The first big ocean test for the Ultime trimarans broke new ground. Helen Fretter talked to the skippers to find out why
On Tuesday 5 November four giant trimarans – Maxi Edmond de Rothschild, Macif, Sodebo and Actual Leader, and their double-handed crews – left a grey and sodden Brest on Brittany’s most westerly tip. They were two days later than planned after a North Atlantic storm created monstrous 8m seas in Biscay, and hurtled out under triple-reefed mainsails and bare forestays. But still the leaders passed Madeira by Thursday morning and the Canaries by teatime that same day.
The Cape Verdes whistled past their port bow late on Friday night. Then, after crossing the breadth of the Atlantic in less than a weekend, Maxi Edmond de Rothschild was first to arrive at Recife, Brazil, in time for breakfast on Monday.
And so it went on: Franck Cammas and Charles Caudrelier on Maxi Edmond de Rothschild sailed from Rio to Cape Town – the entire South Atlantic leg, diving down to 43°S – in six days. Only when you plot their track around the vast expanses of the Atlantic Ocean do the incomprehensible speeds the newest foiling trimarans travel at become real.
Not until the northbound return stage did they slow down: after rounding Robben Island off Cape Town to port, the next mark of the course was the finish at Brest, necessitating a climb past Namibian shores at mere 20-knot averages before skirting the St Helena High. By the finish, the Ultimes will likely have sailed some 14,000 miles around the Atlantic Ocean in fewer than 30 days.
The Brest Atlantiques Race was borne out of the crumpled carbon of the 2018 Route du Rhum, which had been hotly anticipated as the first transatlantic contest for the trimarans, but turned instead into a demolition derby.
Banque Populaire capsized, broke up, and was ultimately written off. The Gitana stable’s Maxi Edmond de Rothschild had a whole bow section ripped clean off. The newly foiling Macif limped to the finish missing one rudder and one foil, only to be beaten by Francis Joyon’s 12-year-old IDEC Sport, right on the finish line.
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The much feted Ultimes were clearly nowhere near ready for the single-handed around the world ‘Brest Oceans Race’, originally due to start in December 2019. Heads were put together and a new calendar was unveiled, building up to a crewed around the world race in 2021 and a solo in 2023. But first was a new concept, a double-handed looping course around the Atlantic.
A battle of men
Besides being the first big ocean contest for the Ultimes, the Brest Atlantiques Race breaks ground in several ways. It is double-handed, but each boat has a media crewmember on board. Their daily videos have captured life on these extreme machines in a way that we’ve never seen before – the howling background noise, the sheer difficulty in moving around.
The course veers from the path most travelled. While the eastbound course from Europe to Brazil and the Atlantic loop from South America to the Cape of Good Hope are well practised segments of any around the world course, the return leg – turn left at Cape Town, then head north or north-east – is much rarer.
Also unique is the length of the competition: at one month it is not the exhausting sprint of a transatlantic race, nor is it quite as gruelling as a full around the world loop. Pacing it was always going to be a challenge.
But racing Ultimes is not really about pacing over days, weeks or months. It is about what happens in microseconds, the tiny fractions of margin which these skippers must operate within to avoid errors, when errors could potentially see them cartwheeling a 100ft, €10m trimaran. Even among the superhuman world of short-handed racing, the Ultime skippers are dicing with incomprehensible levels of risk.
“The mode we sail these boats in is almost like an ORMA 60 mode,” explained Cammas, who sailed the notoriously tender ORMA trimarans during the early 2000s. “You are on the sheet to release quickly, and you have to stay on the sheet all the time. When you are on the limit you have less than a second to react.”
Every skipper said that the most dangerous moments in these giant trimarans are sudden changes of wind speed and direction – just the type of conditions you get in mid-Atlantic squalls.
With risk, comes stress. The boats themselves are deceptively reassuring, Caudrelier explained before the race. “It’s like comparing an old car with a new car, you go faster in a new car but you also have better brakes, you are more protected in case of a crash, the tyres are better. So the boats feel quite safe, it is very impressive. We were going 25, 26, 27 knots upwind in big 4m waves, and it was comfortable.
“But the hardest thing is the tension. Whenever you are on a multihull, you are thinking: if I am late, if I don’t anticipate, if I make a mistake, I am going to capsize. There is so much power that if you make a mistake there is no escape.”
The boats simply do not compare to even ocean monohulls. “You make a small mistake – and you have 70 tonnes in the mainsail, which would be two or three tonnes in the Volvo 65s. It’s 160 tonnes righting moment.”
The stress is exacerbated by the constant noise and violent motion. Sodebo, with her cockpit area forward of the mast, is even noisier. Co-skippers Thomas Coville and Jean Luc Nélias wear ear defenders to rest. They started the race in rugby helmets and have a monkey bar rack of handholds in the roof to move around.
“You have to just learn how to accept the noise and how to make it something normal. It’s like the speed – we have already pushed until we accept the speed going from 30 knots to 40. Now 40 knots is just normal,” commented Coville.
But in these boats, danger can present itself in the most extraordinary ways. In the South Atlantic, Sodebo hit what Coville believes was a whale. The impact was strong enough to break off the starboard rudder, and caused so much damage that the aft section of the starboard float filled with water and later also broke away.
Although the boat was able to continue sailing, even foiling, with the truncated float, Coville revealed in Cape Town that it could have been disastrous: “A few hours before, I was inside trying to seal it, and I could have left with the piece that broke away, so I was lucky on that one.”
Contest of machines
Up close, the Ultimes are surprisingly agricultural. Everything is on such a giant scale that it looks like some piece of industrial machinery. The constant modifications are often visible through patched sections – paint and filler are heavy, and so used sparingly.
On Coville’s Sodebo, to achieve an aerodynamically efficient end-plating on the mainsail, the underside of the boom is swathed in black tarpaulin-like panels. The overall effect is curiously Heath Robinson. The Ultimate Class 32/23 box rule is relatively unrestricted, and within its rough dimensions, a maximum of 32m long, 23m wide (104/75ft), the teams have adopted different design solutions. Each boat is also at a different stage of development.
Sodebo does not yet have a T-foil central daggerboard, nor elevator flaps on her rudders (factors that Coville says should give the boat a further 25% performance gain). Meanwhile Maxi Edmond de Rothschild has T-foils on both the central daggerboard and rudder, and huge transom hung rudders, with flaps on the trailing edges, housed in giant protective casings.
But beneath the roughly faired surfaces the Ultimes are riddled with technology. The Maxi Edmond de Rothschild has over 500 load sensors on board, creating terabytes of data. In this race shore teams are allowed to monitor and process this data – and discuss it with the sailors.
“We set up a whole alarm system back at the base, and I will also receive messages on my phone, saying the boat is overbearing on that sensor. So I can wake up and tell [the crew], if they haven’t seen it, to be careful,” explained Gitana team project manager, Sébastien Simon.
“Our aim is to prevent the problems. Sometimes they’ll have the feeling that the boat is just slamming and they’ll maybe slow down, and actually if it’s OK for them physically, they can go faster. Or sometimes if the alarms are going on all the time – obviously I have some margins on those alarms, and I’ll be telling them, OK you can go a little bit more that way.”
During the Brest Atlantiques the skippers are also allowed to use weather routing, and Simon will liaise with team weather guru Marcel von Triest throughout the race as they decide how much stress to put the boat under. Surprisingly, there is no absolute rule of whether the skipper’s intuition or the inarguable neon numbers on the display take precedent. “I have no idea. Maybe it’s 50:50?” pondered Gabart.
“For sure we have a lot of numbers, and we know what is the good and safe configuration with the wind speed and angle. But when you are right on the peak this is the moment where the feeling is more important than the numbers,” explained Cammas. Technical monitoring, weather routing and sailing double-handed means the Ultimes can be sailed to a very high percentage of their potential performance.
“It’s not like a solo race because we can helm a lot, this is good because we can really push the boat,” said Cammas. “The gain you make [by helming] depends on conditions, but sometimes you gain 5%, and if your speed is around 40 that’s a lot. VMG downwind at 20-25 knot wind speeds, for example, is the place where it’s really important to steer.”
Helming by hand to maintain maximised flight time is key. “We will be flying more than 50% of the time,” commented Gabart pre-start. “We – certainly Gitana and Macif – will be the sailors that have spent the most time flying, ever. The sailors in the America’s Cup that sail maybe 100 or 200 times before the Cup, they fly for just a few minutes a day. We will be the sailors that have the best, longest foiling experience.”
What lies beneath
However, while sensors can monitor inside the boats, and weather routers work to interpret the skies ahead, nobody can see what is in the water in front of a trimaran hurtling along at 35 knots, least of all the skippers.
The Ultimes are trialling solutions. Macif has masthead and infrared cameras which connect to an ‘Oscar’ collision avoidance system. Sodebo has heat-sensing cameras, designed to detect a mass at a different temperature to the water: colder for ice, warmer for sea mammals. But the speeds are too great and an ‘Ovni’ – unidentified underwater object – too small or too fast to detect.
The start of the Brest Atlantiques saw the leading Ultimes averaging over 30 knots and hitting peak speeds in the 40s over the first couple of days. Macif took an early lead, ahead of Maxi Edmond de Rothschild. “Macif are being really aggressive. We’ve managed to keep pace with them, but we’re stalling, we don’t want to break anything. This is the first time I’ve been trying to go slower on a boat,” commented Caudrelier at the time.
After the first key gybe south, Macif and Maxi Edmond de Rothschild had begun to pull away from Sodebo and Actual Leader and were trading places for the lead in what Cammas called “a beautiful chess game in the Atlantic.”
But the game of strategy rapidly became a contact sport. First, Macif collided with an unidentified foreign object (UFO) as they entered the Doldrums, damaging the central rudder. Then Cammas and Caudrelier suffered daggerboard damage, probably from a collision.
Both boats pulled into South America to make F1-style pitstops (allowed under the race rules without penalty), where they were joined by their shore crew. The Macif team arrived with some spectacular luggage: an entire central rudder, thanks to the Banque Populaire team.
The repaired Ultimes then restarted, Maxi Edmond de Rothschild chasing new leader Sodebo, which had a 200-mile advantage. But Sodebo made a full U-turn, heading back towards Brazil. About to be caught on the front edge of a depression tracking south-east, Coville and Nélias bailed out to sail a great circle, and the race restarted with all four Ultimes within 100 miles.
Coville explained: “We had no choice but to set off on this southern route which was trying to pass under [a] big depression. Jean-Luc told me: we’re not going as fast as expected, the depression is catching up with us and we’re going to find ourselves stuck upwind in 45-50 knots, so it was with a heavy heart that we decided to turn around.
“I was really disappointed, because if we had managed to get through this depression, we would have found ourselves with a very comfortable lead, being one weather system ahead of the others. It’s hard to accept losing so much ground.”
Skirting that same frontal system the skippers fought extreme sea states as they headed into the South Atlantic. “These are the worst conditions since the start and not far from the worst I have ever encountered on a multihull,” said Yves Le Blevec on Actual Leader.
“With each wave, it feels like the boat is going to smash; this is not fun. We have about 30 knots of wind, but what’s hard is that we have the waves face-on and the sea is completely crossed and we are being thrown about which means we have to hold on at all times.”
“It’s a pity, because I imagined this Rio to Cape Town to be full-on flat-out speeds on flat seas, I’ve been dreaming about it for the last few months,” mused François Gabart. “Unfortunately, it won’t be like that this time. We will have to come back.”
As the boats gybed east, Sodebo became the next to suffer a major UFO collision, ripping off their starboard rudder, and later the aft 5m of starboard hull. As they arrived in Cape Town it transpired that the crash had also damaged the starboard foil. Their race was ended.
With three of the four teams having to pull into port to make repairs, is the Brest Atlantiques a true race or an elaborate sea trial? In many ways it is both. The Ultimes are still very raw, and early in their development curve; they still need nursing round. But the skippers believe they have the potential to change the sport radically.
“We’re trying to imagine what’s going to be our world tomorrow, what’s going to be the offshore racing of tomorrow, and for sure the planet is going to be our playing field,” explained Coville. “I don’t know if we are right or wrong, but we’re trying one way and I’m very enthusiastic to be part of this history.
“In two years we’re going to have six boats, nearly the same numbers as the last Volvo Ocean Race, but trimarans that are 32m long, 23m wide and 35m high! If you remember how we started on the Vendée Globe 25 years ago and now the success of it today, and I think we are pushing the limits even further.”
The rewards are worth it. “For sure these big boats are the most impressive and incredible boats in the world, but they are very fragile,” agreed Coville. “This is the price you have to pay. You have to accept that point if you want to be one of the luckiest sailors in the world.”
First published in the January 2020 edition of Yachting World.