Saturday, 26 March 2011
Thomas Coville on board Sodeb'O. Image copyright Christophe Launay.
by Kate Jennings (in translation)
Eleven weeks after finishing the Route du Rhum with a podium place, Thomas Coville headed back out to sea aboard Sodebo for a third solo round the world record attempt.
He set off on Saturday 29 January at 11h07mn 28s (GMT), offshore of the Créac’h lighthouse on Ushant, and straightaway conditions were both lively and spectacular! In a big gust and boiling seas off the NW tip of Brittany, Sodebo’s three hulls were effectively picked up and dropped in what the skipper referred to minutes later on the VHF as “burying the bows in a bit". The freestyle move nevertheless proved to be a jaw-dropping experience for the film crew, who had just recorded the scene live from the helicopter. Whilst the images were creating a real buzz across the web, Tom was already devouring the waves of the Bay of Biscay as if they were a mere formality.
ACT I – A North Atlantic full of contrasts: express descent and a sticky Doldrums
20 hrs to Cape Finisterre, 3 days to the Canaries and 4 to Cape Verde!
In under a day, Thomas rounded Cape Finisterre and left Europe behind him. The 32 metre trimaran dropped down the coast in the Portuguese tradewinds at an average speed of over 20 knots. After a good gybe offshore of Madeira, Sodebo surfed along the eastern edge of the Azores High and was off the Canaries on 1st February. He’d set off just three days earlier. Covering 585 miles the following day, the rocket ship passed 80 miles to the West of the Cape Verde archipelago.
An intransigent Doldrums
However, you have to earn the equator and you have to get past its sentry. The inter tropical convergence zone, christened the Doldrums, proved merciless, forcing the skipper into a endless series of manoeuvres beneath a whole string of massive storm clouds. Tom fought like crazy to extract himself from the violent squalls which were to cost the life of three of his mainsail battens, broken in a gybe and replaced within the hour by working up a good sweat. Entering the Doldrums with a 120 mile lead, Sodebo finally crossed the equator on 5 February in a time of 7 days 2hrs and 27mn with a deficit of 9 hours and 27 minutes in relation to Idec. Now playing the hunter, Thomas wasn’t going to retake the lead in this virtual pursuit until some six weeks later, as the day of 13 March was drawing to a close along the coast of Brazil, after a high speed sprint up the South Atlantic.
Act II – A crucial South Atlantic
1,000 miles further to the West, 1,000 extra miles travelled and ultimately a 1,000 mile deficit at the Cape of Good Hope
Shortly after plunging down into the southern hemisphere, Thomas was involved in a fierce battle with the Saint Helena High, which had already been stretching right across the middle of the Atlantic for several weeks. The sailors in the Barcelona World Race, like the crew of the record-breaking trimaran Banque Populaire V, had also come a cropper in the fight with Saint Helena, shortly before the skipper of Sodebo’s encounter. Nevertheless, there was still hope that the zone of high pressure would weaken and leave a way through. In the meantime, Sodebo began to flirt with the Brazilian coast. By going around the zone of calms, Thomas was logically lengthening the distance to travel. The skipper was to sail 1,000 miles further out to the West than Francis Joyon, who’d been able to ‘cut the corner’ three years earlier.
But finally the door opened! On 11 February, Sodebo’s dream team of routers, called Thomas to tell him: "Gybe immediately, you can head eastwards, you’re good to go." The skipper complied and drove hard, rushing into a narrow passage of breeze comprising a NW’ly air flow of 30-35 knots at the front of a very active front and able to carry the trimaran due East, towards the Roaring Forties and the latitude of the Cape of Good Hope, which he was to reach four days later on 15 February in a time of 17 days 5hrs and 54 mn. With 8,405 miles covered since the start, at an average speed of 20.31 knots, the trimaran broke through into the Indian Ocean 1 day 22hrs and 41 minutes and 1,151 miles behind the record holder.
Act III – A hard-fought Indian
Beneath the southern tip of Africa, the routing indicated that the South was the way to go, but the spectre of ice pinpointed by CLS, Sodebo’s partner, which observes the movement of any ice and its density, forced the skipper to adopt a route to the North. For Tom and his routers, it’s decision time. The weather situation is forecast to be unfavourable over the short term. Should he continue the adventure or is it reasonable to give up? The solo skipper has a wealth of experience under his belt. He knows all about the test of strength and stamina that the race against the clock represents and the trying conditions both in human and technical terms.
Carried along by his team, Tom decides to go on, despite the menu for the following days where he is served upwind conditions in hellish seas as he traverses the shelf stretching from the Crozet Islands as far as Kerguelen. Tom then sets himself a mission: to have a deficit of less than 1,000 miles at Cape Horn in relation to Francis’ reference time! His determination and tenacity are to be rewarded by a great surprise: an exchange via VHF radio with the Vendée-based crew of a Breton fishing boat, who’d been working for some weeks in this depopulated and especially hostile region, which was clearly a place with an abundance of fish.
There is a colossal low to the North of Kerguelen, with 50 knot winds and waves in excess of 10 metres… Any form of navigation in the region is unthinkable. Ahead of Tom, the situation is complicated with a new ice zone stretching out to the East of the archipelago. The only possibility is to dive South to dip below the islands (an extremely rare option on a round the world) and hence under the ice zone. The skipper sets a course towards the Furious Fifties, sailing for several days, and for the first time in his life, in water measuring less than two degrees centigrade... On passing to leeward of Heard Island, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, but above all in the middle of nowhere, Thomas is to witness the Foehn effect, which is a kind of polar storm which is able to tear down a cliff in a split second. Nature then provides him with an unreal vision, which is enough to make any trip worthwhile: the atmosphere is strange, the sky turns green; it’s an aurora australis!
The Indian Ocean, a hard nut to crack
On 23 February, after 25 days 2hrs and 32s of racing, Sodebo passes Cape Leeuwin (SW tip of Australia), 2 days 10 hours and 32 seconds and 1,194 miles behind Idec, a figure which just gets smaller and smaller from then on. Tom racks up average speeds which are always in excess of 20 knots. Two days later, he makes his entrance into the Pacific Ocean. He’s taken 9 days 22hrs and 45 mn between the Agulhas Cape (South Africa) and the South of Tasmania. The Indian record nevertheless remains in the hands of Francis Joyon, who proved to be just ten or so hours faster. Sailors who know what they’re talking about and are closely monitoring their ‘colleague’s voyage, express their admiration for this crossing, two-thirds of which is upwind, with a spell of reaching at the core of a particularly wild ocean.
Act IV: A forceful and frosty Pacific!
The forecast remains complicated for what is the largest of the globe’s oceans. The record now depends on downwind conditions! Thomas is continuing his big plunge into the South and drops down as far as 58°S, one by one hooking onto the very active trains of lows, particularly those at the end of the ATU hurricane, which has swept across the Barcelona World Race fleet and left behind it some far from easy wind and sea states. The skipper makes headway whilst sparing his boat. There is still a long way to go. We’re at the midway point.
Easier said than done
The CLS company, which has been closely monitoring Sodebo’s record attempt, marks out another ice zone, this time spanning some 2,000 kilometres in length, which is forcing the skipper to climb to 51° South. At the end of this diversion to the North to get around the zone, conditions cause Thomas to traverse the danger zone for a few hours. His radar indicates the presence of icebergs within a 5 miles radius on two occasions… The sailor holds on. He is no longer sleeping and battles against dozing off. Despite the polar cold, which bites and stings, he keeps watch on deck, fear in his stomach. He remains on the look-out for hours, even going as far as slowing his boat down just in case. The maxi trimaran then sails through 40 knots of breeze and powers through the system. Her skipper quickly forgets the anguish he’s just endured and leaves it in his wake as he hooks onto a depression, which leads him towards the extreme South of the South American continent. However, the elements haven’t yet done with him. Overnight on 7 March, just hours from the Horn, the sailor has to confront his final "squall" with gusts of over 50 knots.
Instinctively, Tom puts a third reef in the mainsail just before the worst of the storm, "at night in these conditions I felt very small and instinctively reduced the sail area. It may well be a survival instinct." That day, as he says, "I saved my own skin."
666 miles to the Horn: objective definitely achieved!
Through commitment, concentration 24/7 and extraordinary determination, where he recalled the pleasure of sailing and manoeuvring this specially made racing machine, Thomas certainly fulfils his aim. Indeed his mission was to bring his deficit in relation to Francis Joyon to within 1,000 miles and when he makes it to the cliffs of Cape Horn he is just 666 miles off the record pace! On Tuesday 8 March at 11h24 GMT, after 38 days and 16 minutes at sea, it’s a surreal moment for the sailor and internet browsers alike, who have the delight of following the legendary passage live. Thomas passes within 200 metres of the famous "rock" in the company of Neutrogena, the monohull skippered by Boris Herrmann and Ryan Breymaier, competing in the Barcelona World Race. Thomas films and provides commentary as he rounds the "Hard Cape" for the 8th time in his sailing career. He affectionately and accurately nicknames this rock at the end of the world: the Cape of Good Deliverance. At that point, he also has a ‘live’ link up with Franck Cammas by telephone. The two ‘Cape Horners’ laugh together, happy to recall the "Horn" they’d shared the previous winter aboard Groupama 3 during their victorious Jules Verne Trophy. Thomas traversed the Pacific in 10 days 16 hours and 49 minutes at an average speed of 21.59 knots. As such the "challenger" was 1 knot quicker than Francis Joyon and was just two hours outside the reference time!
Act V: The Atlantic, for better and for worse
At the edge of the Saint Helena High, which proved to be a lot more lenient than on the outward journey, Sodebo is able to rack up the miles at high speed thanks to an upwind route along the coast of South America. The skipper is having a ball but doesn’t get carried away. His deficit drops to less than 620 miles on 9 March, under 500 miles on 10 March, 266 miles on 12 March and finally, he does it, Sodebo gets ahead of her virtual rival on 13 March. This just reward, after titanic work, fills onlookers with admiration after the realisation that 670 miles have been made up in just 5 days.
However, this fantastic cavalcade is tainted on 10 March by a collision with a pilot whale which damages the crash-box on the starboard float. The knock is a soft but also a hard one! For a moment Tom yells out in the belief that it’s the end of the adventure, but the diagnosis is positive. The bumper has been designed for just such an eventuality. It has done its job very well and the float is not in danger. His shore crew and the architects are categorical: the sailor can continue. Less than three days later, after escaping the clutches of a nasty stormy depression along the Brazilian coast, Sodebo has clocked up a 267 mile lead over Idec and there’s no limit to what he can hope for!
The hard reality catches up with the solo sailor on his quest for the grail. The forecasts show a lack of tradewinds at the end of the southern hemisphere, just before the equator. Another “wall”, as he describes it, is forming ahead of him. And yet he nicely sidesteps the issue by rounding to the West of the zone. Still close-hauled in a light NE’ly wind, Sodebo never stops and instead manages to make more than 15 knots of boat speed, though not on a direct course. On 17 March, positioned just 15 miles off the Brazilian coast, the “challenger” goes back into the red.
Becalmed for a little over 24 hours in an erratic breeze of 4 to 6 knots, the trimaran makes it back into the northern hemisphere on the morning of Sunday 20 March, after 49 days 22 hours 12 minutes and 32 seconds of racing. At that point Thomas has a deficit of 1 day 19 hrs and 54 mn in relation to Francis Joyon and has covered 23,777 miles (at an average of 19.84 kts) since leaving Ushant, which amounts to 1,151 miles further than Idec. This deficit is exactly the same number of miles he was behind on rounding the Cape of Good Hope, an incredibly frustrating observation after all the effort and a trajectory that the specialists admire. As some consolation, the skipper of Sodebo earns the new reference time between the Horn and the equator with a time of 11 days 21 hours and 56 minutes, or a little over 16 hrs better than Idec in 2008.
For the last section of the course, time turns against the record hunter. The desired nudge in the right direction from a not very conciliatory weather doesn’t happen. The anticyclone is entirely barring the way towards Europe, sprawled from one side of the Atlantic Ocean to the other, forcing Thomas to further extend his course and causing him to carve out a path to the NW whilst Francis was able to head directly towards the Azores. The lows are rolling across very far – too far – to the North and the die is cast. There won’t be a miracle. For his third attempt and his second complete solo circumnavigation aboard Sodebo, Thomas no longer has a chance of making it back to Ushant in time. For over 50 days, the sailor has put up a creditable performance; he has never given up or shied away from any kind of difficulty. Like all athletes, he has overcome the hurdles one by one. Along with his routers, he has carved out a fabulous route on the world map.
"There is no second, your Majesty!"
On 22 August 1851, America, helmed by John Cox Stevens, President of the New York Yacht-Club, dominated the British armada in home waters, under the watchful gaze of a large crowd who had come to witness the confrontation in the presence of Queen Victoria. When the Queen asked to know who was second, he gave what remains a famous reply: “There is no second, your Majesty". The answer came at the end of the first challenge which gave rise to the America’s Cup and perfectly sums up the mindset of the top level sportsman and competitor that Thomas Coville is.
Like the America’s Cup, albeit in an entirely different style, records don’t reward those that come in second. The weather decides; time chasers know that. They must accept it, even though it comes as a great frustration and a immense disappointment for Tom as well as for Sodebo, who are still as proud as they have ever been to support their skipper in his extraordinary adventures.
Indeed, you must never forget that the solo circumnavigation of the globe on a multihull without stopovers and without assistance belongs to a universe which is difficult for ordinary mortals to understand and grasp: that of extreme sport. Today Francis Joyon remains the fastest man to sail solo around the world.
USHANT – EQUATOR (first passage):
IDEC on 30/11/07: 6d 17h, 3,355 miles at 20.8 kts
SODEBO on 05/02/11: 7d 2h 27’, 3,529 miles at 20.7 kts
Separation: 9h27, 161 miles deficit
IDEC in Dec. 2007: 15d 7h 13’, 7,400 miles at 20.12 kts
SODEBO on 15/02/11: 17d 5h 54’ 32’’, 8,405 miles at 20.31 kts
Separation: 1d 22h 41’, 1,151 miles deficit
IDEC on 16/12/07: 22d 15h 28’, 11,450 miles at 21.1 kts
SODEBO on 23/02/11: 25d 2h 32’’, 12,374 miles at 20.55 kts
Separation: 2d 10h 32’’, 1,194 miles deficit
INDIAN OCEAN RECORD (AGULHAS CAPE-TASMANIA):
IDEC – Dec. 2007: 9d 12h 6’ after 5,182 miles covered at an average of 22.7 kts
SODEBO - 25/02/11: 9d 22h 45’ after 5,172 miles covered at an average of 21.7 kts
Deficit on the Indian record: 10h39 ‘
Deficit since the start: 2d 9h 22’
IDEC on 29/12/07: 35d 12h 36’, 17,902 miles covered at an average of 21 kts
SODEBO on 08/03/11 at 11h24 (GMT): 38d 0h 16m 32s, 19,186 miles at an average of 21.03 kts
Separation of 2d 11h 40’, 666 miles deficit
PACIFIC OCEAN RECORD (South Tasmania-Cape Horn)
IDEC – Dec. 2007: 10d 14h 26’ after 5,245 miles covered at an average of 20.6 kts
SODEBO - 08/03/11 at 11h24 (GMT): 10d 16h 49’ after 5,545 miles covered at an average of 21.59 kts
USHANT – EQUATOR (second passage):
IDEC on 10/01/08: 48d 2h 18’, 22,626 miles at 19.6 kts
SODEBO on 20/03/11: 49d 22h 12’ 32’’, 23,777 miles at 19.84 kts
Separation of 1d 19h 54’, 487 miles deficit
HORN – EQUATOR:
IDEC in 2008: 12d 14h
SODEBO on 20/03/11 at 09h20 (GMT): 11d 21h 56’
Record: 16h04 less than Idec