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Inside Man: The Sailor

How Alex Thomson survives a three month, round-the-world sailing race.
Mark Lloyd

Alex Thomson is likely doing one of three things right now: sleeping, staring at a computer screen while fretting about the weather, or steering the Hugo Boss, a 60-foot sailing yacht, somewhere in the middle of the ocean. For three months this is what he’ll do with his teammate Pepe Ribes, never touching land, always on watch, trying to outmaneuver seven other boats in the Barcelona World Race – a 90-day unsupported sailing competition around the globe.  

Known as the “David Beckham” of sailing, Thomson became the youngest skipper to win a round-the-world race in 1999 when he was just 25. When I meet him, he fits the image, dressed in a crisp black suit. It’s a striking dichotomy knowing that between January and March, this perfectly tailored Brit will endure 90 days of brutal ocean currents, freeze-dried meals, and a carbon fiber vessel that could easily break before reaching the finish line. We talked to Thomson about his fitness regimen for the grueling voyage, his crazy sleep schedule, and his hopes for the finish line party.

Men's Fitness: Sailing isn’t just sitting on a boat. Clearly it’s a grueling physical challenge. What is the key physical attribute you need to be successful?

Alex Thomson: I think you can always tell an offshore sailor by the shape of their body, particularly after the race. I am on a 60-foot boat so predominantly the work you do is upper body. When I do a race most of the muscle mass on my legs will probably be gone. You just aren’t using it. We are working in very confined spaces dragging sails that weigh between 80 and 100 kilos (175 to 220 pounds) without being able to stand up. To train I spend about 10 hours a week in a gym. 

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MF: After a three-month voyage without touching land, physically how do you feel?

AT: Well, you feel pretty tired.

MF: That has to be a huge understatement.

AT: In 2012 I lost just under 8 kilos (18 pounds). We joke it's the worlds most expensive and extreme diet.

MF: How do you physically prepare for the race?

AT: Most of my cardio work is done on a bike, that’s what I enjoy doing the most. Most of my strength stuff is done in a gym and all my circuit stuff is done outside.

MF: How about mentally though, how do you prepare?

AT: In the double-handed race it’s easier because you have someone there to share the pain and the high points. You have someone there to train with and work with. It’s like a temporary marriage. We start by doing some testing. Both our personalities are tested and we can compare them.

I am quite extroverted. I sit quite far on the feeling side. Pepe (Ribes, his sailing partner) is on the thinking side and is quite introverted. So actually we are quite different. It could work against you but we are aware of what the differences are and we have a training program that allows us to learn how we can communicate to make the other person perform well. 

MF: During the race, what is your sleep schedule like?

AT: We will start with a three- or four-hour shift and then it will be modified. We will never be on watch together. In this race the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. If you get one mile ahead, more often then not you are able to stretch that lead. So we work particular hard in the first 30 days.

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MF: And how about diet, I assume you don’t get to touch a steak for three months.

AT: It's a balanced diet of all freeze-dried food. I get about six or seven different varieties. My favorite is something called lobscouse. It’s a beef and potato casserole. Imagine a baby's weaning food with a few chunks of reindeer in it.

In the south we have to eat up to 7,500 calories a day. Because there is no land to stop wind, it means the winds are higher and the waves get bigger and bigger. For us that means big waves, big winds, and cold.

MF: I have to ask, why sailing? Why would anyone want to endure three months with little sleep, freeze-dried food, and harsh waters?

AT: Being on a little boat out of sight of land makes you have a real understanding of how small we are as a human race. It's a very humbling experience and something that I really enjoy. I’m also really competitive. If I play squash or tennis I leave with cuts and bruises. 

The last thing is the boats. If you were in to cars it’s basically the equivalent of being able to build a custom-racing machine just for you. And when I say custom, I mean someone has taken a mold of your ass and they have molded a seat to suit your exact dimensions. In terms of boys toys it doesn’t get any better than sailing.

MF: What’s your biggest fear during the race?

AT: I wouldn't say fear, but the place where it's the most challenging is the southern ocean. The fact that there's no one that can come rescue you: there's no helicopters, there's no ships. That's the place where you feel isolated and you feel the danger.Now a days you can destroy the boat. They’re so light and they’re so extreme. We call it a credit card with a mast. It's a brutal existence. I take people on the boat sometimes and they are horrified by the thing. 

MF: What is it like to cross that finish line after 90 days?

AT: By the time you finish, in an ideal world, you cross the finish line and the boat just falls apart into pieces. By the time you get to the last 500 miles she's getting tired and we have to love and care and cajole her to the finish.

It's a lot of relief. You feel like the world is lifted off your shoulders. The best thing about offshore racing is the party at the end. It's usually awesome. You're hoping you are far enough in front of everyone else that the party is finished and the hangover is done by the time they arrive.

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