Sleep deprived upon his arrival in Brest, France, on December 29, 2016, Thomas Coville, the 48-year-old skipper of the maxi trimaran Sodebo, sailed alone into the record books with a remarkable feat of human endurance.
Unique seamanship skills, prodigious tenacity and exceptional luck defined Thomas Coville’s 49-day around-the-world solo record — breaking Francis Joyon’s record set in 2008 — came down to the 110-foot trimaran, Sodebo.
“I didn’t really beat the record — the boat did,” says Coville.
Indeed, Sodebo is, at the very least, one of the fastest multihulls on the planet, with Francis Joyon’s IDEC and François Gabart’s Banque Populaire also on the roster.
The 115-foot mast has 3,050 square feet of mainsail and 2,230 square feet of total sail area. Voluminous hulls and foil design allow the boat to maintain 30-knot averages in 15 to 22 knots of wind. Coville’s average speed over the 28,400-mile passage was 24 knots, with intermittent speeds blasts of 40-plus knots.
Sodebo’s speed potential helped Coville stay out of trouble numerous times. On such a big boat, if you don’t do the tough maneuvers at certain times, then there will be breakages or worse,” Coville says. “You have to be fast enough to stay ahead of the fronts and strong gales.”
Coville leveraged Sodebo’s design with favorable conditions, especially when he navigated deeper than Joyon toward iceberg-laden zones in the low latitudes. His team’s excellent choice of routes allowed him to benefit from 35-knot average windspeeds, first at 90-degree angles, before shifting to an optimal 120-degrees. Thanks to exceptional conditions, Coville sailed Sodebo across the Indian Ocean in eight and a half days.
Coville’s mission also came with mental baggage. This was his fifth record attempt, and his rough slog included securing sponsorships to keep his dream alive for more than 15 years. Along the way, he completed the circumnavigation twice but remained just a few days shy of breaking the record each time.
The journey was touch and go at times, particularly while
passing Cape Horn.
“After Cape Horn, it was almost a handicap to have such a big boat because of the physical difficulty in the maneuvers you have to make,” Coville says. “I was really close to giving up. It was really hard to manage such a large boat in the South Atlantic.”
Sodebo is a lot for a full crew to handle and represents a nearly insane workload for a single-handed sailor, who must subsist on intermittent 20-minute naps. A forced jibe or miscalculated tack in gale-force winds and 30-foot waves are more than enough to doom such a giant ship.
“If you are not awake when you need to react quickly, then you are going to capsize,” Coville says. “It definitely makes for nervous sleep. I would be a liar to say that I was able to fall asleep each time when I wanted to.”
Every maneuver requires intense physical effort. A jibe on Sodebo takes 20 minutes to complete and 20 minutes to recover from. The sustained effort is like running for 20 minutes at 80
percent of your maximum speed. “I actually did the same number of maneuvers as part of a crew before on Groupama, but it takes more time alone, and it is certainly a lot more difficult,” says Coville.
At one point, Coville had to complete 23 jibes in a day and a half near Cape Horn. “I had to open the gates between the icebergs and the high pressure areas. It was really tough to remain in that zone and to just keep going,” he says. “If I didn’t succeed, then it was game over. Sometimes, you just have to do it.”