ARKEA ULTIM CHALLENGE - Brest: first solo round-the-world race aboard an Ultim 32/23!

History seen by

© Éric Loizeau 

A sea change

For offshore racers obsessed with singlehanded sailing, the true sea change was witnessed in December 1978, when Canadian Mike Birch, against all the odds, took victory in the first Route du Rhum after one last bitter duel, which saw him beating[1] along the coast of Guadeloupe, neck and neck with the large monohull skippered by Michel Malinovsky. The daily sports newspapers headlined with “David takes victory over Goliath” because, to all intents and purposes, a little 11m30 trimaran had defeated a 23m monohull.

As a young offshore racer who’d secured two victories in the recent crewed round the world race, I decided to set my sights on the next OSTAR, queen of the singlehanded races, which had already been won twice over by my mentor and spiritual father in sailing, Eric Tabarly. From Plymouth to Newport, the course was predominantly upwind, and I got it into my head that I would build a ‘machine capable of going to windward’, so I asked my friend from La Rochelle, a young naval architect by the name of Philippe Briand, to design me a monohull measuring 60-feet, 18m30, the maximum permitted size. 

After listening to the race finish on the radio and then analysing the various incidents along the way, as well as the course adopted by the two boats, it was obvious that I had to purchase a trimaran. Too bad for Philippe!  I immediately contacted Walter Greene, the guy that built Mike Birch’s boat and an expert from this new American school, who would go on to design me an extraordinary 45-foot (13m70) trimaran, Gauloises 4.

Multihulls join the fray

Indeed, prior to Mike Birch’s surprise win, multihulls, which were inspired by the Polynesian pirogue-style canoes, were renowned for being quick in downwind conditions, but ill-at-ease in light airs and punching into the wind. They were also thought to be fragile and dangerous. 

The only really high-performance racing trimaran, Pen Duick IV, which later went on to be known as Manureva, was designed for Eric Tabarly by André Allègre in 1968, since the latter, in typically visionary fashion, had decreed that “the future of singlehanded races would revolve around multihulls!”

However, prior to the victories posted by Mike Birch in the Route du Rhum 1978 and Phil Weld (Moxie) in the 1980 OSTAR, multihulls hadn’t really shown their true mettle in singlehanded racing. It’s largely down to these unprecedented successes and a boom in sponsorship between 1980 and 1984 that multihulls really took off at this point! 

At the same time, there was a growing interest in foils. Eric Tabarly was the first to bite with his boat Paul Ricard, with which he set a new crewed transatlantic record, followed by a series of foiling trimarans measuring around fifteen metres, designed by Marc Lombard, a talented young naval architect who is later responsible for the first retractable appendages, and then Charles Heidsieck’s 26-metre giant designed by Gilles Ollier. 

Catamarans of exponential proportions

In 1984, after a second edition of the Route du Rhum, which saw a 20-metre catamaran (Marc Pajot’s Elf Aquitaine) secure the win, the latter boats became very popular as they were more geared towards the next four years of competition. Multiple discussions ensue about boat length, which was initially set at 20 metres by the assembly of international oceanic multihull racers (ACIMO), before increasing exponentially, prompting the appearance of the first giant catamarans of the seas: Tag Heuer 24 metres, Fleury Michon, Charente Maritime and Royale, all of them bordering on 26 metres!

Going back to basics on trimarans

Very soon though, the solo sailors returned to trimarans again, primarily for safety reasons. Indeed, to perform well, catamarans have to fly a hull, a sailing technique which is suited to crewed format, but less so to solo sailing, where around fifty per cent of the time is spent at the helm. On penalty of capsize then, it’s imperative to reduce the boat’s sail area, which obviously affects its speed. 

Philippe Poupon is all too aware of this fact, opting for a 75-foot (22.85m) trimaran to snatch victory in the Route du Rhum in 1986. This race proves to be devastating for the maxi-multihulls, with capsizes suffered by Royale (her skipper Loïc Caradec lost at sea), and Jean Stalaven and retirements by Charente Maritime, Côte d’Or, Roger et Gallet, Apricot and Jet Services. This prompts the organisers to fall into line with the British and limit the size of the boats to 60-feet for the next singlehanded races. It is a blessing in disguise as the new generation of ORMA trimarans, all equipped with the first foils to make the floats lighter and prevent the bows from burying into the waves, herald the beginning of today’s gigantic lifting surfaces.

The 21st century and its trimarans in excess of 100-feet

These same boats are deemed perfect for crossing the Atlantic, yet they are not suited to crewed round the world ‘flights’. As such, at the dawn of the 21st century, the construction of the first true giant trimarans begins with boats bordering on and even exceeding 100-feet in length (30m), the main focus of which is the Jules Verne Trophy (crewed round the world record). 

The first of the series is Géronimo skippered by Olivier de Kersauson (34m) and built at Multiplast in Vannes in 2001, and the largest of them all Spindrift, ex-Banque Populaire, measuring 40 metres long and 23 wide, she too designed by naval architects VPLP, in 2008. 

Equally, we mustn’t forget the maxi-catamarans designed by Gilles Ollier and built in the early noughties at Multiplast once again: Innovation Explorer (32m80) skippered by Loïck Peyron for The Race (the only crewed round the world race for multihulls), followed in 2003 by the colossus Orange 2 (36m80) helmed by a 13-strong crew, a record-breaking boat, which set a new reference time around the world in 2005 of 50 days and 16 hours at an average speed of 17.9 knots!

We must wait until 2010 though for the true comeback by the solo giants when victory is awarded to Franck Cammas in the Route du Rhum (once again run with no size limit) aboard his fabulous 31m50 trimaran, Groupama 3, initially designed to take on the Jules Verne Trophy. With this boat and this achievement, Franck will pave the way forward for singlehanded round the world record attempts on maxi-trimarans and play an integral part in the creation of the Ultim Class. François Gabart draws inspiration from this performance to create his first Macif in 2017, a 32-metre trimaran with which he will erase the previous records set by Francis Joyon in 2008 (57 days 13 hours 4 minutes), and Thomas Coville in 2017 (49 days 3 hours 4 minutes), with a new reference time of 42 days 16 hours 40 minutes. Blisteringly quick, it’s important not to forget the first brave souls to dare to pull off this feat, namely Philippe Monnet (1986 - 129 days), Olivier de Kersauson (1989 - 125 days) and Ellen MacArthur (2004 - 71 days)!

All this will prefigure the next Ultim race, the superlative event, which will set sail from Brest in late 2023: the first non-stop round the world race on a multihull via the three capes and the largest event in the history of offshore racing, ARKEA ULTIM CHALLENGE - Brest, which will see the largest flying trimarans in the world battling it out on the oceans, helmed by the boldest skippers of all time.

[1] Beating: tacking as close as possible to the wind, a point of sail necessary for following a trajectory taking you into the wind without stopping (because a boat that is being headed by the wind cannot make forward headway)

Brest Métropole
Région Bretagne
Département du Finistère
Brasserie de Bretagne