Is this the most audacious race ever? Six skippers are getting ready to race 100ft foiling maxi trimarans solo around the world – James Boyd looks forward to the Arkea Ultim Challenge Brest

There are very few ‘firsts’ left in the world of sailing, but one such remaining barrier could be smashed when the Arkea Ultim Challenge Brest sets off from north-west France on 7 January 2024.

Since the Sunday Times Golden Globe in 1968/69 – the ‘impossible feat’ – there have been all manner of non-stop laps of the planet, from fully crewed Jules Verne Trophy and solo records, to races such as the single-handed Vendée Globe, and The Race in 2000 for fully crewed maxi-multihulls. This January sees a new pinnacle-of-pinnacles event: the first solo, non-stop, round the world race in Ultim trimarans. Six brave French skippers on their 100ft multihulls are entered.

The advancement in human endeavour and technology in this cutting edge area of sailing has been extraordinary. Thirty years ago we were in Brest for the first tentative Jules Verne Trophy attempts. Back then no one knew if sailing around the world in under 80 days was even possible: three boats set off and only one made it – Bruno Peyron’s maxi-catamaran Commodore Explorer in 79 days 6 hours.

Since then the record has been reduced by titans such as Peter Blake/Robin Knox-Johnston, Olivier de Kersauson, Loïck Peyron, Franck Cammas and, ultimately, Francis Joyon. In a quarter of a century, the record has halved with Joyon’s 105ft IDEC Sport setting the present benchmark of 40d 23h 30m 30s (at 26.85 knots average) five years ago.

You might assume that a solo around the world would be much slower, but Joyon destroyed this notion. In 2004, when the Jules Verne Trophy record was 63 days, he completed a lap in just under 73 days alone on his 90ft trimaran IDEC (also the first successful solo non-stop circumnavigation by a trimaran). The following year the UK ground to a halt for an afternoon, television dominated by live coverage of Ellen MacArthur’s arrival into Falmouth after she’d taken more than a day off Joyon’s time.

Gabart on his previous Macif Ultime. Photo: Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi

Thomas Coville took the time below 50 days in 2016 with 49d 3h, broken the following year by François Gabart’s 100ft Macif, establishing the present solo non-stop record: 42d 16h 40m 3s (just 4% slower than Joyon’s fully crewed).

While these times are impressive, they are records set in optimum, carefully selected conditions (for the first two weeks at least), whereas the Arkea Ultim Challenge Brest is a race. The solo sailors will have onshore routers, but their departure day is set, and pace likely dictated by their opponents. It’s a very different test of man and machine.

“It is something new,” says Gitana’s Charles Caudrelier. “The first time racing around the world with these big flying boats. It is a bit like the first Vendée Globe – not quite the same because we know where we are going! But it is a bit of an adventure, and I’m happy about that.”

Armel le Cléac’h in solo mode on Maxi Banque Populaire XI. Photo: Benoît Stichelbaut

The contenders

Surprisingly, skippers at all stages of their careers are competing. Amiable sea-dog Thomas Coville will be 55 when the race sets off. There is almost no major event Coville hasn’t done, from the America’s Cup to winning the Volvo Ocean Race.

Having sailed ORMA 60s, Coville moved into the record breaking business on maxi trimarans and is now on his third, Sodebo having backed him continuously. Of the six skippers Coville is the most experienced racing Ultims single-handed and is laudable for his sheer tenacity – he finally set a solo round the world record on his fifth attempt, after 11 years of trying.

At the other end of the scale, it was a surprise to learn that SVR-Lazartigue will not be raced by François Gabart, the single-handed round the world record holder and the blue trimaran’s initial skipper. Instead, taking over for solo races will be 26-year-old Tom Laperche. An engineer and highly talented sailor, Laperche is a graduate of the classic French offshore racing pathway; and has been involved with SVR-Lazartigue since its launch, racing as Gabart’s co-skipper in the last two Transat Jacques Vabre.

Anthony Marchand, 38, has also newly taken on a campaign, replacing Yves le Blevec on Actual Ultim 3 (ex-Macif) in early 2023. Meanwhile an 11th hour entry is Eric Péron on Adagio, the previous Sodebo Ultim. The boat is something of a ‘Frankenstein’ creation – recycling the 2001 maxi-tri Geronimo with appendages from 2010 America’s Cup winner USA17 – but a fast one.

Thomas Coville, on Sodebo Ultime 3. Photo: Vincent Curutchet/Team Sodebo

“I’ve been preparing for this kind of thing for years now,” said Péron. I haven’t done much preparation on the boat, but for everything else, the boxes are ticked. So, in the short time I’ve got left before the start, I hope to become at one with the machine. What motivates me most of all is the fact that it’s an extreme race, and that’s why I want to take up the challenge. Obviously, I’m not leaving totally confident. But I’m not going to give up.”

In the absence of Gabart, the two favourites are likely to be Armel le Cléac’h on Maxi Banque Populaire XI and Charles Caudrelier on Maxi Edmond de Rothschild (Gitana 17). Theirs are two of the best funded and oldest teams.

Banque Populaire first sponsored Joyon’s ORMA 60 in 1989 and has campaigned seven trimarans since, including building two Ultims. The team’s first Ultim had a disastrous 2018, before a final crash left it utterly destroyed during the Route du Rhum. Undeterred, the French bank set about building a replacement. Now, alongside SVR-Lazartigue, their two-year-old Maxi Banque Populaire XI is one of the newest Ultims.

SVR-Lazartigue and Banque Populaire XI are essentially VPLP designs (Ultim teams have their own in-house designers, engineers, aero- and hydrodynamists, foil and hydraulics experts), while Maxi Edmond de Rothschild is from Guillaume Verdier – Emirates Team New Zealand’s long term naval architect who has applied much of his Cup experience to the offshore trimaran.

Adagio, the previous Sodebo Ultim. Photo: Yvan Zedda

Impressive statistics

An Ultim’s length can be anything from 24-32m (78ft 8in-105ft) with a maximum beam of 23m (75ft), though in practice all six are trimarans built to, or near to the rule’s maximum. Overall mast height is less than 120% of length of the longest hull, so 38.4m (126ft). Additional rules cover minimum air draught below the beams and float volume. Water ballast, autopilots and automatic anti-capsize systems are permitted, but stored energy (produced by the crew) or the creation of inertial energy and computer or electromechanical assistance for adjusting any of the appendages is forbidden.

As with all things yachting, their quantum performance leap has come since going airborne. Today all six use a similar, complex foil configuration: on each hull is a rudder with an elevator where lift can be adjusted via a flap on its trailing edge. Midships in each float is a giant J-foil, which can be raised, lowered and its rake adjusted. Unique to the Ultims (apart from Adagio) is the daggerboard, which is fitted not only with a trim tab on its trailing edge to prevent leeway, but an elevator.

Maxi Edmond de Rothschild (Gitana 17). Photo: Yann Riou/Gitana

The foils and elevators are adjusted hydraulically in combination to alter, for example, fore and aft trim and ride height, depending upon the point of sail and sea state. Generally the aim is for the platform to have zero heel/pitch. Thanks to the rudder elevators the ride is very stable in pitch (unlike IMOCA 60s), the foils effectively ‘locking’ the boat to the water.

Just as America’s Cup catamarans that raked their windward rudder elevator to produce downforce (like crew on the rail), so Ultims can produce downforce with their daggerboard elevator. According to Gabart this is vital: racing an Ultim solo is about maximising efficiency so, when a gust hits, the rake on the daggerboard elevator is increased, sucking the trimaran’s main hull down. “If you release the hydraulic main sheet, it takes five minutes to pump it in again,” explains Gabart. “With this, when you are sailing at 40 knots you can add two tonnes [of down force] in one second using minimal energy.”

With their latest substantially larger foils, Ultims can fly in less wind. Originally it required 15-20 knots of wind or 26-27 knots boat speed for Macif to fly, this is now down to 12-14 knots of wind and 21-23 boat speed for SVR-Lazartigue – remarkable considering an Ultim’s 15-17 tonne displacement.

It’s similar on Banque Populaire XI, says Armel le Cléac’h. “We fly in 12-13 knots of wind or 22-23 knots of boat speed. In 15-17 knots of wind we fly upwind at 27-30 knots – that is the big step. Compared to older Ultims like IDEC in the last Route du Rhum, it’s an 8-9 knot improvement.”

Actual Ultim 3, formerly Gabart’s Macif. Photo: Thierry Martinez

Such speeds permit Ultims to become ‘masters of the weather’ – to some extent at least – often travelling so fast that their skippers can choose the weather system they can sail in. Optimum conditions for an Ultim are 15-25 knots (more than this and the sea state becomes too choppy for foiling), so they aim at the sweet spot of weather systems (flat water ahead of a warm front), which they then ride, like a surfer on a wave.

Le Cléac’h says their top speed has been 47 knots, “But that is not an objective. We want to have a good average speed: 40-42 knots for one or two hours is very good. 35-37 knots for 24 hours is very good too.”

Riding a rocketship

So how can skippers handle such a monster-sized boat that is foiling single-handed? Autopilot technology has improved to extraordinary levels of accuracy. According to Gabart, once set up, speed sailing in a straight line is not much different between solo and crewed. “Upwind or downwind VMG you are a little bit better if you are steering and others are trimming. At 65-70° TWA it is no different.”

Naturally manoeuvres are slower alone. Gabart says that going from reefed to full main might take two minutes fully crewed, but at least 10 solo. Some technology helps, like Harken’s latest generation Air 900 winches and pedestal grinders with bespoke gearing for single-person operation.

The newest of the Ultims, SVR-Lazartigue is perhaps the most advanced design. Photo: Guillaume Gatefait

While foils and many sail controls are hydraulic (SVR-Lazartigue has 23 rams), the pedestals are able to drive twin hydraulic pumps – though it requires serious manpower: “80% of the grinding is for the hydraulics,” says Gabart. SVR-Lazartigue will race with just five sails, including main and J0-J3, two permanently rigged on furlers.

Sailing at such high speeds has several effects. With apparent wind factored in, on deck there is constantly storm force, or at best gale force, winds. Human beings cannot operate for long in this and so cockpit
protection has drastically increased with some Ultims now fully enclosed.

On the latest Sodebo and SVR-Lazartigue these have moved forward. On the former, the ‘bridge’ is forward of the mast, USS Enterprise-style, while on the latter it is just aft of the mast, with jet fighter-style steering cockpits each side, complete with sliding canopies. The end result is that an Ultim’s crew rarely ventures outside, viewing the world via CCTV.

While foiling reduces hydrodynamic drag, all the teams have been focussed on reducing aero-drag. Crossbeams now have trailing edge fairings made from robust vinyl, while on SVR-Lazartigue, moving their ‘cockpit’ forward has enabled them to have an AC-style ‘deck sweeper’ boom where the deck creates an endplate for the foot of the mainsail (improving efficiency).

Tom Laperche steering, jet fighter-style, on SVR-Lazartigue. Photo: Guillaume Gatefait

To finish first…

For the teams, the principal hurdle of the Arkea Ultim Challenge Brest will be finishing. The major worry on such a long race is reliability. To prevent structural failures Ultims have load cells, the output from which is monitored in real time. Otherwise teams have simply been racing and sea trialling as often as possible in all conditions.

This year’s Transat Jacques Vabre’s heavier conditions were ideal, enabling the double-handed teams to really push the boats harder. While all the Ultims finished, some were in better shape than others, Maxi Edmond de Rothschild suffering rudder and foil issues while Sodebo Ultim’s starboard rudder sheared off after a collision with an underwater object.

“The main problem will be to have all of the boats finishing the race in good shape,” says Caudrelier, who says it will take a new approach from his previous crewed around the world races. “Always you push to the maximum, but this time you can’t do that and we will have to find a good balance between performance and safety for the boat. That is quite an interesting exercise and also managing a boat like this alone for 45 days.”

Éric Péron explains: “On these boats, a small incident can immediately put us out of the race, because nothing can be replaced on our own. The boat is so big that there’s not much we can do to fix it with what we’ve got on board.”

Antoine Gautier, head of the design office at Mer Concept (behind SVR-Lazartigue) adds that their enormously complex boat will be simplified: “We are going to have less systems on board to make it simpler and more reliable. There are some things which won’t make much difference on a round the world race.”

Armel le Cléac’h at Banque Populaire’s mission control/protected pod. Photo: Vincent Curutchet/ Hublot Sailing team

Capsize was once a major concern, but for Ultims today is – apparently – almost a non-issue. The multihulls are simply huge, and their rigs are now stepped almost two thirds of the way back from the bow, to prevent pitchpoling. As Gautier explains: “The boats are definitely safer than any multihulls before. There are no more pitchpoling issues and in terms of heel stability, you almost can’t heel because the leeward foil is pushing up so much. That is why they are able to sail so fast, even short-handed – because the boats are very safe and you don’t feel in danger.”

Nonetheless they do still have inclinometers which can automatically dump hydraulics (eg mainsheet) or mechanically release headsail sheets if heel is excessive.

Of greater concern are elements beyond the skipper’s control: collision. AIS and radar target alarms substantially reduce the chance of an Ultim hitting another vessel, but the threat of a ‘UFO’ (unidentified floating object) remains. As Gautier says: “Collision is the biggest fear for all of us. If you hit something at 30-plus knots it is the end of your race. The boat which is going to win will be the one which has all its appendages at the finish. It is Russian roulette and you can’t do anything about it. This is not a fun part of the sport, but it is the same for any race like this.”

To help prevent such collisions Ultims are all fitted with SEA.AI (previously known as OSCAR) a camera mounted at the masthead that can ‘see’ ahead both in daylight and at night, using infra-red. Images are compared in real time with a giant database to establish whether something ahead represents a collision threat.

Ultims raced each other double-handed in the November 2023 Transat Jacques Vabre – won by Armel le Cléac’h/Sébastien Josse in Banque Populaire XI. Photo: Jean-Marie Liot/Alea

There are other factors too that will come into play: a good deal of luck, undoubtedly, but also the skill, experience and motivation of the skippers. Caudrelier has perhaps the most experience in his boat and over the last three years has won most races, but he has never raced solo around the world. “This is my Vendée Globe” he acknowledges.

By contrast Le Cléac’h has completed three Vendées, on the podium every time. However his recent victory in the Transat Jacques Vabre was his first in an Ultim. For Coville, this might be his last lap? While for Laperche this will be his first big Ultim event and proving himself is a key objective.

What is certain is that this will be the ultimate contest between some of the world’s most talented offshore sailors. How many will make it round? And for those that do, it could be the fastest ever round the world race, so all the action will unfold quickly. Follow at

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