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July 19th, 2012
10:02 AM ET

Sailing solo around the world: Alex Thomson on why you need a little 'instability' to make the attempt

Why would anyone want to spend three months alone on a boat, sleeping no more than 20 minutes at a time and dealing with perpetual dampness, not to mention the constant threat of death and disaster?

"I think you have to be a certain type of person," says 38-year-old Alex Thomson, a sun-kissed, blond-haired Brit who lists his profession as an aspiring "single-handed, around-the-world sailor." He has made it his mission to sail around the world—the entire world—all alone without stopping.

"When you put it in perspective, something like 3,000 people have climbed Mt. Everest. More than 500 people have been out to space," Thompson reasons. "But less than 100 people have sailed single-handed non-stop around the world."

Thompson is not yet one of them. In his majestic 60-foot racing yacht sponsored by Hugo Boss, Thompson is gearing up for the Vendee Globe, the premiere solo around-the-world yacht race, which take place every four years. It's his third try; the first two he didn't finish.

In 2006, his keel snapped and his boat capsized. "I though I might die," says Thompson, who had to abandon ship and was ultimately picked up by a competitor.

That experience taught him a lot. Despite all the challenges going on outside, what counts is what is going on in your head.

"You know when you're out there on your own in the southern ocean, where [you're] going to spend five weeks in wind chill factors minus 20, and there's no one to help you…your brain is telling you you're going to die and you've got to control that emotion. You've got to be able to sleep, you've got to be able to eat, you've got to be able to do your jobs and sail the boat. That takes some mental strength, also mental instability," Thomson says.

That's right, he said mental instability. It admittedly takes a special sort of person to pull the stunts Thomson has. YouTube nearly exploded with a wildly popular video that seems to defy physics, where Thomson is standing on the keel of his boat, fully dressed in a Hugo Boss suit as the yacht races through the water.

Photo courtesy of AlexThomsonRacing.com

That image, on the $4 million yacht, looks death-defying and glamorous. Much of his life at sea? Not so glamorous.

His bathroom is a bucket. His food? Dehydrated like an astronaut. And the real hardship: he sleeps no more than 40 minutes at a time.

No wonder he had second thoughts in his first attempt around the world.

"When all the spectator boats are gone and I found myself on my own…I ended up in the fetal position in the cockpit wondering why I was doing it," Thomson says.

Now a seasoned pro, he doesn’t wonder any more.

"I've traveled all the way around the world. I've seen some of the best places, and that’s the way to travel - by water," says Thomson. "That's where you get to see everything."

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