Sailing: Thompson's tough private education

Boyish enthusiasm faces stern test as three round-the-world voyages beckon in next 18 months
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The Independent Online

Alex Thompson is in slow-burn mode as he lines himself up for a 31,000-mile solo trip around the world. He still has a boyish grin, is full of enthusiasm and proud that he is physically fit, but he also now sees himself as a shrewd operator.

The 32-year-old from Gosport, on the west side of Portsmouth harbour, exploded like a firecracker over the Mount Olympus of singlehanded yacht racing, the Vendée Globe non-stop round the world, in 2004.

He had a distinctive sponsor in Hugo Boss; the television presenter Davina McCall, whose father, Andrew, has strong connections with both yacht racing and Portsmouth, was on hand to perform launching ceremonies; and David Coulthard, the Formula One driver, turned up both to lend support and race the boat. Behind the scenes, Thompson had the patronage of Sir Keith Mills, who was instrumental in the London Olympic Games bid.

Off Thompson went at 100mph only to be felled by the crash and burn of a major gear failure, retreating wounded to Cape Town only a quarter of the way round. Apart from a dismasting it was, he says, his only failure, and it has changed his attitude.

He still insists he would prefer to be described as a young turk rather than seasoned pro, and he does not feel any older than when he first came to prominence. But he quietly acknowledges that he went at what was his first big chance on the world stage a bit like a bull at a gate. "Perhaps naïve is the right word for it," he says. He is in Bilbao waiting for the start in two weeks (22 October) of what is now the Velux Five Oceans Race.

It started life as the BOC Singlehanded, became Around Alone and this time, in its toughest form, is a three-leg affair which first takes the fleet of mainly Open 60 yachts to Fremantle, then round Cape Horn and back up the Atlantic to Norfolk, Virginia, before the closing sprint back across to Bilbao.

Thompson is one of a lead quartet in what is a gruelling challenge - the first leg is 13,500 miles, the second over 15,000. He faces tough competition from fellow Briton Mike Golding and Switzerland's Bernard Stamm.

Then there is the wild card of a 67-year-old Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, determined to defy the ravages of anno domini and his lack of racing experience in the Open 60 yacht, renamed Saga Insurance, which is so different from the old-fashioned 31-foot Suhaili in which he became the first man to sail solo round the world non-stop in 1968-69.

If Sir Robin is trapped by his old-salt image, then Thompson is bound to live up to an expensively cultivated sailing celebrity role, which he has to tone down behind the scenes. This is not a vital stepping stone for Thompson, who has already secured funding for a new boat to be built this winter under the supervision of Jason Carrington at Neville Hutton's yard in Lymington, at the bottom of the New Forest.

In a punishing schedule, Thompson is then due to do the double-handed, non-stop Barcelona Race around the world in 2007, when his partner will be the Australian navigator Andrew Cape, followed by the singlehanded non-stopper, the Vendée Globe, in 2008.

When he says that finishing the Five Oceans is more of a priority than winning it, he is telling the truth. Five months of constant publicity for Hugo Boss is worth more than four weeks of pyrotechnics.

But three times round the world in little more than 18 months is the stuff which turns blond curls to grey. Thompson will be on a fast-track collision course with Saga.

He will also be using this first race to learn more about what he wants from the new boat and, from the Barcelona gig, more about the tactics of racing navigation and weather.

He must love it? Well, no. "I struggle with the thought of doing it," he says. "You have to have your head straight and be in the right mindset. I mean, who wants to spend 50 days at sea alone? It is the little things that get you. There are no shared experiences, no one to have a laugh with. I do like to have a laugh on a boat."

The party line takes over for a moment when he says, "When I do it, I really enjoy it", but is quickly dropped when he adds, "It ends up being a bit like a job". And the counterbalance to all the communications chores of blogging or recording interviews is "contact with my mates. That's the bit that keeps me sane. I phone up my mates".

So, are we to believe that Thompson is off on a sort of public relations cruise round the world? Forget it. "The needle is most definitely there," he says.