Arkea Ultim Challenge Skippers Ready to Go

The most anticipated around the world race of the year is about to step off in France, with the solo skippers preparing boats and minds.
Arkea Ultime Challenge-Brest
The Ultim fleet of the Arkea Ultime Challenge-Brest, features six of the most advanced ocean-racing trimarans ever built. Alexis Courcoux

Compared with previous generations of round the world racers and adventurers, the six skippers ready to take on the Arkéa Ultim Challenge – Brest on January 7 are a new, different breed. Physically most are fitter and stronger than those who preceded them. Bear in mind each manoeuver is usually nearly 45 minutes of hard, physical work, not least requiring long periods at max effort on the pedestal winch.  

The “coffee grinder” is what Armel Le Cléac’h (Maxi Banque Populaire XI) calls “the hand bike.” The heart rate climbs, the arms, shoulders, chest and lower back are fully engaged and the beads of sweat very quickly become rivers of perspiration.

“I keep up a level of exercise so that we prepare all throughout the year, to just be able to maintain that level of sustained power output endurance and a good recovery,” says Le Cléac’h, skipper of Banque Populaire.

“It’s not really about all out power, max work rate like on an inshore grand prix boat, but it requires really excellent cardio, and core strength too.” He says

“In fact, it’s more like a trail run rather than a sprint,” adds Charles Caudrelier (Edmond de Rothschild). He ensures he does at least three physical preparation sessions per week and among them enjoys boxing, climbing, board sports, running and cycling. And in his build up Armel Le Cléac’h says he has worked out almost every day with swimming sessions, time in the weights gym or out on the bike.

Anthony Marchand (Actual Ultim 3) is mainly happy to just ensure he does a lot of water sports, regularly going kiting, winging, and surfing. “These allow you to work your cardio,” he says. “All your muscles and I like that it’s always in the same watery environment!”

At the same time everyone has also really focused on working on mental strength.

“If we have to deal well with the many different types of physical challenge that this race will bring, the mental dimension is almost more important,” says Tom Laperche (SVR-Lazartigue). “We just can’t overlook the mental demands of these boats and the impact that this stress can have over time.”

Tom Laperche signing autographs
Tom Laperche, skipper of Ultim SVR-Lazartigue, and his fellow skippers sign autographs in Brest in the lead up to the start of the Arkea Ultim Challenge. Alexis Courcoux

“The mental aspect is undoubtedly actually more valuable than the physical tests on this race,” agrees Charles Caudrelier.

“It’s not a race, it’s an expedition,” says Thomas Coville, skipper of Sodebo Ultim 3. Coville is the skipper who has completed the most round-the-world passages on a multihull—competing in five, completed the loop three times and was once the record holder around the world (49 days and 3 hours in 2016).

“We need to find the right approach to sustain the right level on this unique and singular challenge,” he says. “There is a very big psychological dimension. We are constantly seeking to work at or near our limits, to go beyond normal effort levels despite the accumulated lack of sleep, the risk, the frustrations, the anxiety, the ice.”

For Coville, the Arkea Ultim Challenge goes far beyond the scope of a sporting competition. “I like to tell myself that we are not racing but that we are on a tough expedition. There are days when you burst into tears, days when you scream, days when you go crazy. You end up being a mix between euphoria, exhaustion and elation.”

“What I’m looking for is a good level of balance” says Le Cléac’h. Yet all the skippers have their methods. Charles Caudrelier and Tom Laperche work with mental coaches. Caudrelier, the Edmond de Rothschild skipper, says, “with my physical trainer, I am very Cartesian, very numbers driven. We talk about fatigue, recovery, nutrition. And, of course, there are the times when you are exhausted without realizing that you are in the red zone.”

Ultim Sodebo racing trimaran
The Ultim Sodebo, skippered by Thomas Coville, arrives in Brest, France, ahead of the start of the Arkea Ultim Challenge. Alexis Courcoux

Laperche adds: “We know that there will be moments of euphoria, moments that are really challenging on the morale, so we work out how to manage this and to smooth out these emotions as much as possible to create the best possible performance.”

There are also those who do not have a mental trainer. This is the case with Anthony Marchand and Armel Le Cléac’h. Marchand says, “If you’re doing your second round the world you’ve seen the problems, you know what to focus on. Me, I’m a rookie: I go in ready to fight and obviously I ask myself fewer questions.” And blessed with so much experience, Armel Le Cléac’h prefers to focus on preparation. He wants to enjoy a level of confidence because he has mastered everything that makes up the pre-race preparations. “I try to tick all the boxes before the start,” he admits. “Above all what I am looking for is a balance in physical and technical preparations, in terms of recovery as well.”