Thomas Coville sur son Ultim

Thomas Coville : “The Arkea Ultim Challenge-Brest, the race of a lifetime”

After the 2022 season which ended with third place in the Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe in the Ultim class, Thomas Coville has been back on the water during this first week of the year. The crew of Sodebo Ultim 3 is now ready to take on the Route of Discovery record between Cadiz and San Salvador (Bahamas). The record of 6 days 14 hours and 29 minutes has been held since 2013 by Spindrift 2. Tip & Shaft spoke with Coville.

How do you assess your 2022 season and your Route du Rhum? 
It was a year that was pivotal, because we changed foils and also we had the Route du Rhum at the end of it as the pinnacle event. We were very ambitious and on reflection it all went very well. We managed to develop the foils on time and all in all we managed to create something that I really liked, the collaboration with with Armel (Le Cléac’h) and Charles (Caudrelier). Training with them allowed me to progress a lot and then to arrive into Saint-Malo with a boat which I felt very comfortable with. And on the Route du Rhum I feel like we put up a good fight. We felt that we were missing a little something but when there was an opening, we were able to take it, like on the option where we went to the West to look for the front and up to 50 knots, which Charles and François (Gabart) clearly had no intention of doing. We are going to work during 2023 to better this little something that we are missing, because I am not really satisfied with having finished third on the Rhum for the third time. It is not the result I was looking for even if it really does accurately reflect the level of the fleet.

We maybe have the impression that you kind of regret some of the choices you made at the beginning of this project…..
Yes, I never made any secret of that. We specified a boat which was to sail around the world solo in the first year. That’s why we were probably too conservative about the rudders, the foils, the rig. Since then of course the specifications have changed [this first race around the world, the Arkea Ultim Challenge-Brest in the end will start at the beginning of 2024, Editor’s note], it took us a long time to catch up with technical trend and bring the boat up to date. Given what we were setting out to do back then I don’t regret what we did but it has been frustrating for the past three years not being able to be in the match at the front of the fleet. We are in the process of rectifying things bit by bit. At certain times we are 2 to 3% behind the others. And at other times we are on equal terms. And now we have clearly identified points that will help us to continue to progress.

What are they? 
In summary there are five key things: first aerodynamics, which was a part of the DNA of the boat from the start, but an area where we did not go all the way. We have a rather compact rig which is not close to the maximum potential of what we could do. We are in the process of looking at what it is possible to improve. The second point is weight. We were a light boat but having added large foils and large rudders has made us heavier than we thought, so we want to lighten the boat to be able to lift off earlier. There are also hydrodynamics, which, on our boats, will always be a key area of development. So we will continue to develop the rudders, the fences, the foils and especially the dagger board. And then finally there is the trim as in the centre of mass as well as ergonomics, even if the boat is already quite successful in these areas. I find the boat sails very well and I like it, I like its all round vision and not having to make a lot of effort for it to react because the center of mass is very defined.

“Initially, my ambition was to set off
for the Jules Verne Trophy” 

You were talking about your frustration at having finished third in the Route du Rhum for the third time, does pain you to see others win and not you? 
Well I am an athlete like everyone else and as a competitor there is a lot of disappointment when I don’t win. But I am not a jealous person and I feel so much pleasure, enthusiasm and desire to keep improving that it all eclipses any disappointment. The most difficult thing in a sport like ours, and even more so in Ultim, is managing to develop a set of parameters, a technical vision, a constantly changing calendar, a physical capacity which, like any athlete has peaks and troughs and a partnership that assures you financial and work solidity. In our environment, there is no one who  has managed to really nail all of these all of the time. However, there are those who have the opportunity or the chance to be called in as a skipper, a pilot if you like, and climb on the right machine at the right time, without having spent all the time required to develop and build the project. A guy like Charles (Caudrelier) – and he admits it himself – was in the right place at the right time, he came in and profited after the work done by a Sébastien Josse, a Thomas Rouxel, and it’s completely to his credit that he is winning now, at this time. But when you build a project as complex as Sodebo, at some point you have to psychologically accept that not everything is within your control and the fact that, when you don’t win, it’s not because you done things all wrong.

In the first quarter of 2023 you have two round trips on the the Atlantic, the first with a crew, the second single-handed. You have planned to sail each time with the Route of Discovery record in your sights, why this choice? 
My original ambition was to set off on a Jules Verne Trophy attempt but the Route du Rhum made us think. We said to ourselves that if we are to gain the 2-3% I was talking about, we had to develop the boat, so to work in these specific areas. We took the example of other sports, when you prepare for an ultra trail, you don’t do an ultra trail, you work on several aspects, endurance, intensity, power. And so here in fact it is the same, we said to ourselves that the Jules Verne Trophy is not perhaps the best way strategically to prepare for the Arkea Ultim Challenge-Brest. So we have set up a program which will allow us to start in a year with a reliable and more competitive boat, by starting this preparation now, with a campaign of records in the Atlantic, first with a crew, then single-handed.

“History is being made”

There are very few races on the program for 2023, since the Lorient-Bermuda-Lorient will not take place, we have the impression that the class is still struggling to really maintain momentum, what do you think?  
I was disappointed when I learned that. For me it was essential for me to do that transatlantic race, I think that a new class director (Stéphane Guilbaud who has been appointed secretary general) will allow us to project into the future in a better way. Of course I hear all the criticisms on class governance, however, it is not at all easy to have when you are so visionary with such fantastic boats. We build, we fly boats, we pilot them, and at some point, it’s those who do this who are in the right. History is being made all the time and that will be the case with the Arkea Ultim Challenge-Brest, which is the race of a lifetime. It embraces a pioneering aspect which I really like. I think in the future I’ll be proud later to tell myself that I was part of this movement which promotes flying boats crossing the Atlantic in 5 to 6 days, and to go around the world in less of 40 days. It is inherently going to be a bit chaotic at times.

A word on the conflict between the class and François Gabart’s team: do you regret the way things happened, the few harsh words which were exchanged? And do you think it will be settled soon?
Personally I don’t think I had harsh words for François. I had asked him three questions from the start: would he, like us, respect the rules? Was he ready to respect the arbitrators? Could the referees to enforce the class rules be World Sailing? He had answered yes each time. Frankly I don’t have the impression that he respected these I was disappointed and hurt that we arrived at a judicial decision which, for me, resolved absolutely nothing, because it was judged on a form. I also think that François is such an exceptional athlete that he didn’t need to put himself in this situation in the first place to go for the win, and that in the end it has weighed more on him than you might think, because he is someone who loves the band, who needs to be watched and loved, and he’s lost that. In the end I felt that he really wanted and needed us to move towards him. Now, in relation to the arrival of Tom (Laperche, tipped to succeed François Gabart), I have already spoken about it with him, he wants things to be cleaned up, we too, we all have an interest in that. I think in time it will sort itself, things will be smoothed out.

Photo : Vincent Curutchet

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