For this 400th issue, Tip & Shaft spoke to Armel Le Cléac’h, just over two weeks before the start of the Arkea Ultim Challenge-Brest, the first ever single-handed Ultim round the world race. An event that the skipper of Banque Populaire XI is approaching with ambition, desire and, inevitably, a little apprehension.
▶︎ You won the Transat Jacques Vabre with Sébastien Josse, how did that taste?
It was a great joy to win this difficult race with a long course and quite varied weather conditions. We’re really happy with the way we sailed and managed to hold off our rivals throughout the race. Banque Populaire XI is now two years old and we’re starting to reap the rewards of our work, bearing in mind that Ultim boats take a long time to perfect. What’s also very satisfying is that after the Route du Rhum 2022, we focused on the reliability of all the systems, we did a lot of work on that, and at the finish, the boat finished in super condition, we were able to use all the systems optimally throughout the race. It’s my first major victory in a multihull since the start of my career, so it’s obviously pleasing, but it’s also good for the whole team, because we’ve had a complicated start to the year, with some stories that have hurt us, so it’s good to have a positive attitude again and to do what we do best, sport and winning
▶︎ Did the stories you mentioned (the Clarisse Crémer affair) also affect you?
Yes, of course they did. I was touched for a lot of people in the team who felt betrayed and were very disappointed, but also by all the comments around them, they didn’t understand. These are people I know very well – I’ve worked with some of them for more than ten years – who give more than 100% of themselves to the team and are there day and night when they’re needed. All that is behind us now, but it’s clear that this victory was welcome: we’ve shown, through our hard work and without necessarily making any noise, what we’re capable of. A year ago, we finished seventh in the Route du Rhum, far from our ambitions, and now we’ve finished on the top step of the podium. That’s why you have to savour these moments, which aren’t easy to come by, even if we very quickly switched to the Arkea Ultim Challenge.
“I was attracted by the fact that I was starting out
on a mountain even higher to climb”
▶︎ How do you explain Banque Populaire XI’s outstanding downwind performance?
First of all, we’ve managed to find adjustments to improve the boat’s performance, not just downwind. It takes a long time to get the hang of these boats, as we saw with Gitana, which took a while to dominate the circuit. When we designed the boat and the appendages, the aim was also to make it suitable for round the world weather, so to make foils that would enable us to perform well in downwind conditions with wind and seas. So we weren’t totally surprised that we were more at ease than SVR in the strong trade winds; I think that if Gitana hadn’t had her technical problems, she could have been at our level in these conditions. After that, we also saw that upwind in medium winds, SVR was a little better than us, so we also have some work to do to make up for that deficit.
▶︎ You switched to the Arkea Ultim Challenge very quickly, so compared to many of your rivals who encountered technical problems in the Jacques Vabre, could it be said that your preparation was ideal?
Ideal, I don’t know, but we’re on track with our schedule. Now, we know that at the start in Brest, the counters will be reset to zero, we’re setting off solo and on a round the world race, we’re not going to boast because we won the Jacques Vabre and had fewer technical problems than our rivals. We have enough experience to know that, from one race to the next, the scenario can be very different and that damage can occur from one day to the next – we experienced it in the Route du Rhum and it’s still very fresh in our minds. We’re remaining realistic and concentrated without getting carried away with what we’ve done, and we’re even perhaps more on the lookout, checking things that we wouldn’t have seen when we arrived from Martinique. That’s why, even though the platform remained in the water, we dismasted and took apart all the parts, including the appendages, to check everything.
▶︎ How do you see this Arkea Ultim Challenge-Brest in relation to everything you’ve done before?
It’s clearly the highest challenge, my first circumnavigation in a multihull, and a solo one at that. We’re setting out on the same course as the Vendée Globe, but on bigger, more demanding and faster boats. Mastering an Ultim single-handed is a very demanding exercise, which requires time and experience. You always have in mind the risk of capsizing, and I won’t hide from you the fact that sleeping at 35 knots of speed, or even 40, is a lot more complicated than on a monohull! So it’s going to be crazy intense, but that’s also why I wanted to take on this challenge. After having done it all by completing the Vendée Globe three times, it was the fact of setting off on an even higher mountain to climb that attracted me. What’s more, we’re the first to tackle it, so there’s also that pioneering aspect which is exciting, I hope we’ll be writing a new page in ocean racing. We have no idea how it will end, but if it works out, it will be the start of a great story, as was the case in 1989 with Lamazou, Van den Heede, Peyron and Poupon in the first Vendée Globe. You can remember almost all the names of the 13 sailors who took part in the race, and it’s a bit like that for this race.
“For me, Charles remains
the toughest opponent”
▶︎ Do you get nervous when you think about it?
Yes, there’s bound to be some apprehension, I think about it every day. Even during the Jacques Vabre, we often talked about it with Jojo (Sébastien Josse), I’d ask him how he’d do single-handed in such and such a situation. We know there are going to be plenty of complicated moments, but I’ve never done 45 or 50 days at sea on my own on a boat like this. For the time being, my maximum was a big week in the Route du Rhum. It’s not the same exercise at all, I’m going to have to find the right rhythm and manage the fatigue of the sailor and the machine. There are a lot of unknowns, but I’m trying not to think too far ahead so as not to tire myself unnecessarily before setting off. And what reassures me is the fact that I know the boat very well. I’ve been sailing her for two years now, I’ve encountered all the conditions, I know how to trim her when the wind changes and I have confidence in the systems.
▶︎ If I asked you to put yourself in my shoes and make a prediction, who would you name?
(Laughs). Of the six boats, five can win and sail around the world in less than 50 days. Eric (Péron) is more involved in a project like we see in the Vendée Globe, with sailors who are there with the aim of finishing first and foremost. After that, if we look behind us, Charles (Caudrelier) remains for me the toughest opponent, the most dangerous. They’ve won everything with Gitana, they’ve already been to the South on the Jules Verne Trophy, even if they didn’t complete it (retiring halfway through), it’s experience that will stand them in good step.
▶︎ Do you get the feeling that you’re to some extent playing for the future of the Ultim class in this race, in the sense that if it’s a success it could attract new partners?
Of course we’d like other partners and skippers to join the Ultim class. In fact, one of the best boats in the fleet is up for sale (the Maxi Edmond de Rothschild, see our article). I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the sailors who are going to try to win the next Vendée Globe have in the back of their minds the idea of coming to race in the Ultim class afterwards. And of course, if the race is a success, that will be one more argument. We’re already happy to be six at the start for this first race, and if in four years’ time there are eight of us, it will mean that the gamble has paid off.
▶︎ And will it still be you at the start?
I’ll tell you that at the finish!
Photo: Jérémie Lecaudey / BPCE