The words ‘extreme’ and ‘sailing’ generally go together about as well as the words ‘fit’ and ‘pie shop’, but when it comes to the insane test of endurance that is the Vendee Globe, the pairing is extreme enough to make even the hardiest Ironman or mountain ultrarunner beg their mum for a sick note
As examples of pure, unrefined mental endurance go, the Vendee Globe might just be unbeatable and I was lucky enough to get an introduction to this most brutal of races aboard one of its fastest boats with outstanding British skipper Alex Thomson. The experience was beyond memorable.
“Most people don’t understand sailing, but this one’s simple – you sail solo, you can’t stop or take anything on board once you’ve started, and the first boat home wins,” explains Thomson as we wander down the jetty to his race boat on a peaceful Sunday morning.
While this may not sound too extreme, the devil’s in the detail and the details for the Vendee Globe spell ‘PAIN’ in gigantic ten foot high neon flashing letters.
- The ‘course’ may be just one lap, but that lap is of the world. It comes in at around 28,000 miles
- All boats must be sailed solo and no stops are allowed - finishers can expect three flat out months fighting the worst the planet’s oceans can throw at them while living aboard little more than a carbon fibre coffin and surviving on no more than a couple of hours sleep a night
The Vendee Globe statistics are sobering
Of 108 competitors since the race began just 39 have ever finished while 66 have fallen foul of injuries from the sublime (broken femur) to the ridiculous (toothache) or have seen their ships wrecked beyond repair by collisions or storm damage.
A further three have lost their lives and it’s a surprise this figure isn’t higher given competitors are well beyond the reach of rescue for large portions of the race.
In his own previous attempts, Thomson has suffered mechanical mishaps and so is back this year with a point to prove, especially as the race is only held every four years.
“This race is our Olympics. I’ve given ten years of my life to it and now I just want to finish. My chances are good, I’ve got a great team and a great boat but the attrition rate in this race is very high. Anything could happen”.
Alex Thomson: tougher than old boots
I'm no salty sea dog like Thomson but I know pedigree machinery when I see it and his Hugo Boss boat is pure knockout.
Sleek, sharp and built entirely for speed it looks a thousand miles an hour just sitting still. Climbing aboard, the experience intensifies as every nook and cranny bristles with the pared down aggression of a Le Mans race car.
The downside of all this purpose is that there is bugger all in the way of creature comforts. Honestly, I’ve seen more luxuries on a go-kart - at least they get a seat. Thomson’s boat, despite costing three million quid, doesn’t even have that. In fact, the list of things it doesn’t have is a long one and includes:
- A bed - Thomson sleeps on a single wafer thin mattress
- Any furniture - unless you count the small ledge in the cockpit
- A toilet
- A bathroom (although there is a lone hosepipe)
- A kitchen
Prospective round-the-world sailing racers, meet your home for the next three months. Out of shot - nothing. This is your entire living space, and one you'll be confined to for days at a time repeatedly in the freezing and dark Southern Ocean as monster storms howl outside while threatening to capsize you by the hour. Makes that long run on a soggy Sunday look a bit more attractive all of sudden eh?
There is also no toilet as I rapidly learned once we were underway...
If you need a leak it goes straight over the side while anything else goes into a bucket before then going over the side. Glamorous it ain’t. But then round the world sailing is a hard core business and certainly not one to demurely cross its legs because it needs a wee.
So I manfully strode to the stern (the back of the boat for all you landlubbers), braced myself as best as I could against the endless rocking and pissed into the wind, which threw most of it back all over my legs and the boat itself.
33Fuel's Warren gets to grips with the luxuries of round the world sailing aboard Thomson's boat
With Blighty fast disappearing in our rear view, 450-odd miles of water now lay between us and our final destination of Les Sables d’Olonne in Northern France.
I say ‘us’ but in reality, having zero boating experience beyond the occasional Spanish pedalo, I was playing as much of a part in sailing this boat as the average ship’s cat. Thomson however had other ideas and had soon roped me into ‘grinding’. Not as suspicious as it sounds, this means cranking the handles that raise and lower the boat’s massive sails until your shoulders are on fire - imagine battle ropes on a bouncy castle and you'll get the idea.
Two men, grinding together. Just another day at sea. Incidentally also a great shoulder workout
As I ground, Thomson got on with the finer points of keeping the boat in perfect trim, navigating and constantly assessing the fastest route and best course to maximise our speed. Which at this point was 15 knots, or 17mph.
This doesn’t sound like a lot. But when you realise most yachts could barely manage five knots in these conditions, and that Thomson’s will hammer out 32 knots in the right winds, things become rather more impressive.
And the difference with the speed of a boat like this as compared to anything on land is the violence with which it does it.
There’s no clattering roar like an F1 car, and nor is there the imminent likelihood of being spat into orbit at 200mph as on a MotoGP race bike, but there is a great malevolence in the way a boat like this harnesses the huge powers of nature and then turns them into a relentless hammering course across the ever-shifting seas.
As Thomson put it, “sailing this boat’s like calming a wild horse all the time”.
Only one of these men has a clue what he's doing
The afternoon gave way to evening and after a fine dinner of boil in the bag dehydrated slop, Thomson tucked into an after-dinner cigarette as calmly as a city gent at his club, despite the fact we were still sailing flat out and the sea was getting rougher by the minute, while I wandered to the stern to rather less calmly throw up.
Stomach empty and now decidedly green (thankfully falling darkness was covering this, although the trail of sick on my trousers was a giveaway) I staggered into the tiny, dark cavern below to try and snatch some shuteye.
Bouncing around among the sails, kit and rock hard floor of the boat this was sketchy at best and after a few hours I gave up to return up top where at least I could be sick whenever I wanted. The rest of that night was one of the longest of my life and a shocking window into just what Thomson is about to put himself through.
‘On a scale of one to ten how severe are these conditions compared to what you can expect in the race?” I asked feebly from my position hunched in the corner of the cockpit.
“Four, maybe,” he replied casually, before skipping away up to the deck beyond to attend to some rope or other that was no doubt an inch out of place and costing 0.01 of a knot.
The rest of that night was a black blur of wind noise, fitful dozing, nausea and occasional soakings as the waves rose up and over the boat, but hours later as dawn broke and the sun burned up over the horizon I realised I had survived.
Just one day and I was a broken man - how Thomson and his fellow racers manage three entire months I have no idea.
Extreme endurance needs extreme nutrition
Whether sailing around the world or simply running a marathon, your biggest endurance challenges need the best in nutrition, which is where we come in. Power your body up to the maximum before, during and after with 33Fuel's gamechanging 33-ingredient Pre and Post Workout Shakes and unique all-natural Chia Energy Gels. For the best possible deal and biggest bang for buck, our Pure Endurance Bundle has your name written all over it. Get amongst it in store today.
Natural power. 33Fuel's Pure Endurance Bundle has your back when your biggest challenges come calling
More performance-boosting content
From the 33Fuel Podcast
From the 33Fuel Vlog
Alex Thomson - mast walk
No safety net, no stunt doubles. This is simply hard core