Alex Thomson is used to blazing new trails as he demonstrated when he won the Clipper Race in 1998-99 to become the youngest skipper to win a round-the-world race.
This week it was a different trail but just as cool. Despite having a fear of heights, he walked the length of his 100 foot mast as his boat Hugo Boss was heeled at a 45 degree angle somewhere off the coast of Cadiz in Spain and dived fully suited, into the water.
Within hours of the video of his mastwalk going live, 250,000 people had viewed it, twice as many as the numbers who tuned in when he completed a similarly crazy stunt walking the keel of Hugo Boss in 2011.
|Thomson had to lie in a bath for an hour afterwards to calm down|
He came up with the mastwalk idea last year and took it to his sponsors Hugo Boss, who have been supporting his sailing successes since 2003. Predictably, they loved it and gave him the backing to go ahead, with a team of 25 cameramen, medics and sailors plus a helicopter for some dramatic overhead shots and a stuntman just in case Thomson froze, as he thought he might, before leaping into the water.
He trained by attending the diving centre near his home in Southampton where some members of the British Olympic diving team train and although he jumped from the 10m board he only managed a training dive from 5m before losing his nerve.
Next thing he knew, he was perched precariously at the end of his mast about 15 metres above the sea trying to remember everything he'd learned in the pool.
“I was very nervous,” admitted the 39 year-old skipper who is best known for his attempts on the non-stop solo round the world race, the Vendee Globe.
“I’ve been up the mast plenty of times when racing in the Vendee but I wanted to do this when the boat was fully powered up with the keel out of the water so before I set off, I was really questioning my own sanity.
“But it is good to do something challenging.
“I ran up the mainsail – I had tested a few pairs of trainers to find some that gripped well. When a boat is heeled at 40 degrees it is hard to scramble up the sail but at 45 degrees, it was a bit easier.
“It took about 16 seconds to get to the top. And then there was a massive broach and the boat tacked. I could see the gust coming and knew the boat had leaned over too far but I had enough time to get to the rig and hang on.
“We had to put a fibre sticker at the top of the mast because there are no shrouds to hang onto up there and I needed something vaguely stable that I could stand on before I went off – but it was like a flipping springboard.
“My boat captain and good mate Ross Daniel was helming and he did all the work. All I had to do was climb to the top, grow some cahunas and dive off. He had to control the boat and make sure it stayed over for long enough.
“I wouldn’t do it again. Everyone was pretty stressed and by the time we were finished, I had to lie in a bath for an hour to try and calm down. It was a lot less pleasant than I thought it would be.”
For now, the stunts are over. Thomson is now concentrating on his next race, the two handed Barcelona World Race with Spanish sailor Pepe Ribes starting at the end of this year.
That will take three months and then his sights will be set on the next Vendee Globe in 2016. It will be his fourth attempt at claiming sailing’s most highly prized offshore trophy and if rumours are to be believed, this attempt will be made in a brand new boat which will immediately place him as a favourite to win.