Thomas Coville fought for nearly a decade to become the fastest man to sail solo around the world – this is his story.
Over a decade Coville returned to the battlefield many times, dusting himself off after defeat, rearming, and re-engaging until victory was his. Like any true hero, the philosophical Breton also wears his accolades lightly, commenting that this fifth trip was “the easiest one that I have done.”
Thomas Coville sailed back into Brest on Christmas Day having completed his circumnavigation in 49d 3h 7m 38s, at a blistering average pace of 24.10 knots. He has made it his mission to join this most elite club of sailors for almost a decade.
Ever since Francis Joyon was first to sail his trimaran IDEC around the world non-stop in 2004 in just under 73 days, the solo speed record has been the sailor’s ultimate test.
Just two names join Joyon on the roll call: Ellen MacArthur, who shaved a day and a half from Joyon’s time the following year, before Joyon returned three years later with a trimaran 20ft longer to set a benchmark of 57d, 13h; and now the 48-year-old Coville.
Tomma, as many know him, has lived in the shadow of that 57-day marker for eight years.
Coville’s five attempts to break the world record
He set off on his first attempt in 2008, the year Joyon set his record, before a collision – likely with ice –forced him to retire. He repaired, and set off again, this time making it all the way round, only to cross the line in a demoralising 59d 20h. Two years later he again completed the course a handful of days short.
Few sailors would repeatedly expose themselves to such huge risks and emotional depths for such little reward. Coville joined Franck Cammas’ Groupama team and went onto to win the 2012 Volvo Ocean Race, but returned to his Sodebo trimaran for two more attempts – one aborted after just one day. Enough, you might think, was enough.
Except it wasn’t. Coville, together with loyal sponsors Sodebo (makers of extraordinarily longlife sandwiches, among other foods), bought a 12-year-old boat, Olivier de Kersauson’s Geronimo, and set about converting her from a Jules Verne winning design crewed by a crew of 11, to a modern maxi tri capable of being sailed by just one man.
The original designers, VPLP, were involved in Geronimo’s significant reworking, which included a new central hull with a raked bow and new mast, while over five tonnes of weight was stripped.
Her original single rudder was replaced with two L-shaped foils and twin T-foil rudders, which had been originally developed for the Oracle USA17 programme, also led by VPLP, in the 2010 America’s Cup.
The fundamental source of the trimaran’s stability – namely its 21.20m beam, nearly 5m wider than the previous Sodebo – remained unchanged.
Again, there were setbacks – the boat collided with a container ship in the 2014 Route du Rhum, shearing off the forward section of her starboard float and central bow. But on 6 November 2016 Coville and Sodebo set out from Brest.
“He got fired out of the Bay of Biscay like a bullet!” recalls former Vendée Globe skipper Davies, who joined the team of weather routers.
“It was easy sailing as well. I always remember the famous images of him nearly flipping his boat just off the startline on one of his previous attempts, and quite often those [big waves] are the conditions you have going off [from France] behind a front, but this wasn’t the case.
“Low stress, trying to mininise the wear and tear on the boat and the skipper from the start, and that was an important part of the weather window.”
The North Atlantic was welcoming, and Coville reached the Equator some 250 miles ahead of Joyon’s time. Coville explains, “It was five days and 15 hours which is an amazing time, so it was a good start. But until you arrive there you don’t really know what’s going to be 2,000 miles on in the South Atlantic.”
The South Atlantic indeed proved more unpredictable, with Coville forced west of Joyon’s line, adding around 800 miles to his route. He then dived south, much lower than the Vendée Globe fleet were permitted to sail, before turning for the tip of Africa, at times averaging speeds of over 26 knots for 24 hours.
The team were challenged to find a narrow corridor of pressure between some northerly ice, and the St Helena High pressure system in the south Atlantic. “He did not take any risks with the ice,” confirms Davies. “So that left us a really narrow corridor between the High and the ice kept pushing him back up to the high and slowed us right down.”
Coville recalls working hard to keep that corridor open to him, “I don’t remember [which day], but I had done something like 23 gybes just to open that little door.” The pattern repeated itself for four exhausting days, but Coville reached the Cape of Good Hope having maintained a 500-mile advantage.
Once into the Indian Ocean, he hooked into a weather system and was able ride it to Cape Leeuwin (see overleaf). Sodebo’s Indian Ocean crossing set a new record time, at 8d, 12h, 19m.
He repeated the move in the Pacific, putting in 600-mile days to gain a 1,800 mile advantage by day 29. “He was on the front of a system and it shot him almost all the way across on one tack,” recalls Davies.
The average pace across the Pacific was an eye-watering 25.8 knots, and again set a new record, of 8d 18h. Most significantly, he was four days ahead of Joyon.