The Calvin Report - Alex Thomson: 'I don't do this for the love of the sea. It's an adventure'

Alex Thomson is one of three British solo sailors who started the epic Vendée Globe race yesterday. Last time, his keel fell off...

Les Sables d’Olonne

The crowd, half a million strong, lined the French Atlantic harbour walls in driving rain. The well-wishers were a blur of humanity, a blaze of colour, a buzz of conflicting accents and entreaties. By the time darkness fell last night, and Alex Thomson began adjusting to solitude, they were ghosts.

The British sailor faces three months with only a recurring sense of awe, dread and excitement for company. Each mile, every knot and nuance of his solo navigation in the Vendée Globe will be a journey of self-discovery.

More than 3,000 people have climbed Everest. In excess of 500 have reached outer space. Only 68 have sailed solo, non-stop, around the planet. Thomson, twice a victim of sailing's most extreme race, has yet to join them.

The Vendée Globe is France's definitive sports event, but makes a universal statement about the human condition. The 20 skippers, who include three Britons, Samantha Davies, Mike Golding and Thomson, represent nobility of spirit in a world neutered by institutional caution.

Danger is omnipresent in a uniquely attritional 26,000-mile race, which has killed three sailors in 20 years. Thomson nearly lost his life when he was rescued by Golding after the keel of his boat fell off, deep in the Southern Ocean.

Davies went to the aid of the French sailor Yann Eliès, who lived only because he instinctively grabbed a trailing rope when he was being swept overboard by a rogue wave. He crawled back to his cabin after breaking his thigh, leg and pelvis, and waited, in excruciating pain, for three days for help.

The race's folklore is punctuated by acts of heroism. Briton Pete Goss forfeited his chances of winning in 1997, when he sailed 160 miles back into a hurricane to save Raphael Dinelli, who had tethered himself to the stump of the broken mast on his sinking yacht, and was waiting to die.

Goss was my skipper when I sailed the wrong way around the world, against prevailing winds and tides. It was a formative experience. In the words of the poet Anne Stevenson, "the sea is as near as we come to another world". Surfing down waves, trailing a wake of green phosphorescence under a platinum moon, is simply surreal. The Southern Ocean, where waves, with crests up to 200 metres apart, roll unimpeded around the bottom of the world, has a terrible majesty. It has a spiritual dimension, definable moods, a distinct personality.

Anyone who feels obliged to ask the question of why these sailors put themselves in harm's way will never understand the answer. There is an element of addiction in sailing alone. No other activity threatens such prolonged physical and mental hardship, in utter isolation. Technology eases the sense of guilt of leaving loved ones – Thomson can still talk to his wife, Kate, and their 22-month old son, Oscar – but ultimately he is alone.

Thomson's boat, named after his sponsors, Hugo Boss, is the maritime equivalent of a Formula One car. It has nearly 30,000 parts, and weighs little less than eight tons. "I don't do this for the love of the sea, or the beauty of the ocean," he insists. "It's an adventure, but I do it because of the competition."

Yet just as there are few atheists in a foxhole, Thomson was keenly aware of his mortality as he waited 12 hours for rescue by Golding. The sea's defining code, that sailors respond to those in distress, cut through the clutter of personal and professional rivalries.

"Mike and I had a disagreement and hadn't spoken for weeks,"he said, "He saved my life, and then, three hours later, his mast fell down. It was a terrible thing to happen to him. We had to nurse his boat back to Cape Town, in a blizzard. We'd hated one another. We'd never sailed together. Suddenly, we were one."

It is an elemental experience. Golding admits his mantra for the next three months will be: "Sleep before you are tired. Eat before you are hungry. Change clothes before you are cold." Thomson argues: "The human mind and body is simply amazing. We can push back what we think are our limits."

Thomson will burn 7,000 calories daily in the Southern Ocean, when he will be sustained by freeze-dried, liquefied mush. His only fresh food, five packs of bacon, will be gone by the weekend. He will sleep in 20 to 40-minute bursts, on a black foam mattress which folds into a rudimentary chair, every two to four hours.

He said: "Everything slows down when you're sleep-deprived. Simple decisions seem difficult. You are not able to be rational,The key is not to end up in that state. These boats carry big loads. One mistake on deck and your hand is gone."

Thomson self-meditates, uses physical actions to alter his emotional state. In times of stress he pinches the bridge of his nose, because the pressure "reminds me of the things I value, the very best things in my life".

The boat below deck is sparse, eerie. It is a carbon-fibre sarcophagus. Noise from the hull, and rigging, stimulates the imagination. In times of stress, Thomson closes his eyes, and imagines himself "being outside the boat, looking down on it. There are no storm clouds, no rogue waves, no icebergs. It's all cool."

Ellen MacArthur, second in 2001, embraced misery as an ally. Davies, who has left a young son, Reuben, behind, insists: "I am not afraid of being afraid." Golding likens the race to three-dimensional chess.

The boats fall off waves, into troughs which have the consistency of concrete. It is a netherworld of weather "bombs", which are intense areas of low pressure, and "survival storms", in which the wind can exceed 80 knots.

Thomson admits: "There is a real understanding of the size of man in the great scheme of things. You feel scared, occasionally fearful for your life, but it puts mankind into perspective. We are a tiny cog in the wheel.

"When I lost the boat last time around, I delved into the emotions I was feeling. The biggest was sadness. The boat had become part of me. In England a boat is female, in France male. She was my friend, my livelihood. I wanted to look after her like a new-born child, and I failed her."

His image, standing 50ft high, still lines the walls of the old port. He might be able to walk unrecognised around his home town of Southampton, but one banner – "You do. We Dream" – testified to his rock-star status here.

He knows the crowds turn out because they wonder if they will see him alive again. However, out in the open sea, once the chaos of the start was behind him, he was in his element. "This is the special time" he said. "Now it is just me, and the boat."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander in the leaked trailer for Zoolander 2
film
Sport
footballArsenal take the Community Shield thanks to a sensational strike from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Arts and Entertainment
Gemma Chan as synth Anita in Humans
film
News
Keeping it friendly: Tom Cruise on ‘The Daily Show’ with Jon Stewart
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ensemble cast: Jamie McCartney with ‘The Great Wall of Vagina’
artBritish artist Jamie McCartney explains a work that is designed to put women's minds at rest
News
Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump
people
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen