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Donkin on Sailing

November 2008 - Brian Thompson and the Vendee Globe

Barring any last minute hitches, as many as 30 super-yachts will cross the line off Les Sables d’Olonne in November at the start of the Véndee Globe - the world’s toughest single-handed sailing race – a three-month-long round-the-world test of endurance and speed that takes competitors in to the fearsome Southern Ocean where the sea is never still.

Most of those competing this year – the sixth time the event has been held – are seasoned round-the-world sailors, not least Brian Thompson, the 45-year-old skipper of Bahrain Team Pindar, the Juan Kouyoumdjian-designed Open 60, one of the most powerful yachts in the fleet.

Brian Thompson The Open 60 class that contests the Véndee has become the established monohull for single-handed long distance ocean racing - open, as the name suggests, for development expertise, and powerful enough to tackle the extremes of downwind sailing.

Robin Gray, Managing Director of Pindar Ocean Racing, believes that the combination of the Kouyoumdjian design and Thompson’s experience gives the team a fighting chance of going one further than any previous British entry by wresting the trophy from French dominance.

It’s a huge task. Among the most formidable French helms are former Vendée winner Michel Desjoyeaux on Foncia, probably most people’s race favourite, and Sébastiene Josse on BT; while fellow Britons, Mike Golding on Ecover and Alex Thomson on Hugo Boss must also rate themselves as serious contenders.

On paper, Thompson would seem far less experienced in single-handed racing than Golding who has circumnavigated the globe five times previously, coming third in the 2004/5 race. But Thompson’s credentials are impressive with something like 25 world records to his name.

Moreover the Pindar yacht is a more powerful boat than Ecover, as many of its rivals discovered when they trailed behind Thompson in the Artemis Challenge, a race around the Isle of Wight during Cowes week in August.

I joined the Pindar team in the Solent the following day to discover for myself just how impressive these third-generation Open 60s can be compared with their predecessors.

Taking the helm, the boat felt unbelievably balanced with none of the movement you usually feel on the wheel. It was as if the keel was fixed in a groove. When tacking, it took a full crew minutes to prepare and complete the manoeuvre. Single-handedly, Thompson can expect to take something like 10 minutes to make the turn.

“But the boat is so powerful it means that it will be doing probably a quarter fewer tacks than most of the other boats with fewer sail changes,” says Gray.

Power has its downsides. Just a month after Pindar took delivery of the boat, racing at Cowes last year, the mast broke. After repair it sheered again in the English channel. It meant that the yacht spent most of the winter in a shed awaiting a newly-designed rotating mast.

“I’ve been in 50 knots of wind while covering the 5,000-mile qualifying distance and everything performed well so I’m confident we have the right set up for the race.” said Thompson in buoyant mood after the Artemis win.

Thompson has worked hard for his place as a Vendée contender, spending much of his career gaining crewing experience in multi-hulled sailing before moving in to the Open 60 class.

Scunthorpe-born, he was taken sailing as a boy by his parents who had their own boat. “I spent many hours as a youngster sailing alone with my dog, exploring the little creeks on holiday in Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex,” he said.

After graduating in economics from Warwick University, he sailed as far as Gibraltar with his newly retired-parents as they embarked on their own round-the-world voyage.

Thompson stayed behind to find work on boats, doing odd jobs until he was advised to by a skipper to go over to Palma, Majorca where a lot of boats gathered to refit after Atlantic crossings in the spring and before returning to the Caribbean in the autumn. “By the age of 22 I was the youngest yacht skipper in the Caribbean. I made three or four Atlantic crossings and found that I really liked being at sea,” he said.

For seven years he mixed crewing and racing as a full time skipper. In those days the UK didn’t have a development squad for Olympic sailing but round-the-world sail racing was making its mark in the BOC race, now called the VELUX 5 oceans.

Thompson tried to enter the race in his early 20s but couldn’t get the sponsorship. Now, 20 years later, his chance has come in the non-stop Vendée. In between times he has accumulated thousands of miles, scooping up world records, often as a crew member or watch leader, sailing with Steve Fossett, the wealthy adventurer who died when his private aircraft crashed in 2007.

In 2004 Thomspon was watch leader on the 58-day round-the-world sailing record-breaking run made by Fossett’s Cheyenne (formerly PlayStation). The record was shaved to 50 days in 2005 by a Bruno Peyron-skippered crew on Orange II.

“I must have sailed between 200 and 300 days with Steve, covering hundreds of thousands of miles. He was always calm and analytical, even when we were in a scrape,” said Thompson. “I never heard him shout. I learned a lot from him on how to stay focused and I sometimes find myself asking: ‘what would Steve do in these circumstances?’”

Thompson had established such a reputation that in 2006 he was recruited as a stand-in helmsman on ABN Amro One during a Southern Ocean leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, replacing watch leader Mark Christiansen who had damaged his arm on the previous leg.

With impeccable crewing and skippering credentials, it is time for Thompson to make his mark as a single-handed round-the-world racer. “My goal in this Vendée is to win it and I think everything’s in place for that to happen. I have the right boat, the right team and the right sponsor,” he said.

“I have already done a fifth of the Vendée course in qualifying and have raced against some of the top boats. I have the boat speed and reliability and the Artemis Challenge only confirmed what we already knew.”

He knows, however, that a lot can happen over a course of more than 23,000 miles and the boat has yet to be tested against the cream of the French entries.

Thompson admires the way the French skippers encourage each other during round-the-world races. “It stems from the academy system the French run. I would like to see something similar in the UK and a few ideas about how it might happen.”

For now, though, there’s a race to win.

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