As anyone who follows yacht racing knows, the yachting media have been completely obsessed for months with giant multihulls that threaten to take off at any moment, and their celebrity crews who must wear crash helmets and oxygen bottles to escape the capsize likely to ensue. So it’s hardly surprising that there has been little mention of the latest exploits of the original “ironman” of multihull sailing, a 57-year old singlehander who will cheerfully spend entire days pushing his 98′ trimaran to the very limit.
His name is Francis Joyon, and yes, he is French, but lacks the typical Gallic savoir faire: he is indeed as tight-lipped about his exploits as an upper-class Englishman, and so determined to avoid the fame he deserves that he avoids press conferences, speeches, radio broadcasts and all the other trappings sponsors typically expect. Indeed, he even refuses any assistance in preparing his huge boat, and often relies on strangers to help him maneuver and moor in foreign ports.
Several sponsors gave up on him when he failed to deliver the desired corporate message, but he found a true patron in Patrice Lafargue, owner of IDEC–an architecture and engineering company that has sponsored him since 2001. Anyway, Joyon and his (relatively) low-tech boat have done pretty well in the last few years, regaining the 24-hour and Columbus Route records that his rival Thomas Coville had taken from him, and setting a stunning 57-day mark on the Jules Verne round-the-world course that Coville had tried to break twice in a sister ship, and failed twice.
That left only the North Atlantic record to regain and complete a Grand Slam of solo sailing records. After warming up on the Columbus crossing in the spring, Joyon waited in New York for weeks and finding no suitable weather, he flew back to France to spend time with his family. When his router, Jean-Yves Bernot, reported that a system developing over the Great Lakes looked like the best he could expect, he jumped on a plane and was preparing his boat for departure a day later.
He left New York and shot past the Ambrose Light on June 11 to get in position on the front of a depression that was producing SW winds of 25-30 knots. Things were looking good with the trimaran averaging around 25 knots, until the weather system headed away from the Canadian coast towards the Azores. The Great Circle route taken by Thomas Coville in 2008 to England’s Lizard Point is only 2,865 miles, but the southern route Joyon had to follow added around 400 miles to the distance.
The second day the wind speeds were unstable, with wind gusts of 40 knots. At one point, the boat speed was 35 knots and Joyon admitted he was risking a capsize. At least twice, the autopilot malfunctioned and he had to take the helm. The problem resolved itself, but the skipper went without sleep minding the sheets until the wind stabilized. Twice on Day 3 he had to gybe to stay in the right pressure gradient. The rest of the time he was on starboard tack with the apparent wind at 130 degrees.
Although he slept less than 10 hours in five days, the long route paid off with strong winds continuing to the finish line for a time of just under 5 days 3 hours at a breathless average of 26.2 knots, taking more than 16 hours off Coville’s record. His highest speed recorded was an astonishing 40 knots, and he also almost beat his 2012 24-hour distance record of 666.2 miles.
Need I remind you that there was no chase boat, no helicopter overhead, and no hope of the IDEC had capsized far from land? Joyon had probably profited from his previous attempt in 2011, when he had indeed capsized in a micro-burst close to Long Island and not only survived but supervised the rescue of the boat and the tow back to shore. So there has really never been a voyage like this, or a sailor like modest this 57-year old loner.
True to character, he spent a night on a mooring with his wife to recover from the effort before making a ceremonial arrival in Brest, on the far west of Brittany, where a few hundred fans turned out to applaud his effort. Here he finally gave the press a chance to do their job on the quayside, before he slipped away from the limelight and back into the French countryside and the quotidian life he demands. But when he is afloat, no one else sails with the panache of this extraordinary navigator. You can see him cross the finish line and meet the press (in French) at www.trimaran-idec.com