Alex Thomson may have left Pointe-à-Pitre disappointed that his first Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe ended with such a high profile accident, but during 3460 or so miles of the 3542 miles course the English skipper had already established himself and his current Hugo Boss as the fastest combination on the planet.
The 44-year old was given a 24-hour penalty for using his engine to motor off a rocky cliff in the north east of Guadeloupe when he slept through his alarms and grounded Hugo Boss. The professional and humble manner in which he took sole responsibility for his error – ‘I disqualified myself’, he acknowledged – was well received around the world, but the hurt of messing up and losing the chance of his first big IMOCA win will be with him for a long time.
But Thomson took many positives from the race. Hugo Boss was fastest downwind, sometimes by up to two knots. He has sailed more than 70,000 miles now on Hugo Boss and set a new 24 hour crewed record in the summer.
He had a 200 nautical miles lead when he had his little accident. And, since 2011 when he finished second on the Farr designed Hugo Boss in the Transat Jacques-Vabre with Guillermo Altadill, Thomson has finished on the podium of every IMOCA ocean race he has finished including third then second on successive Vendée Globe races.
And now Alex his new VPLP designed boat in build at Carrington Boats in Hythe in England due to launch late Spring. He must rank as the favourite to win the next Vendée Globe, and beyond that he has an interest in having a team in the crewed race around the world.
There are plenty of reasons for Alex Thomson to be cheerful.
So you came into the Route du Rhum not having lined up against an IMOCA really since your Vendée Globe, would you ever want to do a season at Port La Foret, or is that against your principle of tending to work on your own?
I think it is a bit like the America’s Cup. When the Cup was in Bermuda and Artemis went there first and then Oracle and Japan all went and they all sailed against each other and all end up in the same place and then Team New Zealand come in later with their technology. So I feel like we do have a good idea of where we are against the others. This boat is the reference boat in IMOCA and you would imagine that Charal will over take this boat at some point.
Has your second place in the 2016-17 race changed people’s perception of you, especially in France?
I don’t know. It does not bother me. I have had or still maybe do have a reputation as a maverick or whatever anyone wants to say. There were times when I used to like it, there were times when I used to hate it, now I don’t care. I’d rather people thought I am too fast rather than too slow! The last Vendée Globe was a game changer, people did not realise until the start of the race that we had the potential.
What about the popularity of the Vendée Globe and the Route du Rhum in France, it is extraordinary and never ceases to amaze, here you are amidst these massive crowds….
I am still a fan of Formula 1 and I saw the US Grand Prix in Austin recently and they were talking of crowds of 250,000 people over a four day weekend, and here in Saint-Malo we are seeing 150,000 people a day. And they, Austin, are probably paying 20 or 30 million dollars to host the race.
How often do you think about the Vendée Globe?
Every day. Everything we do is about winning the Vendée Globe. I would love to win it. The Route du Rhum is a learning exercise towards that, benchmarking where we are, we are just carrying on making improvements to the programme all the time.
When will the new boat be launched?
No one really knows (laughs). Experience tells us that before they would say ‘it will go in the water on June 12th but doesn’t. We are saying early summer. Jason Carrington is very good and just built the new Ràn (circuit winning Fast40+) and after us I think he is building for some of the Cup teams.
We plan to do the Fastnet with the new boat and then the Jacques Vabre and then onwards from there.
How different is on a transatlantic and the Vendée Globe?
It is amazing what you get used to on the Vendée Globe. It is very different to a race like the Route du Rhum. After the Vendée Globe when you are on the boat non stop for three months and then it goes in the shed for two months the winter and you get back on the boat and you suddenly back thinking ‘oh dear this is a bit scary….did I really get that used to this?’ But that is what the Vendée Globe is like, it is such an undertaking in the first place, choosing to spend so long on your own. But then you do get into the Vendée Globe progressively.
The record in the summer (539.71nms) underlined how quick the boat is?
The record was nothing much. This boat can do more, it can average 30kts in the right conditions. We have been in the Channel averaging 30kts in not a lot of wind before someone said, ‘actually this is not a good idea, let’s slow down. We have seen that four or five times when we have had absolutely perfect conditions, doing more than 30kts, and every single time I’ve slowed down or stopped, that was all pre Vendée Globe, during the Vendée Globe or in the Channel recently. I have never had the time or the inclination to do the 24 hour record properly I think this boat could get very close to 700 miles.
How does it work with VPLP the designers, do you give them a brief? How do they keep project intelligence apart?
Last time there were six projects and this time there are two. We were amazed last time how they kept us all separate, it could have not been easy. And last time I think they maybe thought there would be similarities between the six and in the end they were all a bit different. This time more than any other time with any other boat we have lead the conversation, we have to give our team some credit with this boat, this boat was driven a lot by what we wanted to do and how we did it. We made some good choices, choosing a foil which was designed by us and not by the designers.
We have Andy Claughton (ex Emirates Team New Zealand) who is like the: ‘hello guys, what are you doing? That is not the low hanging fruit, you should be taking this here.’ He takes an overview and makes sure we are on track and helps with the CFD. He makes sure we don’t go off at a tangent into a science project we did not want to do. In our team we now have Neal McDonald (round world Volvo racer)who is a naval architect and I think we have seven naval architects now. There are 18 people in the whole team, split 50:50 between technical and commercial side.
And what is the cost of the new boat? Is it a secret?
The new boat is costing £5m which is slightly more expensive than last time. The Euro exchange is 30 per cent different to what it was before,
You have spoken about the fully crewed race around the world in IMOCAs and your desire to be involved, how do you see that working?
The Volvo thing is something which interests us but it is not an easy marriage to make. I am not sure how it is all going to work out. It will depend on how the rules are written, there are different elements, there is the notice of race, there are the IMOCA crewed rules which we are writing just now and then there is the commercial partnerships agreement. Until you look at them all together then you have to decide. We are a full time team as such. A Volvo team does the race and disappears, doesn’t it? So for an IMOCA team the last Volvo was ten months. I am not doing that. I have zero interest in a ten month race. It is a very complex thing. Look at it this way, in 1973 there were four legs and 17 entries, the next one four legs 15 entries, the next one four legs and 29 entries, then you jump to nine legs and ten entries, ten legs eight entries, ten legs seven and so on. I say don’t do half a job. Go to a proper population centre like New York and do a proper job. If we want the IMOCA teams to do it and what IMOCA are very good at doing is creating a lot of value for very little money. If the ‘volvo’ had no stops most of the fleet would do it. So let us see a sensible course. And let us talk about sustainability as well, is it sustainable to fly two sets of everything around the world?
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