Back in the ‘hood…British star Alex Thomson in Saint Malo at Route du Rhum start

Back in the ‘hood… British star Alex Thomson in Saint Malo at Route du Rhum start. “For all  the new boats it is really touch and go if they even make it to the other side.”

The Route du Rhum carries a frustrating memory for British solo racer Alex Thomson. With a comfortable lead, on course for his first ever IMOCA major ocean race win, he slept through his electric shock watch alarm and his IMOCA hit the island of Basse Terre. A consequent 24 hours penalty for using he engine to get off the rocks dropped Thomson to third and handed victory to Paul Meilhat.

After announcing a break from ocean racing to focus fully on family life and help other emerging teams, Thomson is back today in Saint Malo, relaxed, happy and wearing the colours of Canada Ocean Racing, the outfit which his Alex Thomson Racing are mentoring towards the 2028 Vendée Globe.

“It is fantastic to be back.” Thomson volunteers, “Obviously there is a big part of me wants to be back doing this. But it is a pleasure to be back and see everyone and this is the first race start I have been to since the Vendée Globe. I have had a proper break.”

The IMOCA fleet has grown almost twofold since the 2018 race – his only Route du Rhum – when there were 20 boats on the start line. He concurs that many of the new, youngest IMOCAs might not make the finish line.

“Thirty eight IMOCAs is insane. What a fleet. Obviously APIVIA, Charlie Dalin is favourite. For all  the new boats it is really touch and go if they even make it to the other side as they have not done the miles. Most people will take it quite carefully. I can imagine many going far to the north or even to the west. I think a few new boats will get there. I think Jérémie Beyou will make it and do well, he has Franck Cammas in his camp and that is one of the smartest moves ever.

Surveying the assembled fleet for the first time he says, “I love Kevin Escoffier’s boat and technically he is very good and I can see him doing well. Of those new boats Boris (Herrmann) might find it tough to get to the other side as he is on this schedule to get to Alicante directly for The Ocean Race start. And the other thing is these boats are doing 16-18kts upwind now which is amazing.”

Inevitably the questions about his 2018 accident are replayed. Four years on it still rankles that he was so close to winning his first ‘major’ with a huge lead, racing the fastest most optimised boat in the fleet.

“It is funny how everyone wants to remind me.” He smiles with his trademark grin, “ And that is fine. I describe touching Guadeloupe as ‘my most embarrassing public moment’. And what is great is it means I don’t have to talk about my other most embarrassing moment!. But it happened. I can never get away from it. I should have won that race and therefore I did not ever win an IMOCA race which grates, but everyone’s reaction was way better than I thought. And my reaction at the time? There was minutes between being told the outcome (of the Jury decision which penalised him +24hrs). The only thing at the time was not making it bad for anyone else.”

And looking back he adds, “It doesn’t matter whether I think the penalty was fair or not. I gave them the opportunity to give me that penalty in the first place, stupidly. But that is life. But the reaction from the French public was great. And from that point of view as well it is lovely to be back here on the docks and getting such a warm reception.”

© Alexis Courcoux / #RDR2022

Among his first visits on the IMOCA pontoon were Ollie Heer, the young Swiss skipper who was previously boat captain on Thomson’s IMOCAs and the young, 24 year old Brit James Harayda.

“I am saying to them is ‘guys don’t think about going west or north.” Thomson explains, “You have to finish and get the miles. Ollie is a really good sailor and a good communicator. I told him he had to quit working with me and get on and do it too. And I feel responsible as well a bit for James Harayda too as I kind of told him what he could do and how he could do it too. Now they have gone and done it too. It is great to see. And now the pathway for them is to get to the finish, get the miles and find some money. They don’t need big, big budgets, they need funding.”

Has the landscape changed much for them compared to when Thomson was prepping his first IMOCA race?  He responds: “ I think it is fairly similar. Going on board their boats today was a real déjà vu compared to my first Vendée Globe but neither have anything on their job lists to be done. That brought me back, figuring out how to do stuff. There was never much help and there is a still a French/English thing.  It is not easy. But the scale of the whole thing, these big races, and getting to the start of the Vendée Globe is a much bigger task on shore than on the water.”

Surveying the fleet he concludes, “It is amazing to think of the next Vendée Globe with 38 boats here and seven more new ones coming. There are something like 56 active projects for the next Vendée Globe and that is great. And 40 boats in the Vendée Globe will be amazing. We always used to talk (as a team) whether the slice of the pie we got became smaller the more boats there were. But 40 boats is great as long as it is safe. There are more people to follow and the whole thing is bigger. And I think for the sport to grow the whole idea of the IMOCA Globe Series is working.”

The weather outlook with Race Director Francis Le Goff
For the start on Sunday, the forecast is for 17-22 knots of wind whipping up 6-foot high waves and sometimes bigger ones. That is no problem for the skippers in the Route du Rhum – Destination Guadeloupe. But it will mean they will have to give that little bit extra from the start, as the wind will be coming directly from Cape Fréhel, so it’s not going to be easy. It means tacking upwind, going offshore and avoiding the area reserved for pleasure craft, which the competitors cannot enter. The bigger the boat the harder it is to carry out lots of tacks. The Ultim 32/23 and maybe even the Ocean Fifty and IMOCA boats will be heading off north and coming back south to reach Cape Fréhel.  Conditions are set to strengthen during the evening and night, as will the sea state. At the tip of Brittany, it looks like waves between twelve and eighteen feet as the wind gets up to around thirty knots. Each category faces a different situation, as the timing will be different for them. The front should pass quite quickly, but is likely to be violent. The majority will be experiencing that during daylight hours, as at night it would be very complicated. So, for the moment, the start is still scheduled for two minutes past one on Sunday afternoon.

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