There are few accolades in sailing more sought after than the title “record holder,” and there are few records more sought after than that for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, west to east. The record is for the fastest time from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, at the entrance to New York Harbor, across the Atlantic Ocean to an imaginary line stretching south from Lizard Point on the southwest corner of England.
Generations of sailors have gone after this Transatlantic record and many have failed spectacularly. The North Atlantic can be an unpredictable and volatile place, where cold fronts sweep across a windswept ocean dotted with bits of ice that have floated down from the Arctic. With that in mind, the recent shattering of the record, not once but twice within the same week, is that much more extraordinary.
The quest to hold the Transatlantic Record goes back well over a century to when the legendary Charlie Barr, captain of the 228ft schooner, Atlantic, hauled the mail across the Atlantic in a time of 12 days, 4 hours, 1 minute and 19 seconds. It was a time that stood for 75 years and was only broken when the French sailor Eric Tabarly bested it with his 54ft trimaran Paul Ricard. Indeed Barr’s record for a monohull stood for nearly a hundred years until it was beaten in 1997 by the yacht Nicorette in a crossing of 11 days, 13 hours and 22 minutes.
Barr famously dismissed Atlantic’s owner Wilson Marshall’s pleas to slow the boat down and heave-to in a raging gale by stating, “Mr. Marshall, sir. You hired me to try and win this race. I’m keepin’ her going.” He then escorted Mr. Marshall to his stateroom and locked the door. The chastened owner spent the rest of the night on his knees in prayer.
There may well have been some praying done when the record was recently smashed, but there was definitely no escorting of owners to their cabin. These boats were being sailed single-handed, each by one of the most experienced and accomplished sailors on the planet.
Let me explain. At the end of June, there was a race from France to New York between four massive multihulls and the luxury cruise liner Queen Mary 2. “The Bridge” was a stunt event, set up as a way to get both the Queen Mary 2 and the multihulls some summer publicity. Surprisingly, the Queen Mary 2 trounced the yachts. Sixty-five-year-old Francis Joyon was one of the competitors aboard his trimaran IDEC Sport, one of a handful of so-called Ultime multihulls. At 105ft (31.5 meters) overall, this by any measure is a huge yacht to sail singlehanded, but Joyon is well qualified and he was ready to sail the boat alone back to Europe.
Joyon was not in search of a record—for one thing, last year he and his crew set a new Jules Verne record for the fastest-ever circumnavigation of the planet under sail, and for another, he already held the Transatlantic record. No, his main goal was to beat the Queen Mary 2 on the return crossing. Joyon’s departure was a bit hurried. With barely any time to provision the boat, he noticed that the liner was casting off and so he did the same.
“I set off from New York in a hurry,” Joyon said. “I didn’t even have time to sort out the supplies. I just bought some eggs and bananas.” He added that his departure from New York was also forced by the fact that there was no place to moor his yacht, so he decided it was best to head back to France. Can you imagine? Head back to France? Alone. On a 105ft yacht with a mainsail that has an area one-and-a-half-times the size of a tennis court. With just some eggs and bananas?
“The weather wasn’t that good on the first day and I had to tack upwind,” Joyon noted. “But on the following day, a system became established and I started to learn how to sail the boat. It was my first time taking her out alone.” With the weather more settled he was able to find his groove, and for two straight days the boat ate up the miles at over 30 knots. It was only when Joyon got closer to Europe that he realized he was within reach of the existing record, which he had set back in 2013. Just over five days after leaving New York Joyon crossed Lizard Point, knocking 49 minutes off his own record time.
“I was pleased to finish,” he said, in somewhat of an understatement. “The past 24 hours have been very tiring. My autopilots weren’t working well, so I had to stay at the helm all the time while carrying out maneuvers in a lot of squalls with the boat slamming into the seas.” Back in New York fellow Frenchman Thomas Coville, another immensely experienced sailor, was keeping an eye on the weather, searching for a window that would allow him a shot at the Transatlantic record. Unlike Joyon, Coville fully intended to set a new record and as soon as his weather team said the window was there, he took off aboard his own Ultime trimaran, Sodebo. Unlike Joyon, who had not taken his boat out alone, Coville had already sailed his boat around the world, setting a new record for a solo, nonstop circumnavigation along the way.
The conditions were good but the boat was a handful, as one can only imagine. “The boat is incredibly powerful and we were sailing all the way on a razor’s edge,” Coville said. “I felt both physically and mentally fully committed and I knew that if all went well I would only be out sailing for around five days, so I gave it everything.”
He did indeed give it everything, and everything was enough. After 4 days, 11 hours, 10 minutes and 23 seconds, Coville passed Lizard Point to claim the new record, knocking almost 15 hours off the new time just minted by Joyon. His average speed was 28.35 knots.
This is a huge record that may stand for some time, but you never know. The sailing ability of these incredible offshore sailors seem to know no limits and the boats are getting faster and more sophisticated.
After arriving back in France, Joyon noted that he “made a few mistakes hoisting the gennaker in particular. Fortunately, the boat reacted kindly even at 30 knots.” You would need the boat to react kindly at that speed.
For Coville, it was an emotional record, one he had been coveting for most of his sailing career. Charlie Barr would have been impressed. He would also be happy to know that Francis Joyon got his revenge on the Queen Mary 2. The cruise liner docked 24 hours after him.
MHS- Fall 2017