Interview: Francois Gabart on his new Ultim Trimaran
A little under four years ago Francois Gabart won the Vendée Globe non-stop, solo around-the-world race in a new record time of 78 days. That he did this just weeks before his thirtieth birthday and at his first attempt gives some clue as to the remarkable sailing talent possessed by this young Frenchman.
Now though, Gabart has moved on from monohulls and instead of mounting a defence of his Vendée Globe victory, has turned his attention to singlehanded maxi-trimaran racing.
In May this year he won his first ever solo race aboard his new 110-foot foiling trimaran, MACIF - The Transat bakerly race from the UK to New York. A couple of days after he arrived I met with a weary-looking but upbeat Gabart at Brooklyn Marina.
“The last time I was here, I was six,” he tells me as we sit down on a bench by the water directly opposite the skyscraper forest of Manhattan. “I’d sailed from France with my parents in our family’s boat.”
At this revelation I can’t help glancing over at Gabart’s monster-sized trimaran as it tugs and strains impatiently to free itself from the cat’s cradle of dock lines tethering it to a nearby pontoon. He laughs. “This is a very different boat and the two crossings were very different experiences all together!”
When I ask what prompted him to make the switch to multihulls, Gabart says the move was planned even during the last Vendée Globe.
“For me, this is the future of sailing - or better to say it's already the present of sailing,” he explains. “All ocean skippers are first and foremost competitors and we are programmed to go as fast as possible on our boats. So, when there is a new generation of boats that are clearly quicker than any others, of course we all want to be sailing these new faster boats.”
Gabart is a past French National Champion in the Optimist and Moth classes and campaigned a Tornado on the Olympic circuit for a while, before getting lured into that most legendary of offshore proving grounds, Le Figaro.
Gabart’s Vendée Globe victory means he will forever be a star in the French offshore racing firmament, but right now he only has eyes for multihulls.
“I loved what I did in the Figaro and IMOCA classes,” he says. “It was fantastic racing and I learned a lot about how to sail offshore. For sure you couldn't learn to offshore sail on a boat like my new trimaran. I would not say I will never ever sail monohulls again - maybe one day there will be an event with great competition that attracts me back - but for now I am completely in love with what we are doing in the multihull world.”
Gabart’s new obsession – by the way he talks about it, obsession is an accurate description - is how to master consistently the art of flying his large multihull alone offshore. Things had gone well on his first competitive outing on his own aboard MACIF, aside from beating the other trimarans across ‘the pond’, Gabart achieved sustained runs around 40 knots.
“Equally importantly”, he says. “I didn’t break anything major on the boat – including myself.”
When I suggest that travelling all on your own at those sort of speeds must be a nerve-wracking experience, Gabart explains he has become comfortable with the high speeds but finds tiredness a more significant issue.
“The problem is that, because the boat is so fast, you move very quickly between different weather systems - from the high pressure to the low pressure. Typically, what happens is: first you encounter the front and so have to change to smaller sails; very soon you pass into the ridge of high pressure and lighter winds, so you have to change back to bigger sails again; then the next front is coming at you and you have to prepare reduce sails again. Sailing Figaro or IMOCA 60 monohulls, once you’d got through a low pressure system you had a good few hours of reaching when you could quickly check the boat and then get some sleep. This trimaran goes so fast that now the typical time between two low pressure fronts is only 12 hours. That means, no sooner have you have increased sail area for the light wind high pressure area than you have to start reducing it again as you meet the stronger winds in the next low pressure front. The end result is not much rest and lots of exhausting work for me.”
How does Gabart find the time to sleep on ocean crossings lasting over a week, then?
“It’s tricky,” he says. “Basically the weather cycle never really stops and you never really have one hour when you can say to yourself, OK I’m certain the wind won't be changing and I won’t have to change sails.
“When you reach a light wind zone and there’s time you tend to take the opportunity to fix stuff on the boat. That means that probably the best time you can grab some sleep is when you come out from the low pressure and the boat is travelling at around 35 knots.”
To mere mortals, the very thought of foiling at breakneck speeds aboard a 100-foot trimaran on your own seems at best inherently dangerous and at worst damn-near suicidal. As one of the very, very few practitioners of this new art, Gabart is more relaxed about the perceived risks.
“It’s important to make it clear that we are not fully 'flying' offshore,” he says. “Even with all the technology that has been developed through the America's Cup, we are still not able to cross the Atlantic and be flying all the time. I’m sure this will be the case someday though. I don't know exactly when, it may take years of work, but one day we will manage to fly all the time offshore.
“I think it’s incredible what we are able to do with the foils we have now. On MACIF, in flat conditions with more than 20 knots of wind, the boat is flying for the majority of the time. Obviously, it's not so often that you get those perfect conditions, but the morning of the day that I arrived here in New York it was exactly like that and the sailing was simply amazing. The feeling on the boat is fantastic because you are going very fast, but it feels extremely stable - actually, probably more stable than when you are on a classic non-foiling hull.
“In terms of whether it's more dangerous or not, of course foils make the boats go faster and in some ways that additional speed makes the boat more dangerous. For example, you have to be careful moving about the boat because the motion can make things difficult and it would be easy to hurt yourself.”
Gabart believes one way the additional speed of these new foiling trimarans can make offshore sailing safer is by being able to avoid dangerous weather systems by simply outrunning them.
“In the case where you have a low pressure system coming with strong winds, on a monohull or a conventional multihull you don't have many options other than to deal with it when it comes. But, on a foiling multihull that can sail 35 to 40 knots, potentially you can escape the danger.”
Although plenty of the America’s Cup foiling technology had seeped over into this new generation of huge multihulls, according to Gabart the two disciplines are now on very different tracks.
“The development of foiling technology for the America's Cup has been very important for offshore sailing,” he says. “But the America’s Cup designers are looking for the absolute fastest foils they can make – however, that also means they will be highly unstable too. They can go that route because the sailors have got so good at controlling the boats on the foils - and they get better every week. For us offshore sailors who are sailing alone on these big boats and using autopilots, we absolutely have to have stability as our design priority.”
The launch of the MACIF trimaran just under 12 months ago marked a major milestone in the five-year, multi-million Euro project that Gabart and his long-time sponsor, French motor insurer MACIF, are engaged in. The payback for MACIF will come through exposure generated by races and high profile record attempts – in particular a crack at the solo round the world time of 57 days set by Francis Joyon on his IDEC trimaran in 2008.
“We want to sail around the world solo as fast as possible with no limits,” Gabart says succinctly. “That’s why we have built this amazing boat. On the way to that end goal we will compete in a few races like The Transat and we will make some attempts to break other records too. This year, on my way back to Europe I will try to break the solo North Atlantic record that is currently held by Francis Joyon. Then we will attempt a Mediterranean record from Marseille [in France] to Carthage [in Tunisia] - that one is held by Armel Le Cléac'h on Banque Populaire.
“Then next year - June 2017 - we have a new race coming back to New York called 'The Bridge' which is an interesting project which combines sailing with basketball and jazz. At the end of next year - the winter of 2017/2018 - I will try to sail solo around the world to break that record.”
Gabart is not the only French skipper with designs on setting a new singlehanded around the world benchmark. There is a clutch of new ‘Ultimes’ – the name given to these gigantic high powered trimarans – either already sailing or in build. Francis Joyon’s IDEC is still very active, although he is currently focused on another fully crewed Jules Verne Trophy round the world attempt at the end of this year. Fellow Frenchman, Thomas Coville, could be set to attempt a solo round the world attempt this year on his older but nonetheless highly potent SODEBO Ultime. There are new skippers joining the fray too. Gabart’s 2012-13 Vendée Globe rival, Armel Le Cléac'h, has a new foiling 100-footer in-build, as has Gitana Team skipper, Seb Josse. Gabart believes others could follow over the next few years, raising the tantalizing prospect of a Vendée Globe-style non-stop around the world race for singlehanded foiling Ultimes taking place as early as 2019.
“I think this movement will grow some more,” Gabart says. “The combination of record attempts and a big race each year gives good value for money. In November 2018 we will have the Route du Rhum Race [Ed. Note between Saint Malo, Brittany, France and Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe]. Then hopefully we will have a big Ultime race around the world in 2019.”
Such is the nature of these gigantic multihulls and their bleeding edge foiling technology, that Gabart hesitates about where on the learning curve he thinks the MACIF project might be at this point.
“It's difficult to know,” he says. “But we will have had two years between the launch of the boat and the round the world record attempt. I think that's the right amount of time. It takes a long time to prepare for a record attempt like that in a big boat that we have to learn everything about from scratch. Equally, if you wanted to take ten years to train and prepare yourself for it, then that would be too much.
“A big factor is maximising the safety aspect,” Gabart admits. “I don't want to try to sail around the world on a boat that isn't safe enough to do it. There is always risk of course, but we can try to reduce it to a reasonable level.”
Despite this cautious approach, Gabart says the rate his team is discovering new information about the boat is breath-taking.
“We are learning so many things at the moment. It's crazy - every time we go sailing we find out stuff that we didn't know before. By the time we are ready for the record attempt next year that discovery process will have tapered off, but I think we will still be finding out small refinements that could make a difference. But at the moment I would say we are very much still on the vertical part of the development curve.”
As skipper, Gabart understandably gets most of the limelight that falls on the MACIF project, but he is quick to highlight the work of the squad he has backing him up.
“It's a 15-person team and you need all of them to run a project like this. I mean a project where you are designing and building a cutting edge boat and then sailing and developing it to its full potential.
“If we had a bigger budget, we could have 50 people and still have plenty of work for everyone and we would be faster with the development of the boat. But 15 people is a good size that makes the project budget reasonable and gives our sponsor a good return. A project like this with such a big boat is obviously expensive but we try very hard to make the return for MACIF as large as possible.
As remarkable and impressive as the MACIF boat undoubtedly is, only when it is matched with a skipper of Gabart’s talent and innate instinct can it realise its true performance potential.
I ask if he can identify in himself what makes him such a good ocean racer.
“There is no one answer, I don’t think,” Gabart replies. “I think there are maybe several aspects of my personality that contribute to this. I do think a big factor is that I love what I'm doing and that enables me to put a lot of effort and energy into it. I'm always happy to get on the boat and go sailing. I think that's important because my job would be awful if I didn't have a passion for it.
“Then there has been an element of luck. That's not to say I haven't worked very hard to get to where I am in the sport of offshore sailing, but I also know I was very lucky to engage with MACIF at the right time in order to make all these projects possible.”
We finish our conversation and stand to gaze one more time at Gabart’s wondrous boat. I ask if the six-year old Gabart who sailed into New York with his family might have dared dream he would one day return, singlehanded and on such a mind boggling flying machine?
“For sure he didn’t!” Gabart exclaims. “When I was young I didn't imagine I could be so fortunate as to make sailing my job. Now though, here we are and I'm happy to say that I love it more than ever. If I can sail all the time I will be happy.”