How new recordbreaker hit 47 knots in the Southern Ocean and can out-pace weather systems

What marks out the world’s fastest sailing boat? Is it one that can reach 50 knots for a matter of miles – L’Hydroptère style – or one that can top 30 in little more than a zephyr of a breeze on a downwind leg of the America’s Cup?

You can argue the merits of both but for me the most impressive measure of speed is out on the open ocean where massive and chaotic elements are always in charge and you cannot wait for the right conditions.

High average speeds are most indicative of a yacht’s and crew’s ability to harness every condition that’s thrown at them and the best demonstration of seamanship, that great art and precious feel born of hardened experience.

Groupama 3’s Jules Verne record of 48 days and 7 hours is a perfect example.

Navigator Stan Honey told me that the 103ft trimaran briefly touched a peak speed of 47 knots – in the Southern Ocean, imagine that! – but, more importantly, hit such high sustained averages “we were sailing at 36, 37 knots for hours at a time.”

Even more amazing, for me, was Groupama’s ability to outsmart the weather. This is something new to a handful of the world’s fastest yachts: they can overtake weather systems.

A perfect example was provided in the final acceleration of Groupama to the finish at Ushant, when she shot ahead of the reference time by punching through a cold front from back to front.

Just think of that: travelling so much faster that you can not only cross that front but escape ahead of the narrow band of calm winds and sloppy seas right after it.

It’s this ability to jump over and between weather systems that is defining the way Jules Verne challenges are bettered. Groupama 3 demonstrates how today’s super-fast multihulls are getting better at it.

The boat is nimble, much more so than a Volvo 70, comments Stan Honey. You can tack or gybe without having to unstack and stack every last item on board and that makes it easier to stay in phase with a weather system.

“On other boats stacking can take over half an hour and need the entire crew and it’s a back-breaking effort,” he says. “So if, as a navigator, you’re tacking on a ridge and you get [the timing] wrong you and screw it up you’ll end up tacking it three times and that can wreck the crew.

“People who are supposed to be sleeping are not sleeping. You have to dig into every shift.

“On Groupama we can tack on each of the headers. We did a lot of tacking or gybing on shifts and while you have to get the standby watch up, it doesn’t involve everyone. It makes some things easier. It’s more the optimum solution.”

This can be done with a relatively small crew – skipper and nine others on Groupama – and a fairly small sail wardrobe on furlers means that there were less injuries than on most ocean racing monohulls, where clew ring wounds during sail changes are not uncommon.

Transitions in light winds are all-important but inevitably it’s the high speeds that give Jules Verne records their rugged glamour. You must admit it’s hard to get too much of a good thing. Vicariously.

I ask Stan Honey what it’s like. I don’t get the impression of a man much given to hyperbole. He says:

“At high speed you can hardly write. Just trying to hold a pencil is really hard. My log book looks like a seismograph.

“Everything gets less efficient. Using a computer is difficult. I can’t use a mouse, I use a trackball but even so I have to wedge my hand to use it.”

As the sole American – the sole ‘Anglo-Saxon’ on board – Honey noticed some big differences compared with the US and New Zealand crews with whom he usually races.

There is more emphasis on comfort and fun as components of morale and success. Some build weight is spent on protecting helmsman and crew; food on board is better.

“In the Kiwi boats it’s all business and it’s all silent. Totally professional. It’s almost a point of pride that it’s tough and hard and miserable and cold,” he says. “And the food’s awful.

“The French have more fun, the guys know how to cook, they add olive oil, they have a stash of meat and cheese that’s shared every few nights.

“And there’s the odd cocktail. So sometimes you think you’ve gone to heaven.”