‘Even solo sailing is a team event these days’

French sailor Thomas Coville smashed the record for sailing single-handed across the North Atlantic in July, making the crossing in just four days, 11 hours and 10 minutes.

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It was an incredible feat. The previous record, set by fellow Frenchman Francis Joyon just three days earlier, was 15 hours longer.

Even more impressively, it came six months after Coville hacked eight days off the record for sailing round the world single-handed. The Rennes-born sailor did it in 49 days - breaking yet another of Joyon’s records to become the first to break the 50-day barrier.

These epic adventures are physically and mentally exhausting, isolating and dangerous. So why does he do it? Is it just for the fun of breaking a rival’s records?

“I have the utmost respect for Joyon,” Coville, 49, told Connexion. “He’s a very different character from me, and of course we’re rivals, so it’s natural to compete with him, but sailing is primarily a personal challenge.”

He attributes his Transatlantic success to favourable weather conditions and technology which means even solo sailing is a collaborative activity.

“Nowadays, sailing is a team activity. Via internet, my navigators tell me where to find weather systems which will increase my speed, and sometimes I can even outrun one system in order to piggy-back the next wind.

“If you get a succession of winds like that, and you jump from one to the next, of course you can break records.”

He was modest about the reasons for breaking two of the most important solo sailing records: “It was the culmination of years of work, amazing luck with weather, and technical advances.

“I feel so lucky to be part of this generation; using new technology and new designs, modern boats can sail further and faster. We can outrace the weather, we use oceanography and meteorology, so we’re not just sailing by the seat of our pants.”

Sailing, he said, attracted him as child when he lived near the sea and he says it immediately seemed to be a reflection of his personality. “I was in my element. I recognised myself, my habitat. It was a place where I was in contact with nature and not judged, and I dreamed about leaving without knowing the destination.”

He describes the sea as ‘a provocation’. “It provokes excitement, energy, different emotions. It can be pleasure or revulsion, but it wakes my brain up.

“I am never alone when I’m at sea because it’s a living thing, it’s not a person or an animal, it’s almost a spirit. A moving spirit. The sea links everything, lands as well as people.”

Recovering from a solo journey is difficult. Once he has slept off his exhaustion it can still take months to come down: “It’s like when you come out of a wave: all sailors know this emotion but you can’t really share what happens at sea.

“It’s exclusive, personal, psychological. It can take months to digest the experience and make adjustments.

“Then you start planning again. I experience unique, often sublime emotions sailing around the world alone. But you can never tell what it will be like. Every voyage is different.

“It’s a metaphysical experience, a psychological exercise more than a physical one.

“You have to control your fear, your exhaustion, your stress. Sometimes the hardest thing isn’t staying awake, it’s forcing yourself to go to sleep.”

But what of those he leaves behind on shore? “Of course, my wife is afraid, but I am not guilty. It is not my emotion and she sees that.

“We chose this, we chose each other. But we have two children who haven’t chosen this, so we have conversations about freedom, and personal expression. There’s always a price, but they too can choose freedom.”

He is already planning his next adventure. “We are building a new boat for the Transat Jacques Vabre race between Le Havre and Salvador de Bahia. We leave on November 5, and it will be a double with my navigator Jean-Luc Nélias.

“We already have a close working relationship so it’s going to be very exciting. The moment when you put a new boat in the water, is an incredible collective experience. I can’t wait!”