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Attacking the Pacific - 28 days at sea for Coville on Sodebo

by Kate Jennings 27 Feb 2011 08:21 GMT

Attacking the Pacific

After 28 days at sea and now at the midway point in his race against the clock, Tom looks back at his descent of the Atlantic and his passage across the Indian Ocean. On entering the Pacific “which is never as pacific as all that”, the skipper of Sodebo is beginning the next section of his planetary voyage.

A man and a boat in tip-top condition

At the midway point, the skipper confirms that physically he’s at the peak of fitness: “I’m amazed” he admits today, “to feel this fresh. I’m not limiting myself. I don’t have to choose to do one course or the other”. The same is true for the boat “even though I carry out a few jobs here and there on a daily basis, notably at the equator when I broke three battens”. Excellent news then as the skipper of SODEBO made his entrance into the Pacific on Friday. Ahead of him and prior to the liberation represented by rounding Cape Horn, potentially ten days away, the big test consists of going around the Antarctic continent.

The record

Battling against time is one thing. For Tom, this virtual adversary, who never stops, is competing in a psychological war he’s trying to escape. With a deficit of around two days in relation to the reference time set by Francis Joyon, who two years ago traced a cheeky and exemplary course, the skipper of Sodebo knows the frustration of being faster across the water and yet behind on the content.

Fully focused for the past 28 days and sailing at an extreme standard since leaving Brest, Thomas is continuing to attack “whilst trying to strike a balance on a daily level and keeping to the same pace day after day of around 20 knots, and the same output with about the same number of miles each day, namely around 500”.

The scale of a voyage

“But what’s he looking for down there?” wondered Joseph and Simone Bougro today, founders of Sodebo, whilst listening to Thomas saying that for him “each day is a new day”. Even though he’s making a reference to Ulysses, his trip is light years away from mere wanderings. There are neither lotus-eaters, Cyclops nor mermaids in the world of the energy-boosted multihull. Indeed the skipper of modern times has a very different tale to tell of this great voyage across the oceans between Brest and Tasmania.

“It’s been a voyage full of manoeuvres, which really began with a battle at the equator against a cloud it was imperative to extract ourselves from”. After this cloud, Tom recalls something a little further down, in the middle of the South Atlantic “a decision by Richard (Richard Silvani of Météo France), who made me luff and slip along on a tiny vein of breeze so I could start heading East”. After the Cape of Good Hope, he came close to hanging a left, so angry was he at having fought so hellishly hard against Saint Helena and still having to endure a two day deficit in relation to the record. Continuing on past the Kerguelen archipelago he recalls “a conversation via VHF with fishermen from the Ile d’Yeu. We were in the middle of nowhere in the Indian Ocean and we were sailing within sight of each other”. Next on the agenda was a rolling wind, a kind of katabatic wind, which hit him full on just after Heard Island, creating some incredibly turbulent times.

Ahead of him, on course towards his 6th round the world and his third circumnavigation in solo configuration, and even though he’s taking things one step at a time, the 43 year old skipper doesn’t have his eyes closed to what awaits him: “Though the Indian Ocean is demanding and violent, though it’s a jackal which goes for your throat and commits you to a hand-to-hand fight, the Pacific comes after the Atlantic and the Indian and is both long and wearing”, explains the skipper. And he knows what he’s talking about as he makes headway in the pitch black conditions, without stars or moon, at an average speed of 25 knots on a course of 120 degrees on a boat where tension and concentration are matters for survival. “Indeed that’s the aim and appeal of the exercise” admits the skipper, who nevertheless recognises that “this permanent state of alert and this level of stress are hard to handle for over two months”.

My friend the pilot

Aboard, Tom has a friend who wishes him well but sometimes loses his head.

Though he’s made good progress as regards getting refuelled, “which enables me not to be hypoglycaemic and hold out physically”, the skipper of Sodebo admits that he’s disappointed by his friend the pilot. “If he doesn’t stick with me, I’m in danger. Psychologically it’s hard not to be wary of him when I’m moving around the boat or sleeping”. In fact, Tom and his team have been working on the automatic pilot system for the past three years, as it’s a key subject for a solo sailor. The result isn’t as perfect as the Breton sailor might wish and “at times you feel like you’re sailing over eggs with bent steering”. For some days, his onshore team have been dissecting and deciphering the recordings he’s been sending from the Antipodes. This unremitting effort is bearing fruit because, by modifying the trim, Tom’s friend the pilot hasn’t been swerving about quite so much. It has to be said though that yesterday, to celebrate their exit from the Indian Ocean, the boat broached under pilot. In solo configuration, this is serious and wearing when you have to get everything back in the right direction before tidying everything up and then the same thing happens three times in a row…

On route towards Cape Horn, there are a few brutes to keep an eye on seemingly. Ahead of him is strong, steady wind, which will require a great deal of effort. For Tom, that means manœuvres and hence sail changes, “huge sails which weigh more than me”. Indeed the solo sailor is entering some testing latitudes where his boat will go very fast in some very heavy seas. “At these latitudes, the phenomena move quickly and they are massive in scale. They are violent masses of air and water that nothing can stop. At these latitudes, you sail in systems which are on a par with cyclones in terms of scale”.

And then in the circumnavigation of Antarctica, there has been some ice pinpointed by CLS Argos, which has been working on the subject with Tom and his team this year: “It’s a new aspect to racing which enables us to manage the risk. Knowing about it is no less harrowing, but it’s simply less idiotic” concludes the skipper before returning to the deck to furl in the gennaker and hoist the solent in the pitch black of the Pacific.

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