Sailor Alex Thomson on how ‘car crash’ image keeps him on even keel

Posted at 7:55 AM, Nov 02, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-02 09:55:41-04

The sport is solo sailing, but the real game is human management, says around-the-world racer Alex Thomson.

The Briton, a veteran of long-distance yacht racing, is set to embark on the Route du Rhum, a virtual sprint by his standards across the Atlantic from St Malo in France to Guadeloupe in the Caribbean.

The quadrennial classic, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, will take the fastest boats in the 120-strong fleet fewer than 10 days to make the 3,452-mile trip.

If sailing solo around the world in the grueling Vendee Globe is “close to the edge,” says Thomson, who was second after 74 days at sea in the 2016-2017 edition, the Route du Rhum is “right on the edge.”

“In some ways it’s easier because it’s not quite as daunting, but on other hand there’s no down time and you can’t make a mistake so it’s a bit unforgiving,” Thomson told CNN Sport.

“You’re still racing across the Atlantic on your own. The Vendee Globe is almost gladiatorial — half a million people turn up at the start, probably because they don’t think you’re coming back.

“This one I don’t think about not coming back. I think about drinking rum in the Caribbean in a few weeks. It’s a different challenge, but it’s not a leisure cruise. The boats have become faster and faster, in theory it’s a downwind race which is pretty stressful, there’s no time to get into a rhythm and you’ll be more tired than ever before… you’re just not 2,000 miles south of Africa.”

READ: Alex Thomson: ‘People think we’re crazy’

Pain, no gain

But while Thomson will have his hands full sailing his state-of-the-art 60ft foiling monohull Hugo Boss, he will also have to stay mentally sharp.

“You have to be able to manage yourself,” he says. “You have to be able to make rational decisions. If you don’t there’s a good chance you’re going to get hurt or damage the boat.

“If you go up on deck and take the sheet off a winch the wrong way you could lose your arm. So I’m just fully conscious all the time of what my physical and mental condition is like and I think that’s really important.”

Thomson will sleep in 20 to 40 minute bursts every two to four hours. He has an alarm clock wired to a klaxon to wake him up. If he is still asleep five minutes later a wristband will deliver a mild but “not very pleasant” electric shock.

Earlier in his career he experimented with having two colleagues live with him before a race, making sure he slept for 20 minutes every two hours to prepare his body for the sleep patterns at sea.

It got to the point where they had to stand at the door and poke him with a stick, like rousing an angry bear. It was, apparently, a testing experience for all concerned.

“It was such a painful process, we figured the pain wasn’t worth the gain,” he says.

Training the brain

Thomson describes sailing a modern, high-performance offshore racing yacht solo as like “driving around a rally track with the world rally champion at night, with no lights, no windscreen, in the pouring rain.”

“You can feel like you’re completely out of control,” he says. “Most people would find it pretty disturbing.”

Thomson, who was also third in the Vendee Globe in 2012, has suffered some big scares at sea.

During the Velux 5 Oceans race in 2006 his yacht lost its keel nearly 1,000 miles south of South Africa in the Southern Ocean. Race rival Mike Golding turned back into a raging storm to rescue him from his life raft.

To manage his head space, Thomson has worked with renowned sports psychologist Ken Way, who was instrumental in Leicester City’s remarkable Premier League title in 2016.

Between them they have built Thomson a virtual tool box of 25 to 30 techniques for managing a range of mental challenges such as coping with fear, isolation, decision making and different emotional states.

One trick he used when conditions became extreme in the Southern Ocean during last year’s Vendee Globe was to imagine himself in a helicopter looking down on the boat.

“That’s a way to persuade my brain that the boat wasn’t going as fast as it was and there weren’t any containers near and the waves weren’t too bad,” he says.

READ: Le Cleac’h wins Vendee Globe in record time

READ: How the Vendee Globe was won

READ: Thomson smashes records in Vendee Globe`

Extreme methods

In the Route du Rhum, Thomson is not allowed outside assistance so another technique when he is faced with a difficult dilemma is to have imaginary conversations with notable sailors such as Sir Robin Knox-Johnston or other experts.

“It’s just a little mental trick of being able to get somebody else’s opinion without speaking to anyone,” he adds.

But the “most extreme example” from his tool kit is a “car crash” technique to avoid complacency, which is when accidents can happen.

Thomson says he is an “emotional person” and his mood on the boat tends to be governed by how he is doing in the race.

If he is faring badly he will work harder, foregoing sleep and food — which is, at best, undisciplined. But worse, he says, is if he is doing well he gets “high” which leads to complacency.

To combat this, the pair have developed a system that automatically counters feelings of “invincibility” with the emotional surge of a near car crash.

“By practising, so that whenever you feel you’re on top of the world you get the shot of adrenaline from the near car crash, and you wonder what’s going to happen next, it’s a way of leveling me out and stopping me becoming complacent,” he says.

Thomson dismisses the notion that long-distance solo sailors must be in some way “weird” because of the amount of time spent alone in an unremitting, potentially life-threatening environment, and says it all depends on how you view the world.

“You have to be a strong personality and have the ability to put yourself through things most people wouldn’t consider,” he says.

“If you want to call that odd, then we’re all odd. I’m different in that I’m more extroverted so it’s not natural for me to be on my own, but it’s how you look at things.

“People say you must get lonely, but I say you can be lonely in a large group of people. I separate loneliness from isolation, and it just makes it easier to deal with. People say three months [at sea] is a long time — I don’t think it is. It goes so quickly.

“The natural human tendency is to look at things in a negative light, but I try to look at things in a positive mode.

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“It becomes less about the speed of boat and more about people management and I find that pretty interesting.”