I’m not sailing I’m working out how to get us on the water. My son is a very enthusiastic kite surfer.
How does your family deal with what you do for a living?
It’s hard. My wife supports me very well. We talk about the challenges and we talk about how it’s going to work. I feel very lucky that I can do that with someone. It’s hard with the kids. The last time, my boy was quite sad. His class at school had given me a cuddly turtle called Speedy, so I thought I could make some videos called “The Adventures of Speedy at the Vendée Globe.” Obviously, the first one I had to do was how Speedy got stuck in the carbon-fibre toilet.
You have a very long-standing relationship with your main sponsor, Hugo Boss. How does that partnership work?
Yeah, it’s been 15 years now. The sport and the brand work so well together because they’re both aspirational. The sport that I do, because of the human endeavour and adventure, it inspires people. That’s why they pair so well. And Hugo Boss is a brand that likes to do things differently. There’s a lot of trust between us now. When we go to them and suggest an idea of me running up the mast and diving off the top into the water for a promotional video, I can see the look in their eyes, like “Are you mad?” But they trust us to go do it anyway. It’s amazing to be able to work like that.
And you get to wear cool clothes…
I have more shoes than my wife.
Tell me more about your personal style.
At home with my kids, I’m as casual as can be — and usually covered in mud. And of course, being on the water can be a bit grungy. You don’t come out of a transatlantic sprint looking spiffy. So I love to dress up when I can. I do all the stunts in a BOSS suit. Pulling off those kinds of stunts is all about confidence. Being confident allows you to perform at a higher level. It doesn’t matter where you stand — I’ve stood on the bloody keel, I’ve stood on the mast — if you’re wearing a well-fitted suit, you know you look good. And if you look good, you’re going to feel confident and perform well.
You’re coming to Toronto this summer, where sailing isn’t nearly as big a sport as hockey or baseball. How do you pitch what you do to North Americans?
You only have to hear the stories. Outside of France, you have to explain what the Vendée Globe is. Once you’ve explained what it is, people can’t believe how extraordinary it is. There’s so much to be gained from it in normal life or business life. In France, they understand that if you put a child in a single-handed boat, it teaches them independence and resilience; if you put two kids in a double-handed boat, it teaches them teamwork. These are life skills and values that often aren’t being taught anymore. That’s what I love about the sport.