When François Gabart sailed his giant trimaran Macif across a line between England’s Lizard Point and Oussant in France on December 17 after 42 days at sea, the 35-year-old Frenchman not only set a new singlehanded round-the-world record, he cemented his place among the great sailors of all time.
Gabart is widely recognized as one of the best, if not the best, singlehanded sailors in the world, and it’s an accolade he has worked extremely hard to earn. He started his winning ways at a very young age. At 14 he won the French nationals in the Optimist class, and two years later was the French national champion in the Moth class.
By the time he was 20, Gabart was the Tornado Junior World Champion. Two years later he won his first offshore sailing event, the Tour de France à la Voile for students. The following year he won one of France’s most iconic and competitive regattas, the Solitaire du Figaro. That win catapulted him into celebrity in a country where sailing is a national passion and winners are heralded as sporting heroes.
With a resume that was quickly filling up with his sailing accomplishments, Gabart caught the eye of the “big boys,” the top French offshore sailors who saw a competitive determination that ran bone-deep. Gabart, they say, never goes out on the water to sail. He goes out there to slaughter his competition. The noted French weather guru Jean-Yves Bernot says of him, “François is always in full competition mode. He is very, very committed.”
One of the big boys who saw Gabart’s potential was two-time Vendée Globe winner Michel Desjoyeaux. He took François under his wing and made him his protege. The two sailed together on Desjoyeaux’s various IMOCA 60s, with the master coaching the younger sailor on how to manage the boat and himself for a long-haul race like the non-stop round-the-world Vendée Globe.
Desjoyeaux also helped Gabart navigate the minefield of sailing sponsorship, but with his boyish good looks, piercing blue eyes and a determination that was palpable, he had little problem finding a French company to back his dreams. In 2010 Gabart announced that insurance giant Macif was partnering with him and it was the start of a long and prosperous relationship that continues to this day.
In 2010 Gabart commissioned the talented design team of VPLP/Verdier to design an IMOCA 60 for the 2012 Vendée Globe, one of the toughest and most prestigious offshore races. He had learned from the best and was keen to lay some rubber on the road. Gabart came out of the starting block like a man bent on not just circumnavigating the world alone, but ripping things to shreds. He romped back to France in a record time of 78 days and 2 hours, knocking a full six days of the record previously held by his mentor, Desjoyeaux. It was a masterful victory that marked not the end, but the beginning of an incredible single-handed sailing career.
One of the toughest and most sought-after prizes in sailing is the solo nonstop-around-the-world record. Many of France’s top sailors have tried and failed. There are many variables that can trip up a record attempt. The weather, for one thing, breaking the boat for another or, worse yet, breaking the skipper, but Gabart knew that immaculate preparation would be the key to a successful circumnavigation. With backing from Macif he commissioned VPLP to design a 100ft trimaran in which he would attempt to set a new record.
While Gabart was tuning up his newly launched trimaran, fellow French sailor Thomas Coville was setting off on his own attempt at the solo-nonstop record on his trimaran Sodebo. It was not his first attempt; Coville had already taken numerous stabs at the record but had been foiled for one reason or another. Not this time, though. Not only did Coville make it back in record time, but he smashed the old record by almost eight days. He had sailed a perfect circumnavigation.
Instead of being worried about the new record that had just been set, Gabart was fired up by the idea of beating it. He took off with a very good weather window but was slower than Coville to the first marker, the equator. That only served to energize him even more, and it was then that he turned on the afterburners and never looked back. He returned to France not only beating Coville’s record, but obliterating it. His time of 42 days 16 hours 40 minutes and 35 seconds knocked over six days off Coville’s time.
The only one not bedazzled by his flawless circumnavigation was Gabart himself. “Honestly, I was never frightened,” he told a press gathering after he returned to France. “There was no moment when I thought that I was going to capsize. I started out sleeping with the mainsheet in my hand, but after a while I began to trust the 3D heel sensors and gained confidence every day.”
Despite his incredible performance, Gabart feels his record is vulnerable. “The foils on the boat are first generation,” he explained. “They are very conservative, but we have learned a lot since the America’s Cup, and I am very certain that the same boat with the latest generation of foils would be faster. Where Macif currently goes at 35 knots, the newer generations will go at 38 knots. Instead of usually traveling at between 720 to 760 miles a day, a new boat will average between 760 and 800 miles. That’s just how it works.”
There was one thing he said that jarred everyone listening. “It’s not boat design that is going to stop people from beating the record, it’s global warming. There is a lot of ice breaking off Antarctica, and it’s littering the Southern Ocean. We all know that the shortest distance is to go far south, but future attempts won’t be able to do that. It will be too dangerous, and they will have to sail more distance.”
At one point in his circumnavigation Gabart was flirting with the Screaming Sixties and it was only sighting ice on a direct path ahead of him that had him alter course to the north.
It would not surprise me if the solo-nonstop record is broken in the coming years, and it would most definitely not surprise me if François Gabart is the one to do it.
MHS Summer 2018