Aged just 25, Alex Thompson became the youngest sailor to ever win a round-the-world race (the Clipper Round the World Race, to be precise). Over the course of the following 15 years, Alex has gone on to break a further two world records and recently celebrated a 3rd place podium finish in the gruelling 2012/13 Vendée Globe race.
Now 40, Alex is preparing to continue his partnership with Hugo Boss in the Barcelona World Race 2015, an extreme 25,000 nautical mile race, tackled by crews of just two men sailing non-stop for 90 plus days.
Esquire caught up with Alex to talk about the difficulties of "two-handed sailing", spending 80 days at sea with only one other man and braving ocean storms in the name of sport.
What are the particular characteristics and challenges of two-handed sailing?
We're sailing at 100% in order to achieve the best performance from the boat, however we don’t really have the manpower on-board to do that. Physically, it's a real test. The relationship between the crew can only be described as a temporary marriage. We have to work well together and as with most marriages, this can be quite challenging at times.
Do you have specific roles within the team or is everything shared?
We don’t have specific roles. Pepe [Ribes - co-skipper] is probably better at fixing things when they go wrong, but apart from that we do everything together.
What's the best thing about sailing with Pepe?
He's extremely determined and one of the hardest workers I have seen on a sailing boat.
Is it important that you get on?
We have to get on to some degree, but we are professionals. We're there to do a job and we have a common goal to win the race. It’s important to get along, but it’s not absolutely necessary.
Do you get any downtime or opportunities to relax during a race?
There isn’t generally much opportunity to relax, but it depends how the race plays out. Certainly for the first month or so I don’t think there will be any opportunity at all.
How do you cope with limited sleep?
I’m used to it. You still have the opportunity to have ten or twelve hours sleep in a day. It will probably be a pattern of three or four hours on, and then three or four hours off. I have a solo sailing background and I'm used to having thirty or forty minutes sleep at a time, so it’s a luxury to be getting this much sleep during the race.
How do you physically prepare for the race?
The focus is making sure you stay flexible and don’t get injured. We are pulling and lifting in very limited space, so we work hard on cardiovascular fitness, strength and flexibility.
How about mental preparation?
We have been working with the team's sports psychologist. For this race, the focus is on how Pepe and I can work best together, rather than our individual mental strength. We work hard on understanding each other’s personalities and what buttons to push to get the best out of each other. And what are the bad buttons to push.
What's the best moment of the day onboard?
When you get your position report and find out you’ve made loads of miles in the last 24 hours.
Are storms and rough seas just part of the job?
Yes. Being at sea for me is as normal as being on land. It’s certainly not something I fear. The biggest fear whilst I am on the boat is not performing, or breaking something that makes you stop performing. When you spend 80 days racing in the Vendée Globe alone you normalise it. It becomes very normal to accept the abnormal.
Have you packed an iPod? What's on it?
I don’t listen to music. I listen to the boat. A change to noises on board is a good signal of something about to go wrong. I will have an iPad onboard with a few games loaded, and a couple of books to read if I get five minutes.
Is winning the only satisfying result, or is there a lot to be taken from the journey?
When you go to sea with no land in sight, you really understand how small we are as the human race. It’s very humbling. I see some amazing sights: whales, dolphins, birds, but really, winning really is the only satisfaction .There are no comforts on board. No toilet, no sink, a terrible bed. I certainly wouldn’t put myself through that level of discomfort without there being the opportunity of winning at the end.
What do you expect to be the toughest moments and biggest dangers of the race?
The greatest danger is the southern ocean and when we exit or enter the Gibraltar straights three days after the start, or three days before we finish.