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Thomas Coville on This Weekend's Ultim Challenge Solo Multihull Race Around the World

4th January 2024
Thomas Coville has sailed around the world eight times, five times on a multihull
Thomas Coville has sailed around the world eight times, five times on a multihull Credit: Vincent Curutchet

More than any other skipper on the Ultim Challenge-Brest, at 55 years old, Thomas Coville knows what lies ahead. He has sailed around the world eight times, five times on a multihull and in 2016 broke the solo round the world record by setting a new mark of 49 days in 2016, smashing Francis Joyon’s existing record by eight days. An engaging philosopher, Coville has always been open and generous in his portrayals of life at high speeds on the Sodebo multihulls. He has been supported by the giant Vendée-based foods and snacks company for the better part of 25 years now. 

“The first question we ask ourselves is not so much “Who will win?” but “Is it possible?”

Sum up for us what makes this race, this challenge so special?

It’s a race that will make history. On this race we are pioneers. Almost 15 years ago I imagined this race and back then it felt a such a long way off. But in saying that never in my imagination did I consider we might do it on boats which are so fast and we would be flying. And what’s the most incredible thing is that the first question we ask ourselves is not so much “Who will win?” but “Is it possible?” considering the technical aspects that need to work and the commitment required.

Because in ocean racing there’s nothing more difficult than this?

On board a monohull, if you make a mistake you get knocked flat on the water, you can get hurt but mostly you continue the race. On board a multihull, you capsize but the ultimate sanction is death. This is like being a mountaineer free climbing alone on a big face. It feels a bit like the explorations of Everest, we don't really know if we can do it. We are going to go to sea areas where this is not much traffic aboard high-tech craft. It’s a heady mix of innovation, technological aspects, the purity of speed and everything this is reflected from the fragility of being entirely alone.

Thomas Coville's Sodebo multihull at speed Photo: Vincent CurutchetThomas Coville's Sodebo multihull at speed Photo: Vincent Curutchet

You have attempted five round-the-world records in multihulls, finishing three before setting the record. What is your current relationship with this round the world route?

It interests me. It fascinates me. I appreciate over time it remains a permanent fixture, and the notion that time is always ticking away on the water. The constant effort during a round-the-world intrigues me. What interests me is to hold out, to make it work like in relationships in general. And then within this is the passage round Antarctic where there is no scale of values, where you feel you are only tolerated as a being, you feel very small. And then passing Cape Horn is where we are gifted a new life. All in all, it is fascinating !

But in essence, sum up why is this round the world so hard?

I was often asked why I go there and if I had fun. But I think it goes beyond that: the desire must come from your gut. There is this additional dimension in needing to surpass yourself. It is all different parts of pain, of self denial, not sleeping, of being frustrated, anxiety and stress what we will hit ice and it capsize us, of being cold. But as a species, man is somewhat strange and magically seems to be able to adapt to all different situations. And I like to feel like I'm a good sailor, like the real person and not an imposter. In a way it is an expedition.

Does the solo passage round the world change a sailor?

Yes, we never come back completely the same. There are all those different sensations, the emotions, it challenges the soul. And having done several allows us to put things into perspective but on top of it all to realize how lucky we are. I love these times we are living in. Even if the news is stress provoking, I remain an eternal optimist. We are a generation blessed by the gods, here we are experiencing a real, huge transformation of our sport, and we are the ones who can sail around the world solo on 32 metre boats.

How do you go the distance, how do you not go crazy?

We do go crazy. There are days when we burst into floods of tears, when we scream, where nothing at all is going well. I don't have a superhero cape, I always come home feeling something like an old soldier whose face and mind carries the scars of battle. Sometimes I think we look like driftwood like we see on the beach, worn smooth and laminated so there is nothing left except white.

Why is it so difficult for us on land to appreciate how harsh this challenge is?

I remember Ellen MacArthur (record holder in 2005 at 71 days 14hrs 18mins) saying to me, after my record: “now I know you know what I know”. Unfortunately on land you have to accept you won’t really properly be able to appreciate this. I spoke about it at length with Thomas Pesquet (French astronaut) who told me about his journeys into space, that “You have to accept not understanding” and that I had to let myself appreciate it through using my imagination. But we share a common experience of seeing the earth differently, of being able to appreciate its dimensions better, of appreciating temporal space.

And after you are done, when you have finished does everything on land seem bland, it is difficult to get back into everyday life?

I have had painful trips around the world because before I had felt much more alone on land than on the boat. There is no one to blame for that, I don't blame anyone, it's not because people don’t like me or understand me but because what we do is difficult to comprehend. A sailor becomes an islander. You head off secretly afraid that people will forget you, then regret going and after finishing you want to fit back in and be loved. Leaving is ultimately very selfish. But I have already experienced the contradictions that hurt me a lot and these gradually allowed me to feel this mood less. Overall it has brought me closer to my wife, my two children and all those that I love. Perhaps as a sailor and competitor my love was conditions. They have taught me to understand what unconditional love is. And through it all that allows me to have altogether lighter moods and to more peaceful at the thoughts of my return Team

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About the Ultim Challenge

The ULTIM CHALLENGE – Brest, which starts from Brest, France on Sunday, 7 January, will be the first-ever solo race around the world on giant Ultim trimarans, the biggest and fastest ocean-going sailboats in the world.

The inaugural six competitors of the Arkea Ultim Challenge - Brest are:

  • Charles Caudrelier (Maxi Edmond de Rothschild)
  • Thomas Coville (Sodebo Ultim 3)
  • Tom Laperche (SVR - Lazartigue)
  • Armel Le Cléac'h (Banque Populaire XI)
  • Anthony Marchand (Actual Ultim 3)
  • Éric Péron (ADAGIO) - subject to qualification.