The Boss Is Back
Yachting World|November 2019
Alex Thomson’s Bold New Hugo Boss Will Change How The Solo Skipper Sails, But Will It Win The 2020 Vendée Globe? Helen Fretter Got On Board To Find Out More

What’s my speed? What’s the speed? What’s the boat speed now?!” Alex Thomson hollers into a microphone. Thomson, at the helm of his brand new Hugo Boss, is pumped. As we headed out for today’s photoshoot he said they weren’t going to push the boat too hard. After all, they’re still getting to know her. Instead the aim of the day is mainly to get some drone shots of this futuristic yacht flying high.

But with 18-20 knot westerlies as we thunder out and back from Gosport, it quickly becomes all about the numbers. “32 knots boatspeed in 18 knots of wind with a... a… storm jib up!” Alex gesticulates at the rig, “That’s amazing isn’t it?”

It’s not really a storm jib, it’s a J3 with a single-reefed main, although it’s definitely not all the sail area this machine of a yacht can carry on a moderate inshore day. And we haven’t even opened a valve for the water ballast. But Thomson’s enthusiasm is infectious, and the boat truly is amazing.

At one point Thomson is so buzzed he does a little happy dance, then wiggles the tiller mischievously from side to side. He’s clearly having a whole lot of fun.

He’s not the only one. The sensation of speed is astonishing – a foiling IMOCA does not scoot forwards like a dinghy being hit by a big puff of wind, nor does it have the thundering momentum of a Maxi powering up, or even the screaming white-knuckle ride of a foiling catamaran. Instead it is like a jet plane taking off, or a turbo kicking in – a relentless acceleration that makes you involuntarily hold your breath. It feels as if it will simply get faster and faster forever.

It doesn’t, of course. The IMOCA 60s don’t have T-foil rudders for constant flight, so some of that fighter jet surge of speed levels out, until you are simply hammering along at 30-plus knots.

It is tricky to judge how high you are flying until the boat crashes down again. On our Solent sail, those plunges back to sea level are not particularly violent, although the next day my legs ache from bracing. It’s impossible to comprehend how bone-shattering and relentless the motion would become in a big Southern sea.

The reason Thomson is shouting into a headset to ask for his windspeed and boatspeed is because he can’t see them. The radical design of his seventh Hugo Boss means there is no outside cockpit. There are no number displays on the mast or anywhere else. Thomson is perched, temporary tiller in hand, on the scooped transom, one foot on a small brace point on deck, the other balanced on some taut lines. Clearly this is not a helming position designed for transocean racing.

In front of him the hot pink coachroof rises in a curve like a beautiful 1940s Buick. But this is the wacky races cartoon car version, because Thomson is standing on the equivalent of the rear bumper to steer, while invisible accomplices control his accelerator and gears inside.

Immediately aft of the mast is the cockpit, quite unlike any other I’ve seen on a monohull – a closer comparison is the enclosed cuddy of an Ultime maxi trimaran. If you stand at the mast base you see a bank of winches and clutches in front of you, and above them four screens. But over your head is a solid coachroof, and at your back a solid bulkhead. And coming through that bulkhead are two tiller extensions. It is a room, and it is in here that Alex will navigate, trim, play the keel and minutely adjust foils – and helm – for 28,000 miles around the globe.

For the drone shoot, two or three crew toil in this engine room, grinding the main on, constantly shifting the keel cant and angle of the enormous curved foils to power us ever higher. Through the closed comms headsets Alex’s questions and instructions come thick and fast “What’s my angle of attack? Keel up. Main on. Let’s go!”

It’s not just about producing spectacular photographs, every time Alex takes out the yacht he calls his ‘crazy science project’ he wants to see what it can do. And the first impressions are very good indeed.

£6 million machine

The ‘science project’ is a £6 million gamble. The latest Hugo Boss is designed to win the 2020 Vendée Globe, that’s it. All of Thomson’s yachts have been built, or optimised, to win the solo round the world race. But this time around the boat has literally one job.

The result of next month’s Transat Jacques Vabre is irrelevant. There is no double-handed Barcelona World Race or multi-stage Velux 5 Oceans on the calendar any more. Any notion of building a boat that could also work for the crewed Ocean Race IMOCA class was dismissed at a very early stage.

After retiring from the 2004 Vendée, and abandoning ship in the 2006 Velux 5 Oceans, and being crashed into by a fishing boat in 2008, there was a time in Alex’s career when he simply needed to get around, to finish a solo round the world race. But with a 3rd (2012) and a 2nd (2016) place under his belt, that time is over. Now he only wants to go one better.

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