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Round-the-world sailor Alex Thomson on the joy of solitude

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Ralph Jones
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Round-the-world sailor Alex Thomson explains how you can make isolation work for you

The thought of spending time alone is daunting. I remember the first time I did this race, in 2003. When all the boats had left, finally I was on my own. I subconsciously found myself in the foetal position, wondering what I was doing: why was I here? Part of the reason I do it is the challenge of completing such a difficult thing on my own.

I’m experienced enough now to be very used to being on my own. I don’t have a problem with it.

I work with a sports psychologist. Having an anchor tool is very useful: if you’re not feeling positive, before the race or whenever you want to use it, you relate a positive thing that’s happened in your life to a physical thing that you do. When you do that physical thing, you get the positivity you would have had when that moment happened.

I’d consider myself a people person, but I’ve realised that spending time alone isn’t that bad. I found myself being better at it than I was originally.

When you’re on your own, you’re only thinking about yourself. You don’t have to worry about anyone else. That’s quite selfish in some ways, but I kind of like that. When I come back, I’m mentally refreshed.

I see whales and dolphins. I see amazing sunsets, I see amazing sunrises. But it’s momentary.

Cape Horn is one of the most impressive places in the world. It’s also very scary; a very fearful place for sailors, where the winds can get squashed against the land and become ferocious.

Alex Thomson in transit

The time passes very quickly. The first couple of days drag on; the last couple of days drag on; but the middle of it just flies by. 

I appreciate the albatrosses. When you sail into the Southern Ocean, you’re often joined by an albatross or two. I usually name them. Although I’m alone, I’ll have Bob or Gary following me around the world.

You converse with yourself. I might say, “That was a good decision” or “That was a bloody stupid thing to do.” You get to bounce ideas – but you’re bouncing them off yourself. 

When you’re ashore, you choose to fill your life with so many different things. But when I do this on my own, I only have to worry about one thing. It doesn’t matter that I’ve got a family, I’ve got a mortgage – all the things that we generally choose to fill our lives with are irrelevant.

I sleep 20-40 minutes every 2-3 hours. If I dream of anything, I dream of not doing my expedition.

Unless something really bad happens it’s not really that scary. I was halfway through Africa and Antarctica and the keel of my boat broke. The boat nearly capsized and I managed to get up again, but there was very little I could do. I had to abandon the boat in the life raft and then another competitor rescued me. My boat sank.

I miss eating meat. I miss being able to go to the pub. I miss everything.

The Southern Ocean is the most isolating. In 2007, I was in a race. There were two of us on the boat. My dad had a heart attack and there was absolutely nothing I could do. I had to internalise it and get on with it. That was the loneliest I ever felt. You don’t have to be on your own to feel lonely.

I speak to my wife every day. She sends me voice notes and occasionally I can Skype. It’s not like the old days.

If I want to remain positive then I have to be achieving my goals. It’s important to make sure that you’re regularly resetting your goals. Sometimes it will be to make sure I eat a meal within an hour or get three hours sleep instead of the two I got yesterday.

I miss my family the most. I’ve got a five-year-old and a two-year-old, so to be away from them is rubbish – particularly when their behaviour is affected by it.

My wife and I talk about how we’re going to communicate so that neither of us are disappointed. It’s harder for her than it is for me. She’s left at home wondering what’s going to happen.

When you’re leaving behind your loved ones, you need to put some structure around how you’re going to communicate. It’s not just you that you have got to
be worried about, it’s the other people.

Whatever you think it’s going to be like, it’s not going to be as bad as you think. Once you get down to the basics, as humans we have an ability to trudge on and get on with our lives, no matter what the situation is.

When it comes to physicality, you don’t have a choice. You just get on with it.

Alex Thomson is sponsored by Hugo Boss and Mercedes-Benz

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Ralph Jones

Ralph Jones is a staff writer for ShortList magazine. In April 2015 he won a seven-foot throne of dildos but he’d rather you didn’t mention it. He performs sketch comedy and is on Twitter at @OhHiRalphJones

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