Ultim cap Horn

The Arkea Ultim Challenge-Brest under the expert’s microscope, week 5

More than a month after setting out from Brest, the leader of the Arkea Ultim Challenge-Brest has rounded Cape Horn and his four pursuers are continuing to make headway despite the changing moods of the Deep South. To analyse the fifth week, Tip & Shaft interviewed Thomas Rouxel, a member of Sodebo Ultim 3’s routing team, Xavier Guilbaud, associate architect at VPLP Design, and Jean-François Cuzon, CEO of Pixel sur Mer, a specialist in onboard electronics and former racer. 

There was a sense of relief as the first boat rounded Cape Horn in daylight on Tuesday 6 February, under J2, in idyllic conditions immortalised by the cameras. However, this symbolic passage was a long time coming for Charles Caudrelier, who was forced to stop for 48 hours and then make difficult headway in very heavy seas. “The window was very hard to find in this zone of enormous compression, with a series of lows and the detection of ice around Cape Horn”, confirms navigator Thomas Rouxel, who sees it as “the first major accumulation of difficulties for Gitana, which had been rather lucky until then”.

The relief at the Horn was short-lived for the skipper of Maxi Edmond de Rothschild, who very quickly found himself back in difficult conditions, then transition zones forcing him to manoeuvre a lot in his quest for the tradewinds. “More than 15,000 miles in the bag inevitably starts to wear on you, even when you have an Atlantic ahead of you and are managing like a good sailor”, says the architect Xavier Guilbaud, for whom “this round the world is extremely instructive in terms of the deterioration in the theoretical performance of these boats.

And for electronics specialist Jean-François Cuzon, the conclusion is that “for all of them, it’s really the sea state that is the most limiting factor”. 2,300 miles from the leader, in the middle of the Pacific, Armel Le Cléac’h spoke out on several occasions about “very violent stops”, the scars of which he displayed on his face. “As long as the boat is flying, it’s relatively comfortable, but as soon as it crashes, it’s a nightmare“, sums up the skipper of Pixel sur Mer, a former crew member of Michel Desjoyeaux in the Orma class and of Sébastien Josse in the Imoca class.


A welcome Le Cléac’h/Coville duel


Although the skipper of Banque Populaire XI had to round the north of New Zealand – “a completely unprecedented route which will go down in the annals of history”, Thomas Rouxel points out – he has since been sailing ahead of a front in “hellish conditions”“On this stretch, the boat is between 70 and 80% of her VPP, otherwise it’s unbearable and the risk to the safety of the sailor and the boat is too great”, confirms the architect Xavier Guilbaud.

It’s a difficult pace to keep up, especially as the sailor is under pressure from Thomas Coville, who is lying in ambush 400 miles behind and in the same weather system. Forced to make a technical stopover in Hobart, the skipper of Sodebo Ultim 3 has made a very impressive choice by setting off again in rough conditions to stay in the match”, analyses Jean-François Cuzon.

“Either we took the violent window with 5 metre waves and 40 knots to the south of Australia, or we waited two more days in port but we had to write off the competition, and we weren’t sure that the conditions wouldn’t deteriorate in the meantime,” explains Thomas Rouxel, member of Team Sodebo’s routing team. “Thomas’ experience has clearly played a part in the equation, and that’s just as well for the battle for second place,” observes Xavier Guilbaud.


“It’s already a success
to see them where they are”


The two boats, which are due to reach Cape Horn this weekend, are averaging “between 30 and 35 knots, which means peaks of over 40 knots”, points out the VPLP architect, who recalls that it’s “very hard to imagine what that means on board, especially as the videos flatten the sea, but it’s almost impossible to stay upright. Everything is always on the verge of getting worse”“So far, we’re rather relieved and pleasantly surprised by the reliability of the boats, as there hasn’t been that much breakage compared to the Jacques Vabre,” notes Jean-François Cuzon.

It remains to be seen how the sailors will cope with what has become “more of an endurance event than a speed race”, says Xavier Guilbaud. “It would be interesting to know how many times they’ve cranked the cranks, their heart rate and how long they’ve slept,” observes the CEO of Pixel sur Mer. “As a router, it’s always a challenge to take it easy on the rider and keep the gruelling manoeuvres to a minimum, while still keeping to the optimum trajectory. For the moment, we’re keeping the safety objective in mind to round Cape Horn, and if we have to attack, we’ll still have time behind us,” confirms Thomas Rouxel.

There’s still a long way to go, especially with “these very unstable conditions, which show that nothing can be taken for granted”, reminds Jean-François Cuzon. After a complicated week to the south of a high-pressure area, which forced her along the ice zone, Actual Ultim 3 seems to be “finally eating her fill and making good headway on the road”, rejoices Thomas Rouxel. “Anthony Marchand is having a great race in spite of some tricky conditions and a lack of speed and safety following the loss of his starboard foil,” emphasised Xavier Guilbaud. Finally, on Adagio, “Eric Péron is also making headway, even though his stopover in Cape Town penalised him a lot, and we saw him in the rough at less than 5 knots, which was a bit ungrateful”, laments the VPLP architect.

“A few months ago, we were wondering whether there would be any Ultims rounding the Horn, but it’s already a successful gamble to see them where they are, even if the competition aspect has taken a hit,” adds Jean-François Cuzon. “For all of them, the main objective remains to finish”, concludes Thomas Rouxel, who is curious to see “in what physical and mental state we’ll find them at the finish”.

Photo: Yann Riou / polaRYSE / Gitana

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