French solo sailor Thomas Coville has succeeded in his fifth attempt to break the solo round the world record with an incredible time of 49 days with speed 25 knots almost all the time!
Solo sailor Thomas Coville has broken 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 25.16 knots over the entire 5,325-mile course.
The previous record, set by Francis Joyon record in the maxi catamaran IDEC, had stood for 12 years and had resisted four 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 the good fortune to match his skill and benefited from favorable 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 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.
On his first attempt in 2004, 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.
In 2008, 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 2011, 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 raced 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.