Thomas Coville recently unveiled the newest, and possibly most radical, Ultime design yet - we found out more about the unique boat and its extraordinary skipper
Thomas Coville spent nearly a decade of his life pursuing the solo around the world record, finally smashing it on Christmas Day 2016, when he sailed back into Brest having completed his circumnavigation in 49d 3h 7m 38s.
Coville had demolished Francis Joyon’s record of 57 days, which had stood since 2008. But record chasing is a cruel sport and Coville’s hard-fought accolade of being the fastest man around the world was snatched out of his hands within the year, when Francois Gabart raised the bar to an incredible 42 days, 16 hours, 40 minutes and 35 seconds in December 2017.
Having achieved the one thing that had dominated his entire life since his first aborted attempt in 2008, you might think Coville would have allowed himself a moment of quiet satisfaction. Actually, he says, it was the opposite.
“When I arrived in 49 days, as an athlete, the thing which was in my mind is that I wanted to achieve something else, because I wanted to kill the idea that I’ve done it by luck.”
After victory, he says, the most difficult thing is to win again. To prove (and it’s not clear who he’s trying to prove anything to, but one suspects mostly to himself) that there was not one iota of fluke in what he had just achieved.
“So six months later we launched the boat back in the water and I went to New York to beat that bloody record, crossing the north Atlantic in 4 days and 11 hours.
“And then I could release,” he breathes out deeply in recollection. “Yes! It was not only by luck!”
The Atlantic record was also a foretaste of the kind of speeds to come. He crossed from Ambrose Light, New York to Lizard Point, UK in a breath-taking 4 days and 11h, sailing at an inhuman average speed of 28.35 knots over 3039 miles.
Sustaining speeds of 30-plus knots is the parallel universe in which solo record sailors now reside. Gabart’s record was sailed at an average pace of 27.2 knots over six weeks.
Coville’s new Ultime is designed, like all the trimarans in this space-race class, to push the boundaries of what is possible yet further. And to achieve this, Coville took a unique approach.
Thomas Coville is not just a remarkably skilled and motivated sailor. Besides being erudite, witty and multilingual, he comes across as boundlessly curious about everything and everyone he meets. When it came to designing his new Ultime, he embraced that open curiosity and decided to have a yacht designed – literally – by committee.
“When I came back from my last round the world trip I went to my team and I said, if we want to build a new boat tomorrow, it won’t be made by only one architect, it’s too complicated. The future is, for me, collaborative.
“It’s going to be with that new generation of architects, and we’re going to find some solutions from cars, from planes, from Austria, Switzerland, New Zealand.
“So it’s open thinking, very collaborative – and we’re going to probably going to break some rules about the French way of thinking, the French way of naval architecture, but this is the only way if you want to make big process,” he tells me.
The design team is clearly impressive – besides long-term members of Coville’s team, like his technical director Elie Canivenc, weather router Jean-Luc Nelias, and Jean-Matthieu Bourgeon, who was in charge of R&D on the innovative Hydroptère, it also included the talented VPLP team, who designed the floats and forward beam, and Martin Fischer, the German designer of the GC32 catamaran, who created the foils.
The build was equally spread out – the central hull, floats and cockpit made by Multiplast, the front beam by CDK, the foils and rear beam by Persico in Italy.
The design group included talent from Ben Ainslie Racing, Oracle, and Luna Rossa America’s Cup teams. “It was quite funny because they’ve been working against each other for so many years and suddenly they’re on the same design team. They were looking at each other like cats and dogs!” Coville recalls.
But they also brought in expertise from motorsport and aviation, and adopted a policy that no idea was too crazy to consider.
The game change came when they looked into moving the heaviest part of the structure, the companionway and cuddy, radically far forward (it’s an idea Coville says came from discussions about a Porsche victory in the Le Mans 24-Hour Race victory, which was partly due to a decision to move the engine and shift the car’s centre of gravity).
Coville says the central pod weight amounted to 25% of the weight of the hull, and they have shifted it to forward of the mast, nearly over the centre of gravity of the boat. The effect of this is that it lowers the centre of effort down some 2 metres and reduces pitching moment.
The radical move ended much of the battle to save weight aloft. “You can’t imagine how much money we are ready to spend to move the gravity centre of a new boat like this down just 1cm. it’s more than €10,000 per kilo,” he points out.
The other knock-on effect is that it allows the boom to drop to almost flush with the deck, which radically changes the aerodynamic efficiency of the sail. Coville estimates that it reduces airflow disturbance and increases the efficiency of the whole sail area by some 20%. The rig height can also be reduced.
“And then – today we’ve got T-rudders to put the boat [back] on its nose because the foils, most of the time, are pushing too much,” he adds. “Suddenly, you align all of these [forces] and you don’t need to have such big rudders, so you reduce also the drag on the water.
“So everything, by one change, makes the spirals suddenly better.”