Part Two -- Thomas Coville: Planet Racecourse
Part Two of a two-stage interview with French ocean racer Thomas Coville who is at the forefront of the new Ultim movement that could see a fleet seven singlehanded foiling 100-foot multihulls racing around the world non-stop in 2019.
SRM: Tell us about the experience of sailing these amazing boats.
Thomas Coville: One of the new aesthetic points of our century is speed. The speed of everything: connection speed, data speed, the speed of cars and planes and life in general. The pleasure and the excitement of sailing these new boats is definitely linked to their speed. To sail at 40 knots by yourself and not be fighting against the water like monohulls, but just flying in between the air and the water is sublime.
For the first few hours of an offshore leg my brain is very much linked to the numbers like the heel angle, the speed, the cant of the boards. Then at some point it changes and I can't explain to you why I'm easing or trimming on or making other subtle changes. In my head, sailing the boat switches from being something very analytical to something that is more emotional and about instinct. What is difficult is how you can be confident in your instincts and not rely any more on your intellect.
It is a really unusual feeling when you are at the transition between those two modes. When you speak to surfers or windsurfers about how they do what they do they can't explain it in analytical terms.
It’s that connection between the brain and emotion and the balance point where control passes from one to the other. It’s what all human being would love to experience. Some guys do that with music, some guys do that with art, we are doing it out on the ocean.
When Kelly Slater catches a wave on his surfboard you can see in his face that he can't explain how he does it – he is in the zone. It’s the same for me sometimes. When I am by myself, flying on one hull, doing nearly 700 miles in 24 hours, I cannot explain everything that I do onboard.
That need to forget what you have learned and focus on your instinct is why we are seeing a very new profile of skippers. Guys like Francois [Gabart] and the guys coming from dinghies where you sail with the seat of your pants, like Peter Burling. Burling is my hero! He is the epitome of this new generation. He is a legend already. He can't explain to you every time why he tacks or gybes, he just does it because he knows it's right.
SRM: Do you ever get scared?
Thomas Coville: I would be a liar if I said no. Mentally you feel fear when you project in your mind the worst thing that can happen. You can imagine that your life is going to end but it's because you are thinking too long about it. You have to try to be in the instant.
The improvement of foil technology delivers a lot of power but also a lot of stability and that actually makes the boats safer than previously. It is certainly more safe than it looks! The uplift of the foil reduces the heel of the boat and makes the boat more powerful. You go very fast but at less than six degrees of heel.
They are safer but there is still risk. You can capsize a multihull for sure. If you are sailing multihulls and you don't believe there is a risk of capsizing one day, then you are lying to yourself.
But the length of these boats means you can't pitch pole any more. It was a problem with the 60s where the size of the main hull compared to the size of the mast meant you definitely had the potential to trip over the bow.
SRM: Your next around the world record attempt will be with foils. How will that make things different from your other attempts?
Thomas Coville: Yes, we will have foil dagger boards and t-foils on the rudders. The performance difference between my boat now and my previous boat is nearly 20 per cent higher. So we should start to be less dependent on the weather systems being perfect. The weather plays an enormous part in round the world attempts. When Francis Joyon went around in 57 days he sailed an excellent lap but he also had an excellent set of weather conditions.
Round the world record attempts tend to fail or succeed by a margin of two days. Historically nobody breaks the record by a few hours - they either break it by two days or they miss it by two days. I think this is because when you come around Cape Horn and start to head north towards home, if you catch the right system then you finish two days ahead. But if you miss the system, then you have to wait another two days for another one.
SRM: The idea of racing 100’ trimarans around the world single handed and nonstop is breathtakingly exciting. It seems though that it’s only known about in France. How can you get the message out to the rest of the world?
Thomas Coville: I try to always explain it to people using the big picture perspective - not just from my 'arrogant Frenchman' point of view. I think we all have a duty to think about how we make sure our sport remains one of the most fabulous sports in the world. If we don't work hard at this then I think we will disappear. As professional sailors our jobs are fantastic but we also have a huge responsibility.
I have a real passion to make this not just a French concept. Maybe one-day Peter Burling will win the Volvo Ocean Race and maybe one day a Kiwi will set the solo record around the world.
What I do know is that we are lucky to be at this point in history because you know some guys wait forever and a chance like this never comes, because their generation just goes with the flow. Our generation is going to make things different. We are enthusiasts and enthusiasts can change the world.