Former Clipper Race Skipper Chasing Vendèe Globe Glory
Published 16:56 on 18 Jan 2017
After more than 70 days, the Vendee Globe is set for an epic finish, with the youngest skipper to win the Clipper Race, Alex Thomson, closing in on the lead as the race enters into the final 24 hours.
Alex, 42 from Gosport, made up 30 nautical miles on his French rival Armel le Clèac'h overnight to cut the deficit to around 40nm by Wednesday morning. With both sailors due back into Les Sables-d'Olonne in France on Thursday, the thrilling drag race looks set to continue right to the end.
The move overnight is another chapter in the heroic comeback story which has seen Alex make up nearly 900 nautical miles on the Frenchman since December. If he can re-take the lead, he will become just the second Briton to win a solo, non-stop around the world yacht race. Sir Robin Knox-Johnston was the first Brit, and first person to do so, after he won the forerunner to the Vendee Globe, The Golden Globe, in 1969.
"His performance in the race so far has been really incredible," says Sir Robin.
"I mean the way he has sailed that boat, the speeds he has been achieving are just phenomenal. When you think about it, he is going four times faster than I did 48 years ago. It's like comparing the Wright Brothers and Concord of course, but even so it's just remarkable the way he has kept that pressure up."
It was through Sir Robin's Clipper Race that Alex first captured the public's attention. After Alex was recommended to Sir Robin as a potential skipper for the Clipper 1998 Race, he took him as his Mate to Greenland. And although he was only 24, Sir Robin decided Alex was capable enough to skipper one of the seven Clipper 60s for the year-long race across the world's oceans.
It proved to be an inspired choice. Alex guided his team Ariel to victory, and remains to this day the youngest Clipper Race skipper to achieve this feat. The record of six consecutive race wins set by Alex and his crew is also still yet to be equalled or beaten.
The win wasn't the only way the Clipper Race changed Alex's life. One of his Ariel crew, Sir Keith Mills, went on to become his backer when he made the move into the IMOCA class in 2003.
Just like his record breaking Clipper Race victory, Alex's latest Vendee Globe attempt will be one to remember.
Alex took the early lead after the gruelling, single handed, non-stop, unassisted race around the world yacht race set sail from Les Sables-d'Olonne in early November. He broke two race records on the way to the Cape of Good Hope, before trouble struck on November 19. The starboard hydrofoil on his Hugo Boss yacht was ripped off by an unidentified submerged object, making him much slower on port tack.
From being 100 nautical miles ahead of Le Clèac'h at the time of the collision, Alex fell two days behind in the unforgiving Southern Ocean.
But when trailing by nearly 1,000 nautical miles at Christmas, Alex made his move after rounding Cape Horn. In the 24-hour period leading up to 0800 UTC on Monday January 16, Alex's boat Hugo Boss managed a world record breaking 536.8 nautical miles to close the gap on the Frenchman to just 78nm.
The average speed of 22.4 knots, or 25.7mph, enabled Alex to beat the record of 534.48nm set by French sailor Francois Gabart in the 2012-13 edition of the Vendee Globe.
One last crucial manoeuvre now separates the two rivals from victory – choosing the right time to tack. After being forced to sail much further north by an anticyclone blocking the route home to Les Sables d'Olonne, the movement of the centre of the high-pressure system north-east will allow both Alex and Le Clèac'h to tack into port and begin the final sprint home to the finish line.
Whoever claims victory on Thursday, both Alex and Le Clèac'h will smash the previous circumnavigation record of 78 days set by Frenchman Francois Gabert in the 2012-13 edition of the Vendee Globe.
Now almost through his fourth attempt, Alex is on track to better his previous best result in the Vendee Globe - third in the 2012 edition of the race. Dame Ellen MacArthur is to date the most successful British sailor in the event's history, after finishing second in 2001.