Thomas Coville fought for nearly a decade to become the fastest man to sail solo around the world – this is his story.
What it takes to sail solo around the world
“You have to anticipate,” says Coville of how to remain in control, sailing at such blistering pace.
“If you make a mistake in a manoeuvre like setting a reef you are going to damage something on board, or you are going to be in a situation where you can’t find a solution by yourself.
“If you came on board today you will see that I don’t have any damage really, because it was really my focus.”
There were still hair-raising moments: a game of chicken with a whale, when Coville realised they were facing each other head-on. “We must have seen each other at the same time. I swerved, the boat veered sideways. For a moment I expected the worst. It could have ended there,” he recalled.
To contend with the constant adrenalin, he thought only about what was immediately in front of him. “Mentally I try to really give focus only to what I am doing at this moment.
“Sometimes your mind goes to the finish or achieving a good time, but I would try to always come back to what I would call ‘the real world’ – by which I mean what I am doing now, the speed I am going now, the conditions I have got, the next manoeuvre.”
He also made a conscious effort to enjoy moments when things were going well. “I worked on this so each time you do a manoeuvre and you do a good one, or each time you managed to achieve what your weather routeing team told you to do, is like a little victory.
“And each additional little victory is making a bigger one. Naturally your brain is always focusing on what you missed or what you have failed because you would like to do better.
“But once you have trained yourself to accept that you have done something good it gives you more confidence and trust in yourself, and you get on a good spiral. I think mentally it is a big step.”
For psychological support Coville rarely chatted to his wife and son Cathy and Elliott home in France during the trip, saying: “It is nearly a rule with them for me not to call. It’s tough because when you hang up it is pretty much like you have quit [left] all over again.”
His shore crew and weather routing team were a key part of his support network. Coville’s routing is led by Jean-Luc Nelias, his right-hand man for many years, who sailed with him on board both Groupama 4 in the Volvo and numerous double-handed races. A second viewpoint was constantly provided by either Thierry Douillard or Sam Davies.
Besides crunching weather data, the routing team played a vital role in gauging Coville’s own limits and acting as a sounding board when stress levels peaked. “Jean-Luc is the one who knows Thomas really well, and so he knows when he can push him and when not,” explains Davies.
“Obviously there are moments where you have to push because you’ll drop out of the system or get caught up by no wind, and there are other moments when, yes you could go faster but it doesn’t really make a massive difference.
“We’re in contact constantly with Thomas by Skype, so you know how he is and how he’s feeling. Because Jean-Luc has sailed with him so much he knows when he says he’s tired and he’s whingeing, and when he really is tired!
“That’s important to have that relationship there, because if you push someone too hard on these boats and they make mistakes or they do something crazy or fall asleep the boat can end up upside down. Someone like Tomma is very tough and he will do what Jean-Luc tells him.”
The toll on Coville’s body was also significant – an infection in his right knee had his team considering options to route to Australia for surgery at one stage of the race. At the finish, he said he was operating at the limits of what one man can physically achieve.
“Forcing yourself to put in so many manoeuvres means that we’re not far off the crewed records. Sometimes I had blood in my mouth as I carried sails, which weigh 150kg and are full of water that you have to drag 10cm at a time on a moving trampoline.”