How One Man Handles One Of The World’s Most Dangerous Sports
Champion sailor Alex Thomson risks his life on the high seas, then comes back to land in style
Alex Thomson was staring at a 50-foot wave somewhere between Africa and Antarctica, where water temperatures drop below freezing and rescue services are hours away. That’s when his keel—the mechanism that keeps a boat upright—snapped in half, capsizing the vessel and turning it into a death trap. This was 2006, and the sailor had been battling for second place, three weeks into a round-the-world race. He spent the next hour and a half weathering a storm in a life raft, and was finally rescued by a competitor. To get to safety, he needed to fire a line to the other guy’s boat—but the line tightened around Thomson’s hand and broke it in three places.
Then, finally, when he was on board, the mast of this new ship folded. “It was a really bad day at the office,” Thomson says now, with a laugh.
Thomson is known as a “yachter,” but that term may mislead anyone not schooled in the lingo of racing. He’s not popping bubbly on a floating condo. The skipper’s office is a custom-built, 60-foot, carbon-fiber racing machine, made for competing in months-long, dangerous voyages that he often undertakes alone. “As soon as you lose sight of land,” he says, “it gives you perspective of how small we are as a human race. I find that very humbling.”
Thomson eased his way out to sea. At 11, he began windsurfing. By 14, it was on to dinghies. At 25, he became the youngest sailor to win a round-the-world race. And now, at 41, he has held three world records, including Britain’s speed record for a solo 24-hour sail on a ship with a single hull. He went 468 nautical miles at an average speed of 19.5 knots.
That stumble in the Southern Ocean is the kind of risk he’s willing to take. He and his rescuer spent 15 hours fighting huge waves and a blizzard while repairing the broken mast, before sailing to Cape Town over seven days. Once on land, he was eager to race again. “It’s one of the most challenging things you can do,” he says. Consider our most popular sports: They’re an hour or so of play, broken up with timeouts and intermissions. But sailing? “Being in a competitive environment 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 12 weeks is the right kind of work environment for me.”
Now Thomson is changing ships. After two years of design and another year of building, his new vessel—which, like his old one, is named after his sponsor Hugo Boss—debuts on October 25 in a race called the Transat Jacques Vabre. It takes place over 5,400 miles, from Le Havre, France, to Itajaí, Brazil. But the untiring competitor is realistic: “It’s not something we expect to win,” he says, though he’s placed second in it before. Instead, the race is a chance to settle into his new boat and prepare for next November’s Vendée Globe, the pinnacle event in round-the world, solo, nonstop racing. That’s a 26,000-mile ordeal he does hope to dominate.
Photos by Robert Wyatt