Alex Thomson launches his fifth Vendée Globe. Let's find out what drives him ...
Everybody knows Alex Thomson... He is not only one of the most recognizable skippers IMOCA 60, but also one of the few yachtsmen whose name has become better known than the sport itself. In Britain everyone knows his name. Millions of people around the world watched his extreme videos Keelwalk, Mastwalk and Skywalk in social networks; he was interviewed live in the middle of the ocean to the news program BBC Breakfast, he spends time with one of the best riders ever Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton, and appears regularly in glossy magazines such as GQand is sponsored by a luxury brand Hugo Boss.
He's a guy with monochromatic boats, elegant suits, and crazy stunts. He was a child prodigy who became the youngest skipper to win a race Clipper round the world in 1999 at the age of 25. He has big budget campaigns with a huge marketing profile, plays a good game, and doesn't hesitate to share his confidence.
No, he's not perfect as you might think. Alex Thomson has had several spectacular and public failures; his boats sank and capsized, collided with fishing boats, not to mention an attack of appendicitis 24 hours before the start of the race. But he also broke the world 24-hour speed record twice.
Risk and big ego are partly his public image. As a marketing strategy, it's great. It did Alex Thomson and his Hugo Boss IMOCA 60 the most recognizable, sustainable and high-profile brand in sports sponsorship. He is charismatic, very self-confident, competitive and a little quick-tempered.
Although not everything is so simple here. His contracts and he himself have gone through some severe setbacks that an athlete can face. He continued commercial partnerships in situations that seemed impossible on paper, and a sponsorship deal with a German luxury brand Hugo boss, has survived three different CEOs and marketing directors.
More importantly, he also survived, leaving one boat and two badly damaged before the race, and kept the campaign for 14 years without that big win... When Thomson took 3rd place in 2012 Vendée Globe, this was the first round the world solo he completed, emerging from his two previous races Vendée Globe and leaving the sinking boat in Velux 5 oceans.
2020 will mark his fifth attempt to win the Vendée Globe. Maintaining a career for such a long time proves that Thomson is more than just a one-dimensional image.
How he has developed over two decades, trying to succeed in one of the most difficult sports, shows complexity, almost contradiction. Last year it was named Yachtsman of the Year by the Yacht Journalists Association (YJA)... Given Thomson's high profile and media friendliness, it is surprising that he received this award for the first time. But this does not surprise Thomson himself.
"I won nothing!" He says. “I won the Clipper Race in 1998 and was nominated for Offshore Yachtsman of the Yearbut I won nothing else, did I? "
This is true. Although Thomson has achieved a lot over the past 20 years - the third and second place in Vendée Globe, second place in the race Barcelona World Race, transatlantic, and 24-hour record time - he hasn't actually made it to first place in any major race in 20 years.
Unlike many French skippers, for whom events such as Transat Jacques Vabre and Route du Rhumare of the utmost importance, for Thomson, with his English team and German sponsors, short races are something of a necessity. He does not particularly like them, and he did not achieve any good result in them.
“I think the sprints are really tough. You really don't have time to get into a rhythm, by the time you get into it, the race is over. "
His performance and tenacity in the Vendée Globe has silenced critics. In the 2013 race, Thomson took third place, but 4 years later, in 2017, he came in second. It really proved that he can consistently deliver top-notch results. Although Thomson himself says that he did nothing differently.
“In a way, I am fortunate to have acquired such a reputation. It's not that reckless, perhaps crazy maverick, that I'm pushing the boat too hard. It's better than being considered too slow, isn't it? In the beginning, I enjoyed it. Then there came a period when I damaged the boat over and over again, and for a while it became a little painful. Now I don't care. I am who I am".
“I'm not the only one with whom this happened - go and look at the records Bernard Strain (Swiss yachtsman) This is a tough game to play. But I don't think I've ever squeezed too hard. I can't remember a single case when the boat broke because I tore it apart! "
British yachtsman Mike Golding, who has been Thomson's rival for over a decade, doesn't think Alex Thompson is reckless.
“I think he's squeezing everything out of the boat. But he seems to have figured it out right now. And as a result, it has become extremely competitive. It is definitely working to the limit, but there is nothing wrong with that. This can be a winning formula. And he does this not only on the water, but also in his choice. He is not limited by conventions. "
What Thomson really changed was the way he managed his campaigns. “It was very difficult to get through the first five or six years of my career in IMOCA with everything that happened. You must learn to control yourself. But the reality is that in sports you create your own success, and successful teams, oddly enough, are the ones who get the details right and tick the boxes more than anyone else. So the turning point for me came when I realized that we could not manage the team the way we used to. And then I started looking for someone to do business. "
"General director of the team Stuart Hosford joined us in 2010 after a successful career at RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland). He brought not only business visionbut also helped implement the process and systems that govern our team. Therefore, sometimes there is a lot of bureaucracy in our team, but we feel that this is how we should do it in order to catch all the details. "
Focus on eliminating errors was largely illustrated by an incident leading up to Vendée Globe 2008when the case Hugo boss was damaged by a French fishing vessel and the boat lost its mast on the way to start at Les Sables d'Olonne - a situation that could absolutely have been avoided.
You don't have many chances in ocean races to foolishly throw one of them away. A decade later, this incident is still a sore point for Thomson.
“It was a boat that was so ready for this race. He walked for miles. To be honest, this was my best chance of winning the Vendée Globe ... until now. It was a hard pill to swallow. "
Coming so close to winning in 2017 there was no doubt that he would no longer participate... “I promised my wife that this is the last race. It's so hard, it takes a lot. Kay and I agreed that this would be the last time, and then I called her the night before the finish line in 2017. I told her, “Look, at the press conference, the first question will be: Am I going to do it again?"And she said," Well, you came in third and second, it would be a little wrong if you didn't want to ultimately win, so if you want to do that, I will support you. " So I'm definitely doing another race. "
“I feel physically and mentally able to go and win the next race. But on the day when I feel that I cannot win, I will stop. "
Thomson says he never feels discouraged by dangers of circumnavigation... But here contradictions arise - and mental gymnastics is necessary to balance life on the brink. “The most difficult thing is to carry it out. time aloneit's hard to deal with. But if you're used to walking on the ocean, it's just ... nice. "
His father was a search and rescue helicopter pilot and his mother died when he was a teenager. I wonder if watching his father save people at sea gave him a different perception of these dangers?
But Alex says no. "I am not doing anything risky. I never feel in danger. The boats are safe, it really is, now they are completely unsinkable. "
Didn't he ever feel like maybe he was just unlucky? "Maybe for a moment. Maybe two years ago, when the boat capsized, there was a 20 second period of this "nonsense!"
This does not mean that he does not feel fear. During his first rescue in the middle of the ocean, when Mike Golding found him drowning Hugo boss during Velux 5 oceans in 2006, Thomson confesses that he was scared.
“Basically, the main emotion for me was sadness at the loss of the boat... It was a good boat and it was my first. There was a moment in the life raft when I broke my arm, went into shock, and became completely negative. I thought I was going to die... But besides this, there are times when you wake up, the wind gets stronger and the boat gets out of control. I know when I'm scaredbecause I'm starting to sweat profusely. And I have to stop it. "
He works with a sports psychologist Ken Way over mental methods to deal with stressful situations. They took this agonizing fear and turned it into an instrument.
“One of my problems is that I'm an extrovert and I'm emotional, really emotional. I suffer from ups and downs. It can happen instantly - I can go from super low to super high in three seconds... As a result, when I'm at a low level, I have to work harder. I neither sleep nor eat. My mood depends only on my performance, nothing else exists. But actually my biggest problem is the highs, because a high level means I can be complacent and there is no room for complacency in these things".
“This is how we recreated this aura of invincibility: Imagine driving on the road, you feel great and you are not paying attention to anything. We took that feeling and connected it with the car coming towards you and BOOM. We recreated it all so that whenever I feel this feeling of invincibility, I have a different feeling. "what will happen next?"
“This is perhaps the most extreme example, but it really works and I cannot separate it from my personal life. Living with extreme fear "This is all part of the normalization of the extraordinary that characterizes the best ocean racers."
“When the race is over and all these 50,000 people are looking at you, you don't feel worthy... And that's because even though you know it's extraordinary doing this for 80 days in a row is becoming the norm. "
This time he is building a boat with one ambition: winning the Vendée Globe.
“In those days when we were terrible in terms of performance, it was difficult because we had to make choices to make sure we finished the race. We can no longer admit any flaws. There is no room for any compromise now. "
Thomson is fascinated by the technical element of the class IMOCA, as well as the luxury of being able to order your own designs. And now, again, this dichotomy between the huge ego, necessary in order to feel comfortable, having at your disposal multimillion dollar yachtcustom built with your name and the knowledge that the ocean can take it away and humble you in an instant.
“Obviously this is a test and all, but I love the humility of it all. When you step back from the shore and no longer see land, you know how insignificant you are... In addition, I receive an award, a boat built for myself, for height, weight, for everything. I can have whatever I want. It's so boastful! "
Alex Thomson on his public image
“If you look atArmel Le Clais or Francois Gabara, they are gorgeous. They put on costumes for the right events. They do a great job. Something from the brighter side of the world IMOCA, personally I would like to change a little. Because we are all standing there and taking pictures together, and I don't want to be associated with someone who didn't bother to tuck their shirt in. For me, this is not what we do, but we represent our sponsors and we have to look like professional athletes. "
“I joined Clipper Ventures in 1997 year as a boatswain. My job was to help refit eight boats and then Robin Knox-Johnston asked if I would become the first mate on the expedition to Greenland. I said, “Well, Robin, it’s a great honor for me, but I want to be the skipper in your race. Am I too young for this?"He just looked at me and said," I don't know. Come to Greenland, we'll find out. "
“Now, knowing what I’m doing, and all the consequences of my actions, and the things that can go wrong, I look at Robin and say:“ Yes friend, it was a serious risk to take me with you. ” But I loved it and it made me! "
In recognition of his merits in sailing over a 20-year career, Alex Thomson was awarded the title of Knight ("Chevalier") of the National Order of Merit by the French Embassy. He received the medal and certificate at a ceremony held in June 2019 at the residence of the French Ambassador in Kensington Palace Gardens. At the age of 45, Thomson is considerably younger than the median age for admission to the prestigious group of prize-winners and is one of the few non-French sailors ever to receive the honor of the French Order. This symbolizes the recognition by France of his contribution to yachting and the whole world in general.
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