Briton Alex Thomson aims for Bradley Wiggins-style coup in Vendée Globe

Image: Mark Lloyd

Alex Thomson — Britain’s only competitor in the world’s toughest around the world yacht race — the Vendée Globe — aims to pull off a sporting coup of the same magnitude as when cyclist Bradley Wiggins became the first ever Britain to win the Tour de France.

Widely acknowledged as among the world’s most punishing sporting endurance challenges, the Vendée Globe is a non-stop singlehanded yacht race around the world starting and finishing in French Atlantic coast port of Les Sables D’Olonnes.

Competitors race alone on their 60-foot yachts around a non-stop global course that takes them west to east past the southernmost tips of Africa, Australia and South America.

Contact the race organisation and their support teams back ashore using satellite phones is allowed but any form of physical external assistance to the skipper or their yachts results in disqualification.

Only French skippers have ever won the race over its first seven editions dating back to 1989 — a winning spree patriotic Briton Thomson hopes to put an end to in the 2016–17 edition which starts November 6.

The Vendée Globe is a sporting institution in France with public awareness on par with the Tour De France and other major mainstream sporting events. French competitors are lauded as national heroes and are household names in their home country.

“This is a French dominated race so of course there is rivalry,” Thomson said. “It would be the ultimate defeat for the French if I as a British Skipper won the Vendée Globe. It would on the same scale as the Brit Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour De France.”

Image: Hugo Boss Sailing Team

Thomson failed to finish his first two attempts due to hull damage to his yachts’ but earned huge respect from sailing fans and fellow competitors when he finished third in the 2012–13 edition. This impressive result came despite Thomson regularly having to sail without electronic instrumentation after his hydro-electric generators failed.

Now Thomson is back for what many believe will be Britain’s best ever chance of defeating the French in their own back yard.

“My goal has always been to be the first British skipper to win the Vendée Globe,” said Thompson who campaign is sponsored by upscale fashion brand Hugo Boss.

“I believe ahead of this edition I am physically and mentally prepared for the race. We have a fantastic IMOCA 60 and a great team supporting me.”

Every four years in November over 300,000 spectators cram the normally peaceful seaside streets of Les Sables D’Olonnes to cheer each and every one of the skippers off on Vendée Globe start day.

Months later they return to Les sables D’Olonnes to welcome home the exhausted but triumphant winner. They do the same for all the skippers who make it back — irrespective of whether their arrival takes place in daylight or the dead of night.

Not everyone gets all the way around. Statistics from the race’s seven editions since its inception in 1989 show a typical drop-out rate of around half. Amongst the reasons listed for retirement are sinkings, capsizes, dismastings, lost rudders and shredded sails.

Most of this carnage takes place in the icy waters south of the three capes — the lonesome and inhospitable storm ridden expanses known as the Southern Ocean.

Three sailors have paid the ultimate price for taking on the world’s oceans alone in the Vendée Globe’s history.

Prior to the 1992 start American sailor Mike Plant died when he capsized near the Azores while sailing his boat across the Atlantic to Les Sables D’Olonnes for the start. Then, just three days into the race, British skipper Nigel Burgess fell overboard and drowned in horrific weather in the Bay of Biscay.

In the 1996–97 race Canadian skipper Gerry Roufs was in second place on the way to Cape Horn when the race organisers lost contact with him in severe conditions. He was never heard from again, although months later his damaged boat was found floating off the coast of Chile.

While acknowledging the rivalry between himself and the large contingent of French skippers (21 of the 30-boat fleet in the current edition are French-flagged) Thomson says there is a more complex connection between the competing skippers than might meet the eye.

“The relationship between the competitors is very unique as it is a very competitive and highly professional sport,” he said. “Whilst we prepare for the race we do not spend much time with each other and each team prepares for their own race.

“However, there is a different side. When you are in the Southern Ocean there are no shipping lanes, no rescue services, no helicopters and the only people there who can help you in an emergency are your competitors. So in fact there is strong camaraderie among us all who are taking part.”

Thomson’s word come from terrifying experience. While racing solo in the 2006 Velux 5 Oceans Race he had to be rescued from his rapidly sinking yacht in the Southern Ocean by fellow British competitor Mike Golding.

Although sailing is not anything close to a mainstream spectator sport in Great Britain, British yachtsmen have enjoyed considerable success at the highest level across the world.

The Britain’s sailing team topped the medal table at the Rio Olympic Games, Sir Ben Ainslie is the most successful Olympic sailor ever and his Land Rover BAR syndicate is a serious challenger for the America’s Cup in Bermuda next summer. Last year Ian Walker became the first ever Englishman to win the Volvo Ocean Race in its more than 40-year history.

Thomson aims to capitalise on his country’s run of success with a British victory in the Vendée Globe and he’s hoping the British sporting public will be cheering him on as he singlehandedly takes on the world.

“Sailing has grown steadily in popularity over the years,” he said. “Now, more people take part, watch and follow the sport which can only be a good thing.”

“People of all ages got a taste of how exciting sailing can be during the Olympics, which is great, but races like the Vendée Globe focus more on endurance, stamina and strength — both emotional and physical — and shows the sport in an entirely different light.

“I think when people actually hear what goes into a race like a solo, round the world mission, they begin to realise just how exciting sailing can be.”

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