Some athletes are endurance runners, others sprint. If Thomas Coville were a runner he would be the former, with a jet-pack.
On Sunday he accomplished his lifelong goal of breaking the record for sailing solo, non-stop around-the-world. As a matter of fact, he smashed it by over eight days.
The French sailor boasts a myriad of offshore sailing experience beginning in the 1997 Mini Transat, sailing across the Atlantic alone on a 6.5m boat. He later moved onto the Vendée Globe, around the world alone on a 60ft monohull. He sailed in crewed offshore races such as the Volvo Ocean Race, winning with Team Groupama in 2011-12. He also won two benchmark solo offshore races – the Route du Rhum in 1998 and the Transat Jacques Fabre 1999. It has all been in preparation for this ultimate challenge: to set the solo, non-stop, around the world sailing record. Thomas Coville finally achieved his dream, on Christmas Day 2016, after four prior attempts.
Thomas joins Dame Ellen MacArthur and Francis Joyon in a prestigious, small group of three multihull sailors who have sailed around the world, nonstop. The difference with Thomas’s tour du monde is his daily average speed, not to mention the difficulty a 31 meter Ultime trimaran imposes on a sailor. These make his achievement unique, incredible, amazing, and quite surprising, even for those closely involved with his campaign.
“Sometime after Thomas’s departure, I joked that it would be perfect if he finished in 48 days to match his age,” said Gautier Sergent, a comrade of Thomas’s and the North Sails designer for the Sodebo Ultime campaign. “It was so funny at the time because we never predicted he could finish that quickly. In the end, it was 49 days… and we are all in disbelief.”
North Sails has a long-standing relationship with Sodebo, and Gautier bonded with Thomas during his stint on Groupama 4 in the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012. Gautier was the sail designer for that program, too, and many offshore programs before and after.
“From this and past experiences with Ultime campaigns, I can say that sailing these boats is tough, they are unforgiving. If you lose your concentration for two minutes, the boat will take over, and you risk breaking equipment in what quickly spirals into life-threatening situations. You can not back off and 49 days of intense sailing is a long time to maintain your mental focus and physical strength.”
Gautier works collaboratively with Sodebo’s appointed sail coordinator, Loic Le Mignon and North Sails expert, Quentin Ponroy. The sail design team is part of a wider group of trusted designers, engineers, craftsmen, meteorologists, sailors and coaches, marketers, and operations professionals that make up Sodebo Ultime. Numerous times Thomas credits his achievement, while a “solo” sailing record, to the people who have supported and pushed him on the record-breaking journey, not to mention four prior attempts. It takes a lot of faith to take a leap into the unknown hoping each person got his contribution right.
Addressing the challenge, and nodding to his support, Thomas explained:
“For example, when you leave Brest and you know that the weather sequence is going to be difficult in the South Atlantic, but in the end, you turn this seemingly bad window into a good one because you gybe 20 times in 48h along the ice limit to extricate yourself from the St. Helena high. I did what was needed to turn this route into a good one. So there is, at the same time, a share of risk, a part of chance, and a share of fortune that you create. It is a window, and you can decide to open it or leave it closed. For me, Jean-Luc Nélias, Sam Davies, Thierry Douillard, have an analysis that they propose to me, and sometimes they challenge me, push me, Jean-Luc pushes me a lot. Then there is the third parameter of technological breakdown. This boat is faster down the Atlantic and in the Southern Ocean. But the counterpart of that is it’s more physical to maneuver. The gennaker is 120 kg, or even 130 when it gets wet, and there it becomes a huge physical commitment. I did not spare myself, and I do not think I have done fewer maneuvers than if the boat was crewed.”
He didn’t let up for 49 days, an intensity unmatched, apparent in his average boat speed of 24 knots over 28,400 nautical miles. What any sailor can learn from Thomas Coville is that determination and a passion for the process pay off.
“What I would like to keep from this record is not so much the 49 days and 3 hours, it’s mostly the way I traveled, I fell, I got up, I dared. Ten years, a dream very difficult to reach, but a dream that I lived, that I live.”