Round-the-world record-breaker

‘We’re quite good at sailing in Britain’

Last week, Brian Thompson joined the ranks of Britain’s greatest sailors by knocking three days off the previous record for sailing round the globe. And along with the rest of his crew he has been partying hard for a week.

But the 49-year-old looks as fresh as if he’s been in bed for a month. “That’s because when I was 21, I met a group of horrifically weather-beaten sailors,” he says. “And I decided I would always use suncream, and to drink in moderation.”

This doesn’t seem to have stopped him enjoying himself: his face is a map of jolly laugh lines as he talks about his new triumph. The Jules Verne trophy takes its name from the novelist who imagined that circumnavigating the globe in 80 days was almost impossible. But Thompson’s trip took just 45 days, 13 hours, 42 minutes and 53 seconds.

Powered only by wind and human effort, the 132ft trimaran Banque Populaire V overtook cargo ships in the more crowded oceans. As fast as a motor boat, it can sail at the front of weather systems, instead of being overtaken by them – and for much of the journey it made speeds of 34 knots (about 40mph).

As it crashed over the waves in high winds, any error could have caused it to capsize, cartwheel or break a mast. And much of the responsibility fell on Thompson, as helmsman and trimmer. “You don’t stand there chatting,” he says with admirable understatement.

If offshore sailing was an Olympic sport, Thompson would almost certainly be a contender for gold, as the only Briton to have circled the globe four times non-stop, and the holder of more than 25 offshore sailing records. In a long career he has shone both as part of a crew and sailing solo. He was much admired for the way he handled a difficult boat in 2009’s single-handed round-the-world Vendee race. He didn’t win, but plans to have another go later this year.

In his cosy cottage outside Southampton, trophies and commemorative bottles of booze stand on display, and the walls are covered in framed photos of Thompson’s races. The largest picture, above the sofa, shows the latest boat – and to a British eye, it’s hard to suppress just the tiniest bit of disappointment that Thompson achieved this latest triumph in Banque Populaire, which was built, funded and almost entirely crewed by the French.

But Sam Llewellyn, editor of the Marine Quarterly, puts this into historical perspective, “Even in the Napoleonic wars, the best British ships were built by the French. They build fantastic boats and finance them. But the one thing they have done intelligently is to get Brian, who is one of the world’s great helmsman, and gave the Gallic effort the final shove.”

Thompson’s involvement came about by chance, after a meeting in Cowes with the French team. “They were looking for somebody with multi-hull experience, who knew the Southern Ocean.” It suddenly dawned on them that Thompson was the man they needed.

He suspects that when the crew was first put together some may have wondered, “Why have we got this Englishman?” but he gradually won their confidence and friendship. “It’s a bit like being the new boy at school.” They don’t seem to have objected to his cooking.

At first, his French was only good enough to understand the sailing terms, and manoeuvres. “It wasn’t really up to the jokes, but it got a lot better by the end.” In fact, when the skipper took a congratulatory call from President Sarkozy, Thompson joined the rest in a whistled an impromptu, and slightly manic Marseillaise.

“There was a lot of good humour, a lot of banter, joking and laughter, especially at the changes of watch. While we were away, I understand, there was a lot of controversy about the EU treaty, but in our little microcosm the French and the British got on very well.”

And thank goodness, because the journey was extremely stressful. With absolute concentration required to helm the boat, Thompson – like the rest of the crew – had only short periods to sleep between watches. “Its very bumpy down below, hard to sleep. You’re getting thrown around too much.” Nobody got more than five hours sleep a day, and not all at once.

In the South Ocean, they had to skirt around the remains of a massive berg, about the size of Corsica when it came off the ice shelf three years ago. B15J has got a lot smaller since, but also scattered large chunks, known as growlers, that don’t show up well on radar.

On Christmas Eve they had snow on deck. “Enough for a snowball fight across the cockpit. I remember taking my big dry-suit gloves off for a few minutes to do a fiddly job on deck, and then having to warm my hands over the open flame of the stove for several more minutes. It was that cold – with the air temp of 3C, the wind speed and the 100% wetness, the heat loss was really fast.”

Even in tropical seas, the crew couldn’t dress in shorts and T shirts, because at high speed they needed full protection from flying spray.

“The spray flies off the front of the central hull each time it lands back in the water, then divides around the front beam and flies back horizontally to hit the cockpit area..for the big lumps of water, it’s worth ducking, as the force in the water can knock you backwards.”

After we’d talked for a while, Thompson took me to the local marina where he used to sail as a boy on school holidays. “We did a lot of Swallows and Amazon kind of things,” he says, standing on a pontoon where he once tried crabbing and accidentally caught a conger eel.

He grew up in London, went to school at Latymer just after Hugh Grant (whom he doesn’t remember). His earliest memories were of water, and the sea in particular. “Maybe it’s because I’m Pisces,” he wonders, “although I don’t believe in astrology.”

He went to university to study economics, but while his friends when straight to work he took time off to travel and was amazed to learn that it was possible to make a living sailing – as skipper on other people’s yachts. It wasn’t a life well suited to settling down – “it’s a bit like being in the armed forces, you’re often away” – but he married and had two children, Genevieve, 6, and Tristram, 4. They live on the Isle of Wight with their mother, Natalie, from whom he has separated.

He is looking forward to teaching them to sail soon. “I’m waiting till the little one is a bit more confident at swimming, so he won’t mind if he falls in.”

On Banque Populaire V, with 14 crew, it was not possible to call home often, but with wi-fi on board he was able to send a lot of messages on his iPhone – and to get messages in return. “Genevieve wrote, ‘I hope you are having a nice time sailing with your friends,’ and Tristram wrote, ‘I hope you break lots of records’ – it was a real boy-girl thing.”

Before setting out, the crew sat around a table to discuss whether they wanted to be kept informed in the event of bad news at home. Several decided they would prefer not to be told, but Thompson said he’d rather know. Of course, he knew that family and friends might still not give him bad news – just as he tends not to tell the truth when things go wrong on the boat.

In 2009, sailing solo in the Vendee, he climbed up the mast to do repairs but his climbing tackle jammed and he couldn’t get back down. Being constantly smashed against the mast by the rocking of the boat, he quickly got colder and more tired. “I thought, what a stupid way to die.” There was nobody who could help – the nearest boat was 200 miles away. “Even if they had reached me, they could not have climbed the mast and helped me down.” Having no alternative, he continued to struggle with the climbing gear and after 90 minutes he was down.

But probably the worst thing that ever happened to Thompson on a boat was when a block exploded, breaking the bone of his eye socket, his cheekbone and his jaw. “People on the boat actually fainted when they saw my wounds,” he says with a laugh.

The next big challenge is to enter the Vendee again, in November. He’s done it before, of course, but after his recent adventure it may come as a shock to be tossed about in the stormy Southern Ocean in a comparatively slow single-hulled boat – and all alone.

He has yet to find a sponsor, but he hopes that interest in racing will increase if Britain gathers, as he expects, “quite a haul” of sailing medals in the Olympics. “The public is obviously really keen,” he says. Then, with that characteristic understatement, he adds: “And we’re quite good at sailing in Britain.”