It’s hard to be sure when things started to change, but I am pretty sure it was the evening of April 20, 1993. As the sunset, spluttering and sizzling into the Atlantic, the 86ft catamaran Commodore Explorer crossed an imaginary finish line near Île d’Ouessant off the northwest corner of France to complete a nonstop lap of the planet. The elapsed time was only a few hours short of 80 days, a new record. Commodore Explorer was the first sailboat to have ever circumnavigated in what was then considered by many to be an unattainable time. The crew was awarded the Jules Verne Trophy for having done so. More importantly, by accomplishing something many thought impossible, skipper Bruno Peyron also started a nautical arms race by proving a big multihull could not only safely sail around the world, but smash pretty much any and all sailing speed records in existence.
Fast forward to the world of massive high-speed multihulls in 2020, and the boats are nothing less than extraordinary. The same might be said of those who sail them. Commodore Explorer’s record circumnavigation was akin to Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile. It was common wisdom at the time that running a mile in under four minutes was humanly impossible. Then Bannister proved it could be done, and almost immediately a slew of other runners did it as well. A psychological barrier had been broken, and the world (of running, at least) was never the same. Same thing with Commodore Explorer. Once that barrier, a made-up number taken from Jules Vernes’ novel Around the World in Eighty Days, was broken, the floodgates seemed to open. Scarcely a year later, Peyron’s record was smashed by Kiwi sailing legend Sir Peter Blake and Sir Robin Knox Johnston aboard the trimaran ENZA, who knocked a full five days off the record.
Peyron had a vision, and with the millennium fast approaching he announced a new round-the-world event simply called The Race. The Race would set out from Barcelona, Spain, and feature a fleet of 100ft catamarans sailing nonstop around the globe. To help get things moving he acquired the services of noted French designer Gilles Ollier and started building a pair of massive cats with the help of France’s Multiplast. In the end, seven boats crossed the start line with five of them finishing (though not all of them doing so nonstop). Afterward, in an effort to build on the momentum he’d now established, Peron set out again on another attempt at the Jules Verne. He and his crew departed France in March 2002 and returned triumphant two months later, having set a new record of 64 days, 8 hours. The 80-day barrier was now being fairly, squarely and consistently smashed.
Another driving force behind the growing interest in big multihulls was French sailor Francis Joyon. Joyon is a quiet, contemplative man who, through sheer force of will, gets things done. Until now, these huge new boats had all been sailed by fairly decent-sized crews. Then came Joyon. In 2004, he became the first sailor to complete a nonstop solo multihull circumnavigation, in the process destroying the existing singlehanded record with a time of 72 days 22 hours and 54 minutes. Incroyable! So incredible, in fact, most sailors thought the record would stand for years. Most sailors, though, are not Dame Ellen MacArthur, the young British sailor who promptly commissioned a trimaran for the express purpose of going after Joyon’s record. Her boat, B&Q Castorama, was 15ft shorter than Joyon’s, but purpose built for solo record-breaking, and less than a year after Joyon’s victory, MacArthur beat the mark he’d set by just over a day. Joyon, not a man to take a beating lightly, soon afterward had a new boat commissioned as well, and three years later lowered the record to 57 days, 13 hours, 34 minutes. The arms race continued to gather steam.
Throughout, this arms race has been almost exclusively centered in France. Sailing has always captured the imagination there, and it didn’t take long before the French sailing public was captivated by these incredible boats and the equally incredible skippers who sailed them. The same as they had back in the early days of the OSTAR and Vendée Globe, the average mom and pop non-sailor was soon actively following the exploits of what the world now refers to as Ultimes.
In 2006 and 2008 two new maxi-tris were launched to take yet another stab at the Jules Verne. The first to splash was the 103ft Groupama 3, which was built for Franck Cammas of Volvo Ocean Race fame. After that came Banque Populaire V, originally skippered by Pascal Bidegorry. The boat remains the world’s biggest racing multihull ever, with an LOA of 131ft in. The arms race continued.
In 2016 Vendée Globe veteran Thomas Coville, with the backing of French frozen-foods giant Sodebo, set out to break Joyon’s record, employing yet another purpose-built Ultime to do so. Coville would be the first to admit there’s a good bit of both good and bad luck when it comes to offshore racing, and a 25,000-mile circumnavigation can dish up plenty of both. In Coville’s case, though, his luck held and then some, and he was able to bring the record down to 49 days, 3 hours, breaking the sub-50-day barrier in the process. As had been the case with the 80-day barrier, there’d been those who’d said it couldn’t be done, but not anymore—and less than a year later, fellow French sailor François Gabart took a mere 42 days to sail from France back to France via both Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope.
Meanwhile, at the same time the solo round-the world record kept getting faster and faster, the fully-crewed record was taking a beating as well. Around 2009, Loïck Peyron, brother of Bruno, took over the 131ft Banque Populaire and loaded her up with a crack shore team and crew. The time to beat in 2010, set by Cammas aboard Groupama 3, stood at 48 days, 7 hours, 44 minutes. Peyron, though, took no prisoners, returning to France in a new record time of 45 days, 13 hours, 42 minutes—a record that, incredibly was broken yet again by the indomitable Joyon in 2017 when he set the mark that stands today: 40 days, 23 hours, 30 minutes.
Not surprisingly, the speeds required to set these kinds of records have engendered a whole new kind of sailing. In contrast to years past, when sailors would watch for weather systems approaching from astern and position themselves accordingly, today’s Ultimes sail so fast their navigators look to the weather systems up ahead with the aim of using them to slingshot their way to the next system ahead of that. Weather routing software is now so accurate, each new effort can comfortably predict the first 10,000 miles—which can go by pretty quick aboard a boat that regularly trundles off 600- to 700-mile days. As a result, setting new records is not so much about pure boatspeed anymore, but consistency: keeping up the averages the entire way around the planet, whether in the Southern Ocean or while crossing the doldrums.
Rig configurations have also changed. For a lone sailor the mainsail, in particular, can be a daunting proposition. With this in mind, masts have been creeping aft in an effort to make the sail that much smaller, at the same time increasing the size of the boat’s more easily managed headsails. Aboard Coville’s latest Sodebo, for example, launched in 2019, the mast is actually aft of the cockpit.
Given the explosion of interest in the Ultime class, not to mention their incredible speeds, there has, not surprisingly, long been talk of some kind of around-the-world-race featuring a fleet of these behemoths—although whether this will be singlehanded, doublehanded or fully crewed remains anybody’s guess. To test the waters, so to speak, this past winter the class put together what it called the Brest Atlantiques: a 14,000-mile doublehanded marathon that started off Brest, France, before taking the fleet across the equator and around the bulge of Brazil to the Cagarras Islands, off Rio de Janeiro, then across to Cape Town, South Africa, and back.
In all, four Ultimes showed up for the start, with Edmond de Rothschild, co-skippered by Cammas and fellow Volvo Ocean Race veteran Charles Caudrelier, finishing first; François Gabart and Gwénolé Gahinet aboard MACIF taking second; and Yves Le Blevec and Alex Pella aboard Actual Leader coming in third. Sodebo, with Coville and Jean-Luc Nélias aboard, was forced to withdraw after sustaining rudder damage on the way to Robben Island, the infamous prison home of former South African president Nelson Mandela. On their way to victory, Cammas and Caudrelier completed the course in a little over 28 days.
Looking ahead, as things continue to progress in this rapidly developing class, we can only expect the boats to become ever faster as full-foiling performance is now a part of Ultime-class sailing as well. As is the case in the America’s Cup, these giant yachts are now literally flying over the waves atop various different types of exotic foils—and to be clear we’re not just talking two hulls here, but all three, with the entire boat airborne.
“The ocean gets a lot smaller when you’re sailing this kind of boat,” Cammas said after his victory in the Brest Atlantiques. “We saw what could break, what parts of the boat tired out easily, and so we now know what to improve on. It was a really interesting race, especially for preparing to go around the world.”
Music to an Ultime fan’s ears! I can hardly wait and see what these incredible boats accomplish next.