Part One -- Thomas Coville: Planet Racecourse
Part One 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: For those who are not aware, tell us about the Ultime movement and how it came about?
Thomas Coville: A little bit of history: In 2006 I was sailing in the ORMA class - the French association of 60-foot multihulls - with Sodebo. We recognised that the class was coming to an end. The reason was the of the size of the boats. The skippers believed that the planet was our racecourse now and 60-feet was too small to sail around the world - especially to pass under South Africa.
People always wonder why the MOD70 didn’t survive. They were perfect one-design boats and it's a great shame they didn't succeed as a project, but they hadn't factored in round the world racing. For that you need a boat that can get around South Africa and Cape Horn.
So Francis Joyon and myself set about building two multihulls designed by Nigel Irons for solo sailing around the world. We went around the world by ourselves and at that time we were competing to try to break the record set by Ellen McArthur - 73 days. Francis did it in the fantastic time of 57 days and I did it in 59 days. We had succeeded in making the planet our racecourse - our field of play - and we had proved it possible to race multihulls around the world by yourself.
After my second or third attempt to set the record I began to imagine the next step: to one day have a Vendee Globe for multihulls. We always need to be pioneers and the technology that is at our disposal - new ways of designing and building fast strong boats, new concepts in hydraulics, hydrodynamics, aerodynamics, autopilots, foils and everything else - means we are at a unique point in history.
Sometimes when you have a good idea you need to convince somebody else to join you and that's what makes it a success. So, when Francois Gabart came back from his victory in the last Vendee Globe his plan was to build a new 60-foot monohull to try to win the Vendee Globe again. I met with him and showed him the project I was working on to create a new Vendee Globe with multihulls in 2019. I remember it really clearly, we were in Brest and he was in between two flights and he looked at me and said, ‘wow, I think you are right’.
We discussed the idea that if he built a new boat, I would have a boat, there was IDEC and Actual, so we already would have four boats and likely more new boats would come also. It took him two or three months but he convinced his sponsor MACIF to commit to building a multihull. Thank goodness he did because without Francois it would probably not have happened.
Next we went to see Banque Populaire with Armel Le Cléac'h and I had pretty much the same conversation. This time though I had Francois backing me up and making the proposition more powerful. Happily, Banque Populaire said, this is great, let's go! So now they are building a new boat too.
Now that we had five or six guys ready to go we needed to build a four to six year programme for the fleet. Only one event in four years is not enough for our sponsors. The idea is that we do the Route du Rhum, Jacques Vabre and The Transat, followed by a round the world race in 2019. That means every year we have a big event and we can mix in record attempts at various places around the world too. So your sponsors get at least two big events per year - a race and a record attempt.
My other idea is to make a bigger base to the pyramid by creating a class of 50-footers as a feeder class for the Ultims and also to draw in people from the Tour de France which is now in multihull Diam 24s in France. Maybe you can even include the young generation sailing in GC32s. The bigger the base of the pyramid, the better becomes the top. It's the same way that the Figaro and the Mini Transat feeds the Vendee Globe.
SRM: How do you think this initiative will affect the Vendee Globe?
Thomas Coville: For me the Vendee Globe is becoming like Ultra Trail running where you have professionals and amateurs competing together. I think the Vendee Globe will one day become a one-design race and it will become much more possible for non-professionals to compete against the professionals.
With the Vendee Globe there is no question anymore whether it's possible or not to race single handed around the world. The only questions are who is going to win and in what time. In the future it will be who is going to win the professional class and who is going to win the amateur class.
SRM: But several people – you included - have also proved it is possible to race around the world alone on a multihull?
Thomas Coville: Yes, we know we can do it - Ellen McArthur has done it, I have done it, Francis Joyon has done it. But there are only four or five people in the world who have done it. We know it's possible, but what we don't know is what is the best boat concept is to do it perfectly all the way around. That makes it very exciting.
SRM: How many entries do you expect in 2019?
Thomas Coville: We think we will be a minimum of seven. Maybe in the future we can do something with the Volvo Ocean Race and mix the two fleets. Mark Turner wanted to make the connection between the IMOCA 60 and the Volvo Ocean Race a few years ago. So maybe we can do the same thing with the Ultim class. It will be a challenge for him to do it but he has got the power and he is very forward thinking.