'I feel more connected to Jersey than ever': British sailing star Alex Thomson on his island identity

Alex Thomson spent two weeks on Jersey's Ecrehous this summer as he geared up for Vendee Globe yacht race. Credit: Alex Thomson

Where do you go to get away from it all ahead of the world's toughest yacht race? If you're Alex Thomson you head to the Écréhous, an outcrop of rocks off the north-east coast of Jersey.

With his fifth attempt at the fabled Vendee Globe on the horizon, and his preparations hampered by the pandemic, it was the obvious destination for the British skipper, whose family have occupied one of its iconic huts since the 1950s.

"It's 13 foot by 15 foot - there’s a solar panel from one of my boats so we’ve got power", said Thomson.

"We’ve got a really nice big gas fridge, we’ve got gas heaters, we collect the water from the roof, so actually it’s kind of like 'glamping' - you can still have ice for your gin and tonics in the evening".

The experienced skipper, who will be among the leading contenders when the epic round-the-world yacht race gets underway next month, stayed there for the best part of two weeks this summer, among several spent in Jersey, where he can trace his family ties for centuries.

"To me it feels like my home - that’s where I come from really", said Thomson, who was born in Bangor and enjoyed a varied upbringing thanks to his father's career in the RAF.

"I feel like I’m from Jersey, but I spent four years of my life living in the Shetland Isles - about as far away as you could possibly get".

The Ecrehous. Credit: Kate Thomson

"We always love going there - the Ecrehous is a big part of it, but my dad lives in the house in front of the house that my grandfather was born in and my cousins live down the road".

"It feels like that’s where I’m from and my kids and my wife love the place, so we try and spend as much time as we possibly can there - I feel more connected to the family side in Jersey than ever really".

"In some ways I have to thank lockdown because before it my wife’s record [at the hut] was six days and nights there, and I guess lockdown’s made it a little bit easier to be free from all the things that we normally seem to need in our lives".

"Going there for 12 days, you absolutely relax. You maybe spend a day and a half shedding everything that you had, and you don’t really have good communications, a limited supply of water, and you have to do stuff like we used to in the old days, without tablets and phones".

"There’s always stuff to find - my son came back this time and he said “dad, look at this” and I had to go down to the gully and have a look and he’d found a little troop of eight baby squid".

"I said 'Oscar, look at those - yum, yum', and he said 'no, dada.'", Thomson joked, "I think we forget all those basic things that we used to do now we’re filled with technology and I think that’s the bit I love about it".

Thomson matched the best performance by a British skipper finishing second in the 2016 edition of the race. Credit: PA

Thomson will line up alongside 32 other skippers in Les Sables-d'Olonne on Sunday 8 November for the start of the ninth edition of the Vendee, dubbed the 'Everest of the seas'.

The 46-year-old, who finished third in 2012 and second four years ago, is bidding to become the first British winner of an event which has been dominated by the French since its inception in 1989.

"I think they’ve got to a stage now where there’s a bit of them that wants me to win, I think if we’re able to seal the deal, go from third to second to first then I think they think that it will help make a jump in the international element of the race", the Hugo Boss skipper said.

"I think there’s a bit inside them that they hope it happens, on the other hand it's just hard to think of a Frenchman wanting a British person to win isn’t it?".

"We’ve come close before - obviously Ellen MacArthur came second in 2000, Mike Golding has come third, and I’ve got a third and a second - so we’re there or thereabouts".

"I still feel very motivated to go out there and get it - each step we make a gain, we religiously learn from our mistakes, we learn what went well, what went bad, and we improve it into the next cycle".

"A lot of people say it’s about luck and there is some luck involved, but you get to make your own luck to a degree - about the choices you make, the people you want to work with, and that’s the key part".

"Everybody will be looking at the race and everybody thinks that’s all they want to hear about - but the reality is the race is finished before it starts", he said.

Thomson will set out to become the first British winner of the Vendee Globe on the multi-million pound boat Hugo Boss. Credit: Alex Thomson Racing

Thomson spent more than 74 days at sea during his last Vendee attempt in 2016/17, and will have to cover some 28,000 miles without assistance in his quest for an historic victory this winter.

Last week he set sail from Gosport for the west coast of France on board his multi-million pound boat, Hugo Boss, which he hopes can carry him to victory over the next three months.

"It’s an amazing piece of kit - it takes 14 months to build these things now. They’re a big jump on the previous generation", he said.

"Our first race was the Transat Jacques Vabre in late October last year, and we had a good start to that but unfortunately a week into the race we hit an unidentified object at about 22 knots which ripped the keel out of the boat".

"When we had her repaired, we literally got her into the water and the next day lockdown happened".

"So preparation this time has not been easy for anybody, but there’s lots of things we can do to mitigate that".

"We do as many miles as we can but you make different decisions based on the fact you haven’t done lots of miles".

"On one hand you’ve got to make the boat fast enough to win the race, but on the other hand you’ve got to make it reliable enough to finish".

"And generally when you make a boat more reliable, you’re probably making it slower, and vice versa".

"It’s the biggest challenge we face is how do you balance those two things and given that we sail less miles than we like to, then we start to prioritise the reliability part more than the performance stuff", he said.

One of the innovations developed for Thomson's latest craft has seen the cockpit move inside the boat. Credit: Alex Thomson Racing

"We often seem not to have a settled path to the race - last time I got a hole in the boat, and then we got rolled upside down, I was airlifted off the boat in the same race four years ago".

"That was almost our single objective was not to have big problem like that - and then it happened".

[The crash in October] was a bit hard to take - but the reality then of course is lockdown hit us, and then every other team is in the same scenario as we are now".

"In some ways I’d say it’s an advantage for us, because we did it last time, so we know what’s coming, we know how to prepare the boat with less miles - it’s hard to know exactly where we are in terms of speed but I’m pretty confident".

"I actually feel like we’ve got a slight advantage to everybody else".