The fantastic voyage – Francis Joyon provides feedback on his 57 day solo circumnavigation

The fantastic voyage – Francis Joyon provides feedback on his 57 day solo circumnavigation

Certainly the most amazing aspect of Francis Joyon's singlehanded non-stop round the world record is his incredible time of 57 days 13 hours 34 minutes, almost 20% faster than Ellen MacArthur managed on B&Q Castorama just three years ago. His average speed of 19.09 knots around the world was 4 knots faster than Ellen… His time is faster even than the fully crewed Jules Verne Trophy record attempts made in recent history by the likes of Cheyenne and Geronimo. Given all this, Joyon's latest voyage will go down in the history books as one of the greatest sailing record attempts alongside others such as Laurent Bourgnon's singlehanded west to east transat back in 1994, when he also set a new 24 hour record faster than anything previously achieved fully crewed.

While a look at the list on the Joshua Slocum Society website reveals many many people who have sailed around the world singlehanded since the great man set the example on board Spray back in 1898, precious few managed it 'non-stop prior to the advent of the first Vendee Globe in 1989. Of course the first to make it around without stopping was Robin Knox-Johnston on board Suhaili in the 1969 Sunday Times Golden Globe. For example in 2003-4 on his first attempt, Joyon was the first person to complete a singlehanded circumnavigation non-stop in a trimaran, despite several eminent Frenchmen, starting with Alain Colas back in 1974, succeeding in making it round but stopping on the way.
Joyon is of course a phenomenal individual, apparently as cool as a cucumber, as strong as an ox and with a very unique way of going high performance yachting. While his boat IDEC2 is new, it was built using far from the highest tech construction and Joyon was always keen to recycle gear: IDEC2's wheel was from his previous IDEC, destroyed when she washed up on the rocks of Brittany's rugged Atlantic coast, the spare rudders from his unexpected OSTAR winning ORMA 60 Eure et Loirewere used in the floats on IDEC2, not to mention various blocks and other deck gear he was able to recycle.

However while the 51 year old skipper (and his unerring ability to keep his boat smoking through oceans averaging speeds in excess of 20 knots) was the lynch pin of the record attempt, the impressively short duration of his global lap, both on this occasion and last time, come down to a few key factors.

Firstly his boat IDEC 2 was simple and therefore he broke little and she suffered precious little down time.

Despite her oddities, IDEC2 is a brand new generation Irens-Cabaret designed trimaran some 22ft longer, but only marginally larger in terms of her beam and mast height, than Ellen's B&Q Castorama.

Most critically Joyon was profoundly lucky with the weather. France's new hero may have been nailed by the South Atlantic as he attempted to return north up it, but on his way out through these same waters he was able to shave many many miles off his trip by being able to 'cut the corner' as the St Helena high shifted east. In comparison just a few weeks later Thomas Coville was forced to sail so close to the Brazilian coast in order to avoid the clutches of the high that he could virtually smell the suntan lotion on baking bodies on the beach and once he reached the Southern Ocean had to dive all the way beyond 50degS to avoid being becalmed in another area of high pressure.

If a round the world record or race comprises six parts – the North and South Atlantic outboard, the Indian and Pacific sections of the Southern Ocean and the North and South Atlantic inbound heading north – then Joyon was profoundly lucky with the weather in the first three. In the fourth it was also good albeit very hair raising (more on this later), the fifth was probably no more awkward than it usually is on average, while on the sixth and final leg Joyon was once again lucky as the Azores high usefully melted away to the east presenting him with fresh following winds from the Azores all the way back to the finish line.

On the return trip up the South Atlantic, the high pressure system rolled east over the top of IDEC 2, causing her to stall (in 97ft trimaran terms at least) for a couple of days – as Joyon puts it, this was pay back from having had such an easy time heading south out of the Atlantic – but while this caused immense frustration it was preferable to the terror of his last week or so in the Southern Ocean.

"I really had to look into myself and dig deep," says Joyon of this section. "The days in among the icebergs were very tough mentally. Within 24 hours I saw five bergs and I was wondering if there was a way out of this iceberg zone. It was odd because you don't normally expect to see icebergs as far north as 52degS. And this was at the same time as the weather was getting very very bad. I was having to gybe through the middle of the iceberg field while the waves were very very high, which made the icebergs difficult to spot.

"Then into the Atlantic I was upwind and then becalmed. It was like the long sprint ended after the Horn. It was odd not to have the boat surfing at more than 25 knots and to be going upwind after sailing downwind for so long. Obviously the boat is not as easy going upwind as it is downwind." To put it mildly.

On his previous round the world record attempt Joyon, in typical style, had carried out the routing all by himself. But this time he was assisted by the eminent router Jean-Yves Bernot, with whom he worked when he set the singlehanded west to east transatlantic record on his previous IDEC.

"After the Atlantic record I knew what to expect," says Joyon of working with Bernot. "Each day he would ask me to reach a certain point. Sometimes I would say 'don't you think that's a bit high?' But he has a lot of experience and has been sailing a lot. If he said I had to be 100% today – then I had to be. He would only ask things the boat was capable of doing. If the boat was up to it then I had to be capable of it too."

While the weather may have worked in Joyon's favour, returning to the North Atlantic after having trailblazed her way round the world non-stop for more than 20,000 miles, IDEC2 was showing increasing signs of fatigue particularly with her gear.

While up the mast attempting to fix her main halyard Joyon noticed with alarm that the sizable pin holding the top of the starboard shroud was working its way out of the mast. He considered finding a quiet anchorage to pull into where he could effect a repair in relative safety and flat water, but the only candidate was Fernando de Noronja, the island group northwest of Recife off the coast of Brazil and this was out of the question as it would have required a 400 mile detour back down the course.

"That was way too long and too costly. I had no choice but to go up the mast as many times as was necessary without changing course," Joyon said.

As a result he initially made three trips aloft to try and secure the shroud to the mast – remember this involved hauling himself most of the way up a 32m tall slippery wingmast with precious little to hang on to while his trimaran was still sailing, and as the topmast was being held in place by the dodgey fitting he was attempting to fix…

Once a temporary repair was in place, Joyon got in contact with all the technical souls involved with the build and spec of the boat, from the designers to the builders at Marsaudon Composites to engineer Herve Devaux to see if there was a longer lasting solution. However before this could be tackled IDEC 2 had to cross the northeasterly trade winds in a lumpy sea coming from just forward of the starboard beam, perfect boneshaker conditions for loosening the shroud attachment further. Wisely Joyon bore away to the northwest in order to minimise the shock loads on the rig.

It was only once through the trades and into flatter water to the west of the Azores high that he was able to venture aloft for the fi
nal time. "I went up the mast south of the Azores once the conditions were better and decided the only solution was to hammer the pin back into the mast as hard as I could. And then I used tape to stop the pin unscrewing any more. When this was fixed, my confidence increased again."

Alternative energy

As part of Joyon's simplistic approach to his solo round the world bid, IDEC 2 was fitted with neither an engine nor a conventional generator. Instead power was derived from alternative energy sources such as a wind generator and solar panels. When these did not provide enough power his fall-back was a fuel cell. During the voyage the fuel cell consumed just 15lt of methanol.

"It is very satisfying to have done a round the world race with less impact on the environment. The combination of these three things has been working 100%. The batteries have always been full," said Joyon. "I never had any concerns about energy. The systems would switch from one to the other automatically." He adds that having this set-up was also very quiet, with no noisy generator running.

However while this is a first (although several boats in the Mini Transat last year had a similar set up) and is highly commendable it is unlikely we'll see this in the immediate future on the Vendee Globe or the Volvo Ocean Race. The set-up on IDEC 2 was enough to drive the nav instruments and in particular the autopilot, however the only satcoms equipment on board was an Iridium phone and an Inmarsat C terminal and there was no power hungry Fleet 77 terminal of the type enabling video to be beamed back from on board – hence why the media coming off IDEC2 was decidedly limited.

Having spent the night alone on board, in the morning Joyon and his faithful steed IDEC 2 were met by an assembled crowd of spectators, family and friends, press and VIPs such as Ellen MacArthur, Jean Luc van den Heede (the present record holder singlehanded on the westabout course), Philippe Monnet and round the world sailor Catherine Chabaud at the dock in Brest's commercial port, the same place where Bruno Peyron's Orange catamarans have tied up after their successful Jules Verne Trophy attempts. Joyon then had a few hours to recuperate before facing the press in the afternoon.

Joyon arrived on the stage at Brest Oceanopolis to a standing ovation, alongside his sponsor, Patrice Lafargue, President Directeur General of Groupe IDEC, Professor Gerard Saillant, head of ICM, the Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle Epiniere (an organisation that researches spinal disease). Slightly surprising was that also on the stage was Jean Todt, head of the Ferrari Formula 1 team, who is, like Joyon, a supporter of ICM.

Joyon answered questions about the voyage such as:

The final hours of the record: "Finishing at night was a little tricky. I drew close to the continental shelf with all the fishing boats around and I had to swerve twice to avoid boats: firstly a fishing vessel then a cargo ship, which went ten metres behind my stern. Once again some tense moments. It's not very often that you have to change course like that, especially twice in such a short space of time."

And of the friendly crowds that turned out to greet him: "It feels a bit like arriving on the Moon! Reaching Brest with all those people watching, was something I had never experienced before. The support and warmth of the welcome from the people of Brest impressed me…"

His secret? "I don't know if I really have one. When you're tired, you can quickly start to become very mystical, so I'm going to have to watch what I say (laughter). Perhaps I knew how to respect the elements, with a boat that didn't pollute anything, pushed along by green power. Perhaps it is my respect for the sea that enabled me to get through."

What was the most difficult thing? "The hardest thing was going up the mast to try to repair the damage to the shroud support, in particular the first time I went up in cross seas. I was really battered around, I kept slamming into the mast, and it really was very dangerous…"

The boat? "It was almost as if I was getting told off by the designers, who were telling me I was going too fast, that I hadn't respected the running in period (laughter)! More seriously, Nigel Irens and Benoît Cabaret did some amazing work. The boat shows an incredible potential to pass through the waves in perfect harmony. I had never seen anything like that before and that is what allowed me to sail quickly. It's the work of a whole team…"

The team? "The designers, boat builders, those, who built the masts, sails (which did not suffer a single rip or tear…) everyone gave it their utmost. I'm thinking too of Marsaudon Composites, of Christophe Houdet (IDEC 2's project manager), everyone… An extraordinary team. There was a lot of passion and a lot of pleasure involved. That is what makes IDEC so successful. That is why she is such a great boat."

Probability of success: "I thought the probability of smashing the record was one in three or four. The simple fact that we sailed around the world in a multihull with no damage and without stopping is something you cannot count on, even before you start talking about the record…"

There was a highly charged message of congratulations from an employee of Marsaudon Composites, plus a challenge from the Major of Brest to hold an anything goes singlehanded race around the world starting and finishing in Brest in 2011. The Major invited Joyon to come play but Joyon went into backpedal… "It is not that I'm not interested, but I'm just back from a solo round the world voyage and I am not considering going again. It is such a hard thing to do that there is no way you can consider going again right after the arrival. It takes time to digest…"

From here Joyon says that he'll probably make some more record attempts on the Atlantic circuit, such as Cadiz-San Salvador or in the Pacific, as well as trying to win back the solo 24 hour record from Sodebo. There is also a possibility he may return to compete in one of his favourite events, Round the Island.

We wait with interest to see if Joyon receives the Legion d'Honneur (the French equivalent of a knighthood) for this record attempt. Certainly sailing in France has no greater hero at present.

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