Finishing the 28,022 miles of the Vendee Globe tells its own tale. Stare into the competitor’s eyes and you see adrenalin-pumped elation, then sheer relief and finally weariness.
Today Alex Thomson trod that well-worn emotional path after circumnavigating the world single-handedly at his fourth attempt to finally join one of sport’s most select clubs. Arriving in France to an uproarious welcome, he also had the satisfaction of knowing he was, by eight days, the quickest Briton ever to complete the distance. He rounded the world in that most mystical of times, 80 days.
Well 80 days 19hrs 23 mins to be precise, which was still three days behind the winner, Francois Gabart. Thomson, but worth €75,000 of prize money.
There to meet the 38-year-old from Gosport was wife Kate and two-year-old son Oscar. “It feels great, it really does. This is my third Vendée Globe experience [he also competed in the Velux 5 Oceans challenge], three times I have left, but only once have I returned at the end and this way is great. The crowds in the harbour to welcome me back, suddenly make it all seem worthwhile.”
“I have sailed the boat at 100 per cent., and I think I have done a good job. “There was never a moment when I thought I wouldn’t finish,” said Thomson who sailed in the 60ft Hugo Boss.
And the best times? Not the sunrises, not the bright stars or flying fish and dolphins. “The great moments are when the position reports come in and you are making miles (on your competitors) and the bad moments are when you are losing miles. For me, I am in this for the competition. It’s brutal, it’s tough and the positives are when you are doing well.”
His first request, perhaps understandably, was for a good meal although not perhaps the one many would assume. “I would murder for a cheeseburger,” said Thomson. His wish was duly granted although not they type he wanted. He would have preferred a Big Mac. “I’ve been dreaming of the arches,” he added.
The team mantra for Ellen (now Dame) MacArthur when she came second and shot to fame in 2000-01 was “singlehanded but never alone”. But, mainly, they are alone. Delegation is not an option, there is no-one to say “take a break mate and let me fix it.”
Thomson is now the third Briton to claim a top-three finish in the race after Ellen MacArthur, who was second in 2001, and Mike Golding who finished third in 2004. Golding finished sixth in this race.
Before leaving, Thomson had said he never had any motivation problems when it comes to tackling jobs. But these are not undertaken in the dry warmth of a well-lit garage. The floor is heaving up and down, crashing off the top of a wave into the trough in front, spraying icy cold water all over you, and your numb fingers burn with the cold.
He had trouble with water-powered electricity generators, taking only enough fuel to charge all the electronic instruments and self-steering equipment for half the time, and had to mend a rod which linked the twin rudders, but the boat was and is in good shape.
He has been backed by UK America’s Cup team owner Sir Keith Mills, also a former deputy chairman for London 2012 of LOCOG, and a current director of Tottenham Hotspur. “This is the culmination of 10 years of work by Alex and the team around him,” he said. “This was the dream when Alex and I first started to talk about short-handed ocean racing.
“It’s been a remarkable journey and I have been on the ‘phone many times in the middle of the night about catastrophes that have befallen Alex but he has played this one perfectly.
“There might be a Bradley Wiggins factor involved as the French are so dominant in this game and there might be an Ivan Lendl factor as the management structure is unrecognisable from 10 years ago. Stewart Hosford and the shore team have done a fantastic job, taking some of the management responsibilities off Alex’s shoulders and he would not be where he is today without them.
“At 38 he is 10 years older now, he’s a dad, and everything is now a team decision, but he still has the killer instinct. I am sure they are going to go on to greater things. This is a very emotional morning and there have been a few tears in our eyes.”
The Kiwi commentator Peter Montgomery is credited with dubbing the desolate wastes of the Southern Ocean which girdle Antarctica as “the liquid Himalaya” but the summit is thousands of miles away up the North Atlantic in the little fishing port of Les Sables d’Olonne on the armpit of the French Atlantic coast south of Brittany.
In some ways Thomson’s journey has taken nine years. His first attempt at the race ended in failure in 2004 when the boom broke off the mast and punctured the deck. Then, in another roundt he world race in 2006, he had to be rescued by Mike Golding after being hit by keel failure 1,500 miles south of Cape Town. There was more disappointment in 2008 when, making final adjustments prior to the start of the Vendee Globe, he was hit by a fishing boat. Despite a desperate attempt to repair the damage and making the start he quickly had to pull out.
The 2012-13 Vendée has seen him come of age and complete a passage which earns him the right to claim to be top British dog on the world solo racing circuit, though Brian Thompson could give him a run for his money.
“Whatever else, this bodes well for future British challenges in the Vendée Globe,” added Sir Keith.