Alex Thomson's Barcelona World Race dream dashed

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The Independent Online

Acute appendicitis, requiring surgery in Spain just three days before the start of a non-stop race around the world may prevent Britain’s Alex Thomson from competing in the Barcelona World Race, but it is all systems go for the other British skipper, Dee Caffari.

The managers of Thomson’s racing team, and his sponsors Hugo Boss, have given themselves until the middle of Thursday to decide whether to start, which would need medical clearance, delay the start, put in a substitute skipper, or pull out of the race,

Choosing lunchtime on New Year’s Eve to set off on a journey round the world always had its anti-social side, especially for Thomson, whose partner Kate is due to give birth to their firstborn on 4 January.

Dee Caffari has said goodbye to her man, Harry, son of the legendary ‘Spud’ Spedding, three times before when starting sailing trips round the world.

Both would be with new partners as a high quality fleet of 14 double-handed 60-foot yachts, at 13.00, cross the start line of the Barcelona World Race, being staged for the second time on a four-yearly cycle. Forecasters say they should have benign conditions and a following wind to carry them out of the Mediterranean through the Gibraltar Straits.

The 25,000 miles and, going by the winning time last time, just over 92 days require individual determination and joint endeavour. It has become almost an instant classic on the ocean racing calendar.

For Thomson, who has had his share of troubles when tackling the oceans of the world, this is a return to race in which he finished second with Andrew Cape last time. He once had to be rescued by fellow competitor Mike Golding in the Southern Ocean, 1,200 miles south of Cape Town.

Kate had commented: “It’s certainly a different way to be introduced to your new baby, but I’m behind Alex every step of the way. The Barcelona World Race is unfinished business for him and we’ll both be cheering him on all the way towards the finish line.”

For Caffari, who has progressed through skipper of an amateur round the world crew, through a ‘wrong way’ round the world solo success to finishing sixth in the other big non-stop classic, the Vendée Globe, she has the unknown prospect of sailing with Anna Corbella, whose deep ocean experience is about 28 days.

Considering they are sailing against the likes of Jean-Pierre Dick, winner last time, Loick Peyron, Michel Desjoyeaux, current holder of the Vendée crown and Jean le Cam, the chase for a podium finish is, to say the least, a tall order.

They are not the only women in the race. Michèle Paret will be doing the race for the second time with her longtime partner Dominique Wavre in their new boat, Mirabaud. Apart from the kind of unavoidable breakage that can blight any entry from the best to the least experienced, they are as close as possible to a racing certainty to finish.

But the saying that “worse things happen at sea” has centuries of wry observation behind it and Caffari will be sailing carefully. Taking such an inexperienced partner into the wilds of southern ocean storms can be like asking someone to jump from the nursery ski slopes to a black run.

And, talking of black, the new Hugo Boss, designed by Juan Kouyoumdjian, would be making its first major outing after an extensive programme of modifications. Alongside Thomson would be a Kiwi with both America’s Cup and Volvo round the world race experience, Andy Meiklejohn.Any substitute skipper, and there is a contingency plan, would have to satisfy race director Denis Horeau that he was fully qualified.

As if just completing the course were not testing enough, they have one of the most powerful boats in the fleet. “It’s a beast,” says Thomson. “Few have as much power as we have got. It may mean sometimes we are quicker, but at times we may be slower. We don’t really know, but we do know it will physically be a tough race for us.

“This boat is just hard. Even sail changes are more difficult because of the increased sail area and the much higher loads.”

No such problems for Caffari, who has a more middle of the road boat. Her strengths, she believes, are increased confidence as she starts her fourth trip round the world, increased weather expertise, and feeling a lot more comfortable about pushing the boat in the knowledge that two hands changing sails opens up more options with less risk.

The other bonus about sailing two-handed is that each can hope for some proper sleep, even if only for a couple of hours, as there are other eyes on deck to watch for threatening change, instead of apprehension below. And repairs can be done without losing as much time. “The real bonus is being able to sleep stress-free,” says Caffari.

“I have to say that I am much happier sailing solo,” says Caffari, adding, “does that make me sound unsociable?” Not unless the redoubtable Corbella tries to raid Caffari’s goody bag. “She will have her own, but mine will have my own stock of Haribo sweets. I love the e-numbers and the sugar rush,” she says.

Caffari admits she used to be competing “in awe of the people I stood next to. Now I’m confident to say hello and happy in my own achievements.”

For her a podium finish would be a big, big result. For Thomson even a start would be a result and Alex Thomson Racing’s managing director Stewart Hosford was saying yesterday that it was “highly improbable” that Thomson would race.

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