As the vast majority of us prepare to wave goodbye to 2023 and look ahead to what 2024 might hold in store for us, in a port in northern France the six skippers of the world’s largest ocean racing multihulls are counting down the final days to the start of the inaugural edition of what promises to be an epic solo around the world race.
Starting from Brest on January 7, the Arkea Ultim Challenge Brest will see the French-flagged fleet of 100-foot Ultim trimarans embark on a 21,600-nautical mile (40,000-kilometre) singlehanded non-stop circumnavigation of the planet.
The course for the race takes the monster multihulls south of the world’s three great capes – South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Australia’s Cape Leeuwin, and Chile’s notorious Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America – before finishing back in Brest sometime after the middle of February.
In recent times sailing fans and the wider sporting public have marvelled at the grit and determination of the Vendee Globe competitors as they race around the world alone aboard their 60-foot IMOCA monohull yachts.
But, while the semi-foiling IMOCAs are among the fastest monohulls ever conceived, their performance seems pedestrian compared to the blistering open ocean speeds the Ultim boats are capable of.
To put all this in context, consider that the fastest Vendee Globe winner – Armel Le Cléac’h (FRA) on Banque Populaire VIII in the 2016-17 edition – completed the race in a fraction over 74 days, while the fastest solo Ultim circumnavigation by François Gabart on MACIF in 2017 took seven hours short of 43 days.
Le Cléac’h – sailing aboard Maxi Banque Populaire XI – is among the Arkea Ultim Challenge Brest entrants. Although he has never raced solo around the world aboard an Ultim, sailing with fellow French skipper Sébastien Josse, Le Cléac’h won the 2023 double-handed transatlantic Route du Rhum race and will set off from Brest next week as one of the favourites.
The French sailor has raced around the world solo three times before – in the 2008-09, 2012-13, and 2016-17 editions of the Vendee Globe – but acknowledged that to do so aboard a 100-foot multihull will be a very different challenge.
“I know the route of course but not how it will be on board this type of very demanding machine,” he said. “I have been thinking about this race for quite a long time now. I am happy to be on board this boat – which was designed for this type of round-the-world passage – to take on this great challenge.”
Also to be considered a major contender in this remarkable race must be Thomas Coville – skipper of Sodebo Ultim 3. Coville has raced around the world eight times in his professional sailing career and is the only entrant to have previously done so on an Ultim, after his record-setting 49-day passage in 2016.
Always insightful with his comments, he had this to say about the scale of the challenge the six skippers will be taking on.
“We are all facing up to a mountain and approach it modestly and humbly. And the biggest question of all is knowing who will get to the end and how.”
Perhaps to be ranked as an outside bet due to his relative lack of experience is Tom Laperche – skipper of the newest boat in the fleet, SVR-Lazartigue. A past winner of the fiercely competitive Solitaire du Figaro, at 26 years of age he is the youngest skipper in the race but has racked up a significant number of racing miles on the SVR-Lazartigue Ultim as co-skipper to François Gabart – for whom the boat was built.
Together in 2023 the French duo won the Rolex Fastnet Race and finished second in the Route du Rhum.
Arguably the clear favourite based on past results is Charles Caudrelier – skipper of Maxi Edmond de Rothschild – who’s list of Ultim victories over the past few years includes: in 2019 the Brest Atlantiques and Rolex Fastnet race; the 2020 Dhream Cup; the 2021 Fastnet Race and Transat Jacques Vabre (all of these with co-skipper Franck Cammas); as well as in 2022 the solo Route du Rhum.
Caudrelier – who will turn 50 on February 26 – said he viewed his fellow competitors less as rivals and more ‘as a group of friends setting off on a big adventure’.
“I have had some complicated times recently,” he said. “I asked myself the question if I wanted to go. But as soon as I was querying myself I fully realised that I was attached to this round the world. I’ve always dreamed of this solo, and at 50 I’ve never done it, this is the first time.”
The two remaining skippers – Anthony Marchand and Éric Péron – are on paper the least proven in the six-boat fleet. Nevertheless, both are accomplished offshore skippers and will each be treating their participation in this first ever solo Ultim around-the-world race as an opportunity to make their mark in the solo offshore racing scene.
“For me this is about finding my limits and pushing myself,” Péron commented. “Being at the start is the realisation of a dream. I have built up my experience over this year to take on a challenge that was beyond me and now, this is it!”
Both sailors will be competing aboard proven – indeed, record-setting – boats. Marchand’s Actual Ultim 3 was previously François Gabart’s MACIF, while Péron’s Trimaran Adagio used to be Thomas Coville’s Sodebo Ultim 3.
“These are extraordinary boats but we must try to normalise their size,” Marchand said. “Even to me it still feels strange to think that we’re going to race alone on these boats.”
Five of the six Ultims arrived in Brest over the weekend (Laperche’s SVR-Lazartigue is still being prepared but is expected this coming Friday) where the event’s recently opened 11,000-square metre race village is expected to attract tens of thousands of visitors before the scheduled start on January 7.
More information here.