Georgie Lane-Godfrey gets up close and personal with the action at Cowes week on Alex Thomson’s record breaking Hugo Boss…
For most people, a visit to Cowes Week – the world’s largest and oldest sailing regatta – will involve sitting shore-side in the sunshine. Or perhaps bobbing along on a spectator boat watching the main competitors fly by if you want to get closer to the action.
What it most likely doesn’t involve is riding a £5million monohull manned by one of the country’s top skippers. So stepping aboard the slick black carbon fibre deck of the Hugo Boss, Alex Thomson’s awe-inspiring boat, is clearly something to get excited about.
Last year, Thomson famously broke his own British record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in an Open 60 at the Vendée Globe. But this still only secured him second place after he narrowly missed out on the top spot when his boat’s foil broke. For many, that would have been race-ending damage. For Thomson, it was merely a slight hiccup.
This year, however, he’s back and making waves if our entrance into Cowes is anything to go by. Of course, sailing into port on a boat like this is bound to get you noticed – not only because it’s got a sailing hero at the helm, but because it also happens to be the only black boat in the bay.
Matte, black and with a clean geometric honeycomb design, the Hugo Boss was made to stand out. In fact, when it first launched back in 2016, it was described by the French as the most beautiful boat in France. But then, considering its haute couture sponsor, this perhaps will come as no surprise.
Meanwhile, back on land, the focus is less on fashion and more on passion for the waves. A look around the terrace of the Royal Ocean Racing Club where we have lunch is all you’ll need to understand. Deck shoes, Breton stripes and high tech waterproofs are the order of the day, as well as a G&T in hand courtesy of Opihr, the official gin of Cowes Week.
It’s an apt match. The oriental spiced gin brand prides itself of capturing the spirit of adventure as it channels the flavours of the old Spice Route – think cardamom, black pepper, cumin, coriander and juniper. Combine this with Spanish orange or ginger-flavoured tonic in the brand’s new ready-to-drink collection and you’ll find a perfectly adventurous twist on the classic G&T. Perfect for when you’re on deck…
That is, of course, unless you’re sailing with Thomson. The Hugo Boss can reach speeds of up to 40mph, so keeping that drink in hand when you’re cruising along at 30 degrees might not be so easy. The boat is designed for speed rather comfort to make solo round-the-world voyages as smooth as possible.
Of course, smooth doesn’t mean easy. “It’s an F1 machine that’s managed by one person,” explains Thomson, which is why 40-60% of boats entered in the Vendée Global do not finish. While this is partly down to Mother Nature, the incredibly tough conditions the race puts skippers under, both mentally and physically, also take their toll.
For example, during the Vendée Global Thomson will spend up to 80 days alone at sea. “I separate loneliness from isolation,” he explains. “I’m isolated on here, but I’m not lonely as I have a fantastic support network back home.”
But while competitors can speak to friends and family on the phone, they are banned from speaking to anyone who might be deemed as giving them help, such as their sports psychologist.
In fact, competitors aren’t allowed to receive any aid or take anything extra on board with them once they have set sail. Doing so results in immediate disqualification – no exceptions. We hear one particularly grisly tale about a skipper who accidentally bit off his own tongue during a storm and had to sew it back on himself to continue sailing.
Understandably, that level of self-reliance turns sleep into a luxury. Most sailors try to operate on as little sleep as possible to maximise their time efficiently running the boat. Thomson will often go for 36 hours at a time without sleep, relying on an electric shock watch to wake him. This, we are told, is a necessity as sheer exhaustion can cause him to sleep through the boat’s ear-splitting on-board alarm.
It’s enough to make you wonder why someone would put themself through it. But for Thomson, it’s an unparalleled event: “In my opinion, it’s the purest sporting event in the world that combines both mental and physical strength. It’s less about technical sailing and more about adventure. More people have been to space than have sailed single-handedly, non-stop around the world. It’s tough, but it’s an amazing challenge.”
For more information about Hugo Boss and Alex Thomson, and the Vendee Globe event, visit www.alexthomsonracing.com and www.vendeeglobe.org. Cowes Week 2018 ran from 4th-11th August – for more information, including programme highlights and details of next year’s event, visit www.lendycowesweeks.co.uk.
For more information about Opihr gin, visit www.opihr.com.