By Humphrey Carter
TEN years ago British yachtsman Alex Thomson was packing straws for McDonalds, today he is one of the world's leading solo skippers and the fastest monohull yachtsman afloat.

Hugo Boss-sponsored Alex was in Palma this week to officially announce his plans to compete in the forthcoming 5-Oceans Race, which sets sail from Bilbao at the end of October next year.

The race is a solo circumnavigation of the globe with stopovers and is organised by his sailing mentor Sir Robin-Knox Johnston, Chairman of race management company Clipper ventures.

Alex, his Open 60 yacht and ground team are on a European tour which will eventually end in Ibiza at the club closing parties before heading to Australia for the Sydney-Hobart race. Alex threw down the gauntlet to the world's best skippers, yachts and crews to come and take him on in one of the world's biggest sailing challenges next year.

Alex does not come from a seafaring family, “I'd done a bit of dinghy sailing and windsurfing when I was younger. “The crunch came for me when, doing 12 hour shifts packing straws, the boss told me one day that should I continue packing straws so well, one day I'd make shift manager - I thought sod that, quit and started working at a sail training school as an apprentice on £50 per week. “I eventually met Sir Robin and developed from there,” he says.
Alex broke the 24-hour solo monohull World Speed Sailing record in December 2003 covering 468 nautical miles in the 24 hours averaging a speed of 19.5 knots during the Defi Atlantique and is recognised as one of the best yachtsmen in the world.

He raced in the last Vende Globe, but, lying in sixth position disaster struck off South Africa. Part of his mast broke and smashed a hole in his yacht. “I'd had a string of problems, but that was the final straw, it was as if someone was saying ‘this is not your race mate'. “I was 1'600 miles off Cape Town in a force nine gale which eventually developed into a full blown hurricane. It took me a week to limp to port. “So, I'll be racing in the next one, the Vende Globe and I have some unfinished business...” he says.
In the meantime, he has his sights firmly focused on winning the 25th anniversary 5-Ocean Race (the race started as the BOC Challenge in 1982) which starts and finishes in Europe for the first time. “I'm pretty confident and I love the challenge this race provides. For some people it's going up Everest, for me it's winning the 5-Oceans which I think is the toughest challenge in the world right now because with two stops allowed for repairs, it means we can push ourselves and our yachts as hard as possible. It's not a survival race, it's a tactical one and that's what makes it special,” he said. “I guess you need to be a little mad and I certainly am,” added Alex who won the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race in 1998-99. “To be honest, my two main objectives with the 5-Oceans is to finish the race and learn from the experience, but obviously I want to win it,” he said.
Alex will have to live off dried food packs. “I have a dietitian who will have it all worked out, which pack on which day, the biggest problems though is the lack of fat in the dried food diet but I will have carbohydrate drinks and gels, I will be consuming 8.500 calories a day during the race,” he says.

During the European Tour showcasing Hugo Boss's Grand Prix racing yacht, he and the designers will be continuing to test the yacht, as they have been doing in Palma, and making improvements. “We're trying to be as economical as possible, we are working on getting the best value for money out of this yacht and getting the set up right before I and my shore team step up a gear and start serious training in the Spring,” he said at the Real Club Nautico in Palma.

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