Cross-Atlantic Express

Five boats and two countries unite in a memorable race with a historic cause

sodebo

SAILING - AREIAL SODEBO ULTIM - THE BRIDGE 2017

Thomas Coville's Ultime Sodebo was one of four crewed 100-footers to race the Queen Mary 2 from France to New York. On Sodebo's return delivery, Coville reduced the singlehanded record time to 4 days, 11 hours, 10 minutes, 23 seconds.Peter Buckingham

Editor's note: This article by journalist, Glen Dickson, appeared in the September/October 2017 issue, missing the author's byline.

Four of France's top multihull skippers raced to join Fourth of July celebrations in New York City through the Bridge, a unique event that commemorated the 100th anniversary of American troops' involvement in World War I. The race pitted four Ultime maxi-trimarans against the cruise ship Queen Mary 2 in a sprint across the Atlantic.

The 1,132-foot Queen Mary 2 and the 100 foot Ultime trimarans Actual, IDEC Sport, Macif and Sodebo Ultim left the French port city of Saint-Nazaire, where the first American soldiers originally arrived back on June 25, 1917. The ocean liner carried a mix of French ­businessmen, academics and musicians participate in the "100 Club," a future-focused conference tied to the event, while the fully crewed Ultimes were stocked with international multihull talent. Since the Queen Mary 2 can cruise at 28 knots in a straight line while the sailors faced the headwinds of an east-to-west trans-Atlantic crossing, the race between the cruise ship and the trimarans was envisioned to be largely ceremonial.

That proved true, as the Queen Mary 2 reached New York on July 1, two days ahead of the first Ultime trimaran, Macif, skippered by Francois Gabart, which made the crossing in 8 days, 31 minutes, for an average of 18.6 knots. The competition between Macif and the next two Ultimes was close by comparison. Second-place IDEC Sport, helmed by Francis Joyon, finished on July 4, in 8 days, 11 hours, 9 minutes, while third-place Sodebo Ultim, skippered by Thomas Coville, crossed the line five hours later in 8 days, 16 hours, 18 minutes (both boats averaged over 17 knots). The fourth-place Ultime, Actual, lagged behind enough to miss the fireworks over the East River, arriving the following day.

The Bridge was comparatively slow compared with the record-setting 49-day solo circumnavigation Coville made aboard Sodebo in 2016, at an average pace of 24.1 knots. The 49-year-old French skipper remarked that the Atlantic crossing still ­presented its challenges.

His crewmate and longtime friend Thierry Briend was knocked down by a rogue wave while driving and suffered a head injury, losing consciousness temporarily and then remaining incoherent for several hours. After a medical evacuation was considered, Briend's condition stabilized, and he was left to rest in his bunk while the rest of the crew — Jean-Luc Nélias, Vincent Riou, Loïc Le Mignon and four-time Nacra 17 world champ Billy Besson — continued racing the boat to New York. Before reaching the finish, Sodebo also hit a large fish and damaged its rudder.

“We were going 25 knots, and the shock was huge,” said Coville. “We don’t know if it was a whale or a tuna.”

Luckily, the boat made it New York intact and Briend was quickly evacuated and transported to a local hospital, where doctors confirmed he had avoided any major injury. Briend was soon released and was back aboard Sodebo on July 6 at its Brooklyn berth, helping prepare it for a solo trans-Atlantic attempt by Coville later in July.

“I’ve been 40 times across the Atlantic, and you never know what will go on between one side and the other,” said Coville with a wry smile. “But for this six on our boat, this will be a story for our entire life that we share, like you share a story with your family. I like that spirit.”

Looking ahead, Coville is overseeing the build of a next-generation foiling Ultime trimaran that is due for completion at the end of 2018. That boat is aimed at a new singlehanded round-the-world race in 2019 that is expected to have eight Ultimes competing.