French solo sailor Thomas Coville has succeeded in his fifth attempt to break the solo round the world record with an incredible time of under 50 days
Solo sailor Thomas Coville has pulverised one of the hardest records in sport: the single-handed round the world record. He took his 105ft trimaran Sodebo Ultim over the finish line off Ushant on Christmas Day to set a new time of 49d 3h 7m, smashing the record set in 2004 by Francis Joyon by an incredible margin of 8d 10h.
This new sub-50 day record is one that exceeded all expectations, including perhaps Coville’s himself. It equates to a mind blowing average speed of 23 knots over the entire 27,325-mile course.
The previous record, set by Francis Joyon record in the maxi catamaran IDEC, had stood for 12 years and had resisted three previous unsuccessful attempts by Coville.
Thomas Coville’s long quest to gain this record has been punctuated by disappointment and, on two occasions, the bitterest of defeats. His previous challenges have all ended in retirement through damage and, on two attempts he completed circumnavigations only to miss out on the record by days.
But this time Coville had good fortune to match his skill, and benefited from favourable weather that sped him south through the Atlantic. With one gybe he entered the first Roaring Forties low pressure system and managed to stay ahead of a cold front with the following wind angle and low sea state in which his boat performs best.
Coville had no hesitation in diving south, much further than the Vendée Globe yachts have been allowed to do, in pursuit of the right winds and best VMG. He crossed the Indian Ocean in just 8 days ,12 hours and kept going through the Pacific to Cape Horn in 8 days 18 hours.
To put this in context, compare those times to the fully crewed round the world record times. Crossing the Indian Ocean took Banque Populaire V 8 days 7 hours in 2011 and Spindrift 2 8 days 4 hours in 2015.
Such weather occurs perhaps once a decade – and it has taken Coville all these attempts to find and make use of it.
He made these speeds despite hugely difficult conditions. Through much of the Indian Ocean, Coville experienced 30-40 knots of wind and 10m seas. “We often sailed under three-reefed mainsail and J3. It’s exhausting,” he said. “Living with it is not easy, because you have to be very focused and available for the boat. You have to be outdoors; there’s a lot to regulate.
“The problem there is that either you have too much canvas, or not enough canvas. It is therefore necessary to accept that, at times, you are sailing underwater. Sodebo is big, but in troughs of 10m waves it’s like a model yacht.”
Guided by his weather router, Jean-Luc Nélias, with whom Coville sailed in the the Volvo Ocean Race winner Groupama IV, and with help through 24 hours a day also from friend and fellow sailor Samantha Davies, Coville picked his way carefully through the south to avoid ice.
He had more favourable winds and a much quicker time back up the Atlantic than Joyon had in 2004, when the route was beset with headwinds. This meant Coville was able to extend the handsome lead of over 5 days he had accumulated at Cape Horn.
Coville communicated with his weather team using Skype instant message, and very rarely by speaking and every day the team would put weather maps, satellite photos, synoptic charts, wave height models, grib files and routeing options on an FTP server for Coville to pick up and download.
Coville’s previous failed attempts took a huge amount out of him psychologically, he has admitted.
On his first attempt in 2008, the same year Joyon set his superb record, the crash box of Coville’s theoretically faster trimaran was damaged in a collision, possibly with ice, and he had to retire.
On a second attempt, he endured some quite hair-raising times, including one occasion in the Southern Ocean when, overcanvassed for a squall, his boat lifted up onto one float and set off blindly on a huge surf. Coville was on the point of retreating to the cabin, the only place he’d be sure to survive a capsize, when the boat sat back down, picked up on another surf, and a piece of the traveller whistled by, decapitating both carbon wheels.
He went on to battle up through the Atlantic, only to finish 2 days outside Joyon’s record.
When he tried again in 2013, he suffered in the Southern Ocean, rounding Cape Horn some 800 miles behind the record time (potentially less than a day-and-a-half in such a yacht) and had no better luck in the Atlantic. Once again, he finished in Brest just days outside the record. He broke down in tears and was inconsolable.
Although not as well known outside France as he deserves to be, Thomas Coville is one of the most experienced and accomplished ocean racers in the world. He has now raced round the world eight times. He has twice won the Jules Verne Trophy for the outright (crewed) round the world record: in 1997 with Olivier de Kersauson on Sport-Elec and again in 2010 as part of Franck Cammas’s crew on Groupama 3.
He was also part of Cammas’s winning crew in the 2012/3 Volvo Ocean Race in Groupama 4. He has also race in the 2000/1 Vendée Globe, finishing 6th.
His trimaran, Sodebo Ultim, was originally Olivier de Kersauson’s trimaran Géronimo, built for an (unsuccessful) attempt by de Kersauson on the crewed round the record.
As Sodebo Ultim, little remains of the original configuration other than the platform itself, as it was completely modified by Coville and designers VPLP. A key feature is the foils the trimaran now sports, which came from the USA 17, Oracle Team USA’s 2010 America’s Cup winner.
Key statistics from the record
Start on 6 November at 13 hours 49 minutes and 52 seconds GMT
Passage of the equator: on 12 November at 07h 04min 54s GMT
Time from Ushant / Equator*: 5d 17h 15m 2s
Passage of Cape of Good Hope: 20 November at 18h 33min 40s GMT
Time from Ushant / Good Hope*: 14 days 4 hours 43 minutes and 48 seconds
Passage of Cape Leeuwin: on 27 November at 16:59 GMT
Time from Ushant / Cape Leeuwin: 21 days 3 hours 9 min and 8s
Indian Ocean Record* (Cape Agulhas /Tasmania): 8d 12h 19m on 29 November at 06:51 GMT
or 23h 47min faster than the previous record set by Francis Joyon in 2007 (9d 12h 6min)
Average speed: 25.16 knots for 5,325 miles
Time from Ushant / Tasmania: 22d 17h 1m 23s – or a lead of 2 days 5 hours 4 mins over the record set by Francis Joyon
Pacific Ocean record* (Tasmania/Cape Horn): 8d 18h 28m 30s or 1 day 19h 58min better than the previous record set by Francis Joyon in 2007 (10d 14h 26min)
Time from Ushant / Cape Horn: 31d 11h 30m 8s – Or a lead of 4 days and 59 mins over Francis Joyon’s record
Record Equator/Equator: 35 days 21 hours 38 min 6 sec – Or 5 days 11 hours 36 minutes better