Just over six days since starting from Brest, the leading solo skippers in the Arkea Ultim Challenge have crossed the Equator

Less than a week after setting out from the start in Brest, the leading Ultim trimarans in the Arkea Ultim Challenge have crossed the Equator.

First to enter the Southern Hemisphere was Tom Laperche on SVR Lazartigue, who crossed at around 1843 (CET) this evening, with Charles Caudrelier on Maxi Edmond de Rothschild around 1.5 hours behind.

The blistering pace set by the 100ft foiling trimarans has seen the leading Ultims cover the North Atlantic, from northern France to the Equator, in six and a half days.

For context, on his 2017 record breaking solo circumnavigation Francois Gabart’s took 5d and 20h to get to the Equator, while the fastest solo time was during Thomas Coville’s previous record, in 5d 17h 11m. The fastest ever is is that of the crewed Spindrift 2 team, who sailed from Brest to Latitude 0 in just 4d 20h at the start of a Jules Verne Trophy attempt.

However, all of those record attempts were carefully timed to depart at the absolute optimum moment for a fast Atlantic passage, while the Arkea Ultim Challenge fleet set out on a predetermined race start day.

The start of the Arkea Ultim Challenge in Brest, January 2024. Photos: Alexis Courcoux

High speed solo trimarans

The Arkea Ultim Challenge, which is the first race of its kind as solo around the world non-stop in giant multihulls, set off from Brest on the West of France, on Sunday lunchtime, 7 January 2024. 

The six trimaran fleet had passed Cape Finisterre before breakfast on Monday and hurtled past the latitude of the Azores in the small hours of Tuesday. Despite being briefly slowed in the first 48 hours by a ridge of high pressure, the Race HQ frequently noted speeds of more than 45 knots at times by the fastest trio while by Wednesday, as they approached the Canary Islands, the leading boats were posting averages of 38 knots.

Vendée Globe winner Armel Le Cléac’h (Maxi Banque Populaire XI) commented after two days of racing: “At this pace we can be at the Cape of Good Hope in 12 days and at Cape Horn in 30 days. In the IMOCA it took more than double the time. It totally changes your vision of a race round the world.”

Anthony Marchand (Actual Ultim 3) agreed: “What’s crazy is this feeling of traveling very quickly, of being at the Canaries in 3 days and the Cape Verde 23 hours later.

Eric Peron on Adagio at the start of the Arkea Ultim Challenge in Brest, January 2024. Photos: Alexis Courcoux

46 knots is too fast!

The teams swiftly faced their first low pressure system, which required a mindset shift for the skippers from the first few days of closely matched sprinting.

Anthony Marchand (Actual) explained on Wednesday 10 January: “Going into 6 metre waves, after three days at sea, I feel good, I am starting to switch to ‘offshore’ mode, less in tactical regatta mode. 

“You can quickly get caught up in the game of in contact racing, which can be a bad idea.”

Charles Cauderlier on Maxi Edmond de Rothschild agreed: “For sure there is a definite, noticeable intensity between us, that’s for sure, even a little too much sometimes. 

“I calmed things down in the breeze for the boat, especially after I was hitting 45, 46 knots. That really felt a bit quick for what is, after all, the start of a round the world race!

“We started out fast but I think in time everyone will find their rhythm and it will all settle down little by little, especially as things get serious with the first depression.”

All six trimarans negotiated the first major front without incident, though experienced winds of up to 40 knots, as predicted by the shoreside routing teams each skipper works closely with 24-7.

Armel Le Cléac’h explained: “The wind strengthened from ahead as expected, pretty much as I was anticipating it to do, I had reduced sail area a lot, well in advance to tackle this slightly delicate passage. Then there was a big shift in the wind with gusts of over 50 knots. At night, in torrential rain, let’s just say it wasn’t very comfortable.”

Since flying past the depression, the Arkea Ultim Challenge fleet were in search of tradewind conditions, with the fleet splitting into pairings. At the front, SVR Lazartigue and Maxi Edmond de Rothschild, with Thomas Coville on Sodebo and Armel le Cléac’h on Maxi Banque Populaire XI closely matched around behind, then Anthony Marchand on Actual Ultim 3 in 5th and Eric Peron, a late entry on Adagio, in 6th.

Thomas Coville on Sodebo racing in the Arkea Ultim Challenge, 2024. Photos: Alexis Courcoux

Long way round

Le Cleac’h revealed that he had suffered a problem with his largest headsail, the J0, which contributed to him losing touch with the leading pair.

“Two or three days ago I was still in contact with the leaders then I had a problem with a sail and it took me quite a while. I had to fix stuff and  unfortunately that left me behind. Now, though, I have found conditions that allowed me to sail quickly.

“But this course is long, I know a lot more things will happen. We must maintain our pace, our strategy with conditions which should allow us to quickly descend into the 40s.

“The idea is to get to the gates of the Indian Ocean with a boat at 100% operational capacity and to be able to attack the big South where we will have to change down the gears.”

For the leaders it now looks like a fast passage towards the longitude of Cape Town at good speeds. The wind flow around the Saint Helena high pressure system is favourable and in flat water they should be able to sail at close to maximum speed potential.

“There is no sea, no secondary swell and a very favourable weather situation,” explains  assistant race director Fred Lepeutrec from Race HQ in Brest.

“Within 48 hours, the leading duo will begin to slowly curve towards the South East, following the great circle route, the more direct route.

“It’s different to the usual sequence. With the southwest flow of the Saint Helena anticyclone, which will strengthen, they have a slant direct towards the Indian Ocean and conditions to go at their full potential.”

Follow on the live tracker at arkeaultimchallengebrest.com