Alex Thomson's stunt double
As suspected Dutch offshore sailor, navigator and meteorologist Wouter Verbraak is to replace Alex Thomson on board Hugo Boss, allowing the sole British entry in the Barcelona World Race to be on the start line tomorrow. What was unexpected was that at a subsequent point in the race, Thomson will be allowed to swap back on board his black and white IMOCA 60.
The decision came after it was passed around between the jury, the FNOB (organisers of the Barcelona World Race), IMOCA and finally ended up going to a closed vote between the skippers taking part in the race. The result was “an overwhelming majority to support the request of the Hugo Boss Sailing Team” that will result in an amendment to the Notice of Race unique to this incident, specifically naming Alex Thomson.
“We have had a relationship with Wouter for many months and he has always been aligned to our team as our substitute skipper,” said Stewart Hosford, Managing Director of Alex Thomson Racing of Thomson's temporary replacement. “We are obviously very pleased as a team to be starting this race. We are very very fond of this race and we look forward to Alex getting well soon and rejoining the race as soon as he possibly can.
"I would like to make a generally heartfelt thank you to a lot of people - to the race organisation for helping us through this process, to the medical staff who have been really superb and all the other IMOCA teams who have given us some great support throughout this process.”
The timing of the transfer remains uncertain at present and hinges on the British skipper’s recovery time from his appendectomy that took place two days ago. “Our intention is that we will wait for Alex to be declared fully fit by the medical team and then at that point we will put together a plan to get Alex back on to the boat and relieving Wouter from Hugo Boss,” continued Hosford.
Hosford said that typically recovery time for an appendicitis operation for a normal healthy person is four weeks. For ‘a sportsman’ he didn’t know the exact dates, but hoped it would be no longer than 10-14 days. At present Thomson remains in the Tecknon Clinic, the private hospital in Barcelona where the operation was undertaken.
“He is getting better by the hour and for everyone who knows Alex he is a stubborn strong character,” reported Hosford. “We hope he will be out of hospital very soon, hopefully tomorrow. I have no idea yet when he will return to the UK. That will be subject to doctors and a number of other factors.”
The most likely options for transferring Thomson back on board would seem to be the Canary Islands, Cape Verdes and possibly the island group off the northeast coast of Brazil, all of which are virtually on the route the Barcelona World Race looks set to take. Verbraak confirmed this: “Those islands are good, especially if you look at the current forecast, especially as it is a very coastal route possibly close to both the Canaries and Cape Verde islands and the Brazilian islands.”
Hosford added that at present he is unaware of the prospect of the team picking up any additional penalty for them being allowed to swap crew into the race, despite this episode being unprecedented in shorthanded ocean racing history. “While Wouter is an excellent sailor, Alex is our choice of skipper for the Hugo Boss boat. Not having Alex on the board is some penalty. In addition we’ll have to route to make a stop and that clearly penalises us as a team.”
Wouter Verbraak has been working on the meteorological side of the Hugo Boss campaign but had previously been appointed stand-by crew in case of just such an eventuality as this. “The decision to have Wouter as the substitute skipper, came directly from myself and Alex, weighing up a few choices,” said Andy Meiklejohn. “There were no other outside influences here. I am completely comfortable with this choice. I know we are going to have a great bond and that will help with this difficult transition.”
Personally Verbraak says he has been aspiring to get a Dutch campaign together for the Barcelona World Race even before the last Volvo Ocean Race an event in which, uniquely, he sailed on three boats, starting the race on Team Russia (alongside Hugo Boss co-skipper Andy Meiklejohn), then Green Dragon before concluding the race as navigator appropriately on board Dutch entry Delta Lloyd. Previously Verbraak was navigator on the first and sixth legs of the 2001-2 Volvo Ocean Race on Knut Frostad's djuice dragons and was involved with the pre-race strategy for Paul Cayard’s Pirates of the Caribbean campaign.
“I have always had a lot of interest in the mechanics and the technical development of these boats [IMOCA 60s] which today will pay off big time, because the hard thing is to get them around the world and make sure all the systems are in place, etc,” said Verbraak.
Aside from Team Russia, Verbraak has sailed with Meiklejohn on many occasions over the last decade including on board the maxis Black Dragon and Neville Crichton's Shockwave.
“We have a similar philosophy in how we want to sail the boat which is keep it safe,” said Verbraak of his new partnership. “Obviously with us not having sailed together as much as Andy and Alex have, we have to be careful not to push the boat too hard.”
If Hugo Boss should end up winning the Barcelona World Race, we suspect it is highly likely that the result would be protested. However as Hosford points out: “There is no rule in the NoR for this and therefore it is formally not a rule that they can protest against. Therefore the race organisation had to make a decision and satisfy themselves with the jury that there was no advantage for our boat and they asked all the skippers. We were not party to the voting process, we had no opportunity to canvas. They had to consider everything along those lines. They spent much time trying to ensure they were all happy.”
So is Alex cursed, we put it to Hosford: “From my perspective, I have come into this team recently. People talk about the bad luck that Alex has had. People have their opinions, but I certainly don’t share that opinion. I, like Sir Keith [Mills] and the rest of the team feel that the Alex is a great skipper and he will fulfil his potential and when he does it will be so amazing because he has had so many tough experiences and he has fought back against all of them and that makes him a great character and one day that will make him a great winner. The perspective on this is that maybe this is good luck, certainly that it didn’t happen at a later point.”
Meanwhile back in the UK Thomson’s partner Kate is due to give birth to their first child on 5 January. “Alex is not a father yet. I don’t think my heart could cope with having Alex and his wife in hospital at the same time...” said Hosford.