Thomas Coville fought for nearly a decade to become the fastest man to sail solo around the world – this is his story.
Sailing up the Atlantic to the finish
Having left Cape Horn with a four-day buffer, light winds as he progressed along the Argentine and Brazilian coasts dropped Sodebo’s average speed to single digits at times, chipping relentlessly away at his hard earned advantage.
Passing Rio de Janiero, Coville had to contend with mast track repairs and unstable upwind conditions that saw winds fluctuating between 10 and 30 knot rain squalls.
Once into the Trades, however, Sodebo extended. But still there was no room to relax.
Sam Davies recalls: “Even from when you knew he was a long way ahead, there was never a moment when the record was safe because you never know what might happen on these boats.
“They are so big and a tiny problem can snowball into something quite major really quickly, and the pace of the record is so fast that if you have to stop for even half a day to fix something, very quickly your advantage can turn into a disadvantage.
“And maybe when there was a moment when we could throttle back, then there was this question of being able to break the 50-day barrier.
“For Thomas as well is the knowledge that there are some potentially faster boats chasing after this record as of next year. He’s keen to keep it for as long as possible!”
Sodebo was welcomed back into Brest on Christmas Day by thousands of well-wishers who wanted to witness something a little incredible. The ever-modest Coville says it has surprised him how a personal achievement has been adopted so widely.
“It is strange when your dreams come true and it creates dreams for other people.
“I am a competitor and I’m very happy with what I have done. But what I find most interesting is it is not only the story of an athlete but of a man who tried something difficult, he fell down and started up again and tried it again and again.
“And when he tried again he met different people and those different connections helped him to succeed in the end. It is a normal story of people in their life: you try, you fail, you try. I don’t know anybody who has succeeded at everything they have done the first time and enjoyed it!”
He is sanguine about the potential of losing the record to the next generation of foiling 100-footers, although clearly would love for it to endure for at least a few years.
During his voyage he began instead to plan a return to the Southern Ocean, but this time in company. “I started to think if somebody was sailing at the same time as me, would that be good? I didn’t realise that I was actually changing my mind, I have been focused on that bloody time of 57 days for many years!”
Coville will be working with sailors such as Francois Gabart and Francis Joyon to compete in a non-stop round the word multihull race planned to depart Brest in 2019.
“We are a very lucky generation, very much pioneers in multihulls and also on foils and electronics, so many big steps technically.
“This is the first generation where the planet is our playing field and not only the Atlantic. What an amazing chance to be sailing at this time and on this stage. I’m very excited, there are no limits!”
Record-breaking Indian Ocean crossing and Pacific Ocean crossing
Sodebo broke all records for single-handed crossings of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. “For the first time sailing solo we were able to stay in front of the weather systems, which is a big step change and a big revolution,” explains Coville.
“I am pretty sure that the technical step we have made, to go with such a big trimaran which is five metres wider [than the previous Sodebo], was the best decision I took. For sure it was faster, it was for sure more powerful, but it was definitely safer.
“I feel very confident and I wouldn’t do it again with a very narrow boat like I have before.”
That power meant Sodebo could keep pace with fast eastward-moving depressions. “My average heel angle was eight degrees, which is very low, and it means that the boat is always very flat.
“The foils are pushing more and the rudders with the T-foils I think are having a very, very interesting stabilisation of the boat.
“Where we took a bit more risk was probably with the weather forecasts. It was the first time you could do the whole Pacific, for example, by staying in front of a low pressure and staying with the same systems.
“For sure, you’ve got that pressure but if you are caught by the system you may be in trouble. But you’ve got the power to stay in front of it.”
Coville says that the average true wind speed was 25-30 knots, and initial number crunching suggests that he was sailing at 92-96 per cent of the potential routing predictions.
Davies points out that this had pros and cons. “In the entry to the Indian Ocean he ended up on the back of an aggressive depression and an unstable sea state, and then obviously he was going at the same speed as this thing and in it for a long time.
“So it can actually work against you. We had to slow him down to keep him out from underneath the high in the Indian Ocean, and that’s quite hard, even with the best weather files and wave tables.
“The other thing is there’s no rest. Before, in the Southern Ocean you got run over by the systems eventually, but then you have a little high pressure in between the lows which gives you some breathing space, a few hours of less wind if you need to fix something or change your clothes. That never happened for Thomas and that really wore him down as well.
“It’s a massive advantage to be able to stay with the system, but you’ve got to have incredible physical strength and endurance to be able to survive that. Thomas does.
“But you can see it really took his toll on him, and there were some bits on the boat that really needed attention but there was just no respite for him to get out onto the deck. These boats are so dangerous that unless you can really slow them down there are areas you just can’t go to.”