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Francis Joyon

The great man talks Route du Rhum, safety on big trimarans and round the world races

Friday November 5th 2010, Author: James Boyd, Location: France

One highlight of this year for us was last week finally getting some time with Francis Joyon prior the start of the Route du Rhum-La Banque Postale.

In our view the 54 year old French man qualifies for ‘living legend’ status, as within the top end of our sport, where there is perhaps a template for the ‘professional skipper’ – great sailor, smartly dressed, pristine boat, good communicator representing well the company that sponsors their campaign - Joyon remains an enigma.

Joyon has been on the offshore shorthanded circuit for more than two decades now, his first Route du Rhum in 1990 aboard the ORMA 60 BPO. During the mid-1990s he was Banque Populaire’s ORMA 60 skipper posting some good results such a second place in the 1995 Transat Jacques Vabre and 1996 Quebec-St Malo race. After his departure from Banque Populaire, many in the class figured him to be on his way out, no more so when he pitched up in Plymouth prior to the star of the Europe 1 New Man STAR (OSTAR). While the high profile heavily sponsored ORMA 60 teams were moored in Queen Anne’s Battery marina, their shore teams clad in sponsor uniforms swarming across the boats, Joyon’s Eure et Loire remained away from the hubbub, out on mooring, as Joyon worked on his recently acquired, less than shiny trimaran, all alone.

And so for race pundits, including ourselves it came with considerable surprise when after nine days, 23 hours and 21 minutes of racing singlehanded the wrong way across the North Atlantic it wasn’t favourites such as Alain Gautier, Franck Cammas or even his replacement skipper at Banque Populaire, Lalou Roucayrol (now competing in this year’s Route du Rhum in the Multi50 class) that arrived first into Newport, Rhode Island, but a quietly spoken Frenchman and rank outsider.

After the disastrous 2002 Route du Rhum when battered by storm force winds all but three of the 18 ORMA 60 starters failed to finish – including our man, who’s trimaran capsized – Joyon changed tack and embarked on a campaign to break the world’s foremost singlehanded ocean records. To do this he acquired Olivier de Kersauson’s 1986 vintage maxi-trimaran, in which de Kersauson with a crew, had spent the previous years attempting to break the Jules Verne Trophy record (although in 1989 de Kersauson himself had sailed this boat around the world singlehanded in a time of 125 days).

Over the winter of 2003-4 Joyon set out on board his refitted 90ft long IDEC trimaran, to break the existing singlehanded non-stop around the world record. At that point it was held by Michel Desjoyeaux and his IMOCA 60 PRB with a time of 93 days 3 hours 57 hours and 32 minutes, set during the 2000 Vendee Globe. Given this record and the previous time of de Kersauson in the same boat when Joyon arrived back in Brest after just 72 days 22 hours 54 minutes and 22 seconds it was heralded as one of the sailing achievements of the decade if not all time. Just seven years earlier in the same boat de Kersauson had only managed a time of 71 days 14 hours 22 minutes 8 seconds fully crewed.

In 2005 Joyon added another significant record to his portfolio when he finally broke Laurent Bourgnon and Primagaz’s 11 year old time of 7 days 2 hours 34 minutes 42 seconds for the solo crossing of the North Atlantic between New York and the Lizard. Sadly en route back from the finish line to his homeport of La Trinite-sur-Mer Joyon fell asleep and IDEC ran up on to the rocks off Pointe de Penmarch and was destroyed.

Fortunately with Ellen MacArthur and her B&Q/Castorama trimaran having shaved a few hours off his solo non-stop round the world record, so this provided an impetus for Joyon to continue and on this occasion with the continued backing of IDEC was allowed a new trimaran. As was the case with Ellen’s trimaran, IDEC 2 was designed by Nigel Irens and Benoit Cabaret specifically for sailing round the world non-stop singlehanded.

The new 97ft long, pointy snouted, narrow trimaran was launched in June 2007 and the following winter Joyon set off around the world for a second time. Once again he didn’t fail to disappoint, pulverising Ellen’s record, with a new time of just 57 days 13 hours 34 minutes and 6 seconds - faster than that of Steve Fossett and PlayStation in their record breaking fully crewed non-stop round the world lap just four years earlier.

So this is why we hold Francis Joyon in great reverence.

Aside from a few forays across to the UK to lead the fleet in the Round the Island Race, where he sails with his old friend Rodney Pattisson (from whom he bought his first 60ft trimaran, the former Paragon, 22 years ago), this year’s Route du Rhum is Joyon’s first race in eight years.

He agrees when we suggest his enthusiasm for racing IDEC doesn’t seem to be as great as that of his rival Thomas Coville. “I am excited by it. The Route du Rhum requires long preparation. For seven months I have been changing many things on the boat because the rules are different between races and records so I have had many jobs to prepare the boat and now I am very happy to compete with the other big multihulls. I race against boats I have never raced against, so I don’t know what can I do with them. It is discovery for me and an interesting challenge.”

Most significant among the modifications made to IDEC this year is that she is now fitted with ORMA-style foils in her floats. These, Joyon reckons, have improved IDEC’s speed downwind in more than 18 knots, although he says upwind they don’t make much difference.

“Coming from the ORMA 60s where the foils were very very necessary, because you used them all the time – upwind, reaching, downwind, but for this kind of boat the original design is an idea from Nigel [Irens] - the concept of a long and narrow trimaran. It is not very wide so you cannot take all the energy of the foils going upwind - maybe a little bit, but not very much. But when you go downwind you take all the power of the foils so you can gain 3-4 knots maybe.” With the leeward float now lifting out of the water slightly, it also makes the boat drier at high speed.

For the Route du Rhum IDEC’s mainsail is 20sqm larger than the old one – the other sails are the same - and other than that Joyon says he has only changed little things. As always this has included an intensive weight loss regime, however his believes that any weight he has shed return when they installed the foils.

“I think we are 11 tonnes in racing condition, but it is not very precise because we used a big crane,” he admits. IDEC is a fractional smaller in all her principle dimensions than her two other Irens-Cabaret designed sistership’s: Thomas Coville’s Sodebo and Sidney Gavignet’s Oman Air Majan. For example she is 97ft long compared to 105ft. However this does make her significantly lighter. Oman Air Majan was thought to be around 13 tonnes while Sodebo is around 12.

This new generation of long but narrow trimaran is thought to be substantially safer than the previous nearly square ORMA 60s. The long bow on the main hull has dramatically reduced the likelihood of pitchpoling, the typical failing of ORMA 60s. However Joyon makes the interesting observation that due to their narrow beam these boats are more vulnerable to lateral capsize.

“The boat is really very very safe downwind in a big sea like in the Southern Ocean when we go very fast. Upwind we have to be very careful because it can go out of the water at 30 knots of true wind and we have to be ready to release the sheet at any moment. The boat can capsize on its side because it is narrow. We have a lot of sail and with a regular wind it is not difficult, but sometimes you have a very irregular wind and it is very difficult.”

Joyon says he has come close to capsizing it about 20 times since he launched IDEC. “When I went to Mauritius [earlier this year he established a new record time between Port Louis in France and Port Louis in Mauritius] I had a long tack against the wind with the wind between 15-35 knots and it was really difficult. The boat was very going up very often.”

Fortunately a feature of IDEC and all the other leading Ultimate class trimarans, with the exception of Oman Air Majan, is that they have a sheet release system. IDEC’s cockpit features three of these.

“I have a sheet release system which I get to release at 25 degrees – when the whole of the main hull is 2m above the water. It releases very often!” says Joyon, allowing one of his devices to spring open with a metallic ‘click’. We try to judge what his expression means when he says this – fear or fun? – just as we are hit with a sudden desire to bolt for terra firma.

Joyon continues: “The system works well but behind it the sheet can get trapped on the winch, so you cannot say there is no risk. You can have a wrap. Then you have the knife here and you have to cut the sheet,” he indicates to a large knife handily positioned on the left on the inboard side of IDEC’s cabin entrance.

“It can release everything! During the Mauritius trip I only had it for the main sheet and the jib sheet, but to have less risk I have added another to the traveller and that releases about 1 second later [than the main sheet.”

Beyond the Route du Rhum Joyon says he has no firm plans for 2011 and beyond, although another foray across to the Round the Island Race may be on the cards. He says there are opportunities for many more records – he is particularly keen on taken his boat to the Pacific and Asia.

“Maybe if Thomas breaks my record...” he muses, referring to Coville’s attempt after the Route du Rhum on his round the world title. “I will speak when I arrive in Guadeloupe with the sponsor, IDEC to find out if we will continue.”

While Coville is enthusiastic about the prospect of the ‘ultimate’ race – singlehanded, non-stop around the world in multihulls – Joyon is more cautious. “I have spoken to the organiser and I have said the level of the boats isn’t safe enough at the moment to make this kind of race. I said to them it could be interesting to make a race between a transatlantic race and round the world, something around 10,000 miles to have the boats ready on a longer race.” Presumably a France to Mauritius race he has in mind?

“After if everything is okay we can continue with this kind of race, but not before. I could only trust these conditions because I don’t think it is so safe for these kind of boats.”

Given that the new generation of long narrow trimarans are safer than the previous ORMA 60s, would these boats be any safer if they were wider? Joyon doesn’t think so. “This is a very safe boat, you just have to watch out upwind when it isn’t very regular which isn’t such fun, but we have sailed around the world and Sodebo has too. Sodebo is a bit heavier, a little bit wider and a bit heavier and with a little more sail but I spoke with Sidney from Oman Air and in 20,000 miles only one time the boat went up. So perhaps a bigger wider boat maybe don’t have the same problem.”

At the end of the day a racing multihull must have a good acreage of sail area and with this comes the inherent possibility of capsize. Foils in the leeward float, we suggest to Joyon, might alleviate lateral capsize, but he isn’t convinced. “I think with a foil or without it doesn’t change the fact that you have too much sail. I looked at the boat of Ellen – she was very concerned with capsize and she was very very careful about that. But that is a problem with multihulls – you can’t have a fast multihull that doesn’t come with that risk. The normal way to go fast is to go to the limit of capsize...”

Talking of Ellen, Joyon says he has just struggled through her latest book Full Circle. “My brother is married to a girl from Ireland and she bought it for my brother and I managed to read it in English but my English is very poor. I found the way Ellen has chosen is very interesting. It is fantastic the path she has taken to do things for the planet. I am with her on that.” Joyon completed his last circumnavigation without taking any fossil fuels and it seems likely that this will become a feature of offshore races in the future.

“I would like to do something for the planet like Ellen, but I don’t have enough capacity to do what she does to communicate and explain. She has a lot of energy. I have a great admiration of her. We have too many sailors in France. I think in England Ellen is ‘the’ sailor.

Read about Joyon's 2004 round the world lap here, more about his background here, and on his last round the world record here.

More on the Irens-Cabaret tris follows...






Latest Comments

  • Blackburn 07/11/2010 - 17:14

    Gavignet had the presence of mind to take some video during his boat's breakdown and his rescue. It is on the RdR offshore video page:
  • Blackburn 07/11/2010 - 13:05

    The Route du Rhum site points out today, they have all the participants' onboard-recorded VIDEOS at following LINK!
  • marioncaroline 06/11/2010 - 01:20

    Great interview James. Francis is such a gentleman - I ve only met him once, after OSTAR on Eure et Loire, which inspired me to later buy his old boat Paragon. We had a lot of fun racing her under the name Larus Roc and the Marion to Bermuda record still stands of some 60 hours five years later. Lars Svensson
  • Blackburn 05/11/2010 - 19:30

    Super interview James! ----- It's your lucky day, Route du Rhum fans, Here's a list of boats that are sending in their own VIDEO from mid-Atlantic!.... If you know of others, then POST them!... Most of you probably don't know about them, these video reports are not integrated on the official RdR website, but they give a lot more 'atmosphere' than you get from just staring at the tracking page! ----- The Viewer Friendly Award goes to Roland Jourdain who has ENGLISH SUBTITLES (there is otherwise just a lot of rapid-fire french of course...). The Best Music Soundtrack award goes to Thomas Coville. The Most Daredevil Cooking Appliance award goes to Christopher Pratt (see video Nov.5)----- Next RdR there will be much more camerawork like this, on the official site. It IS going to become 'de rigeur' (ain't that so, Russell?) ---- Even Franck Cammas (what a Prima Donna ;-) is going to have to do it ---- Here's the Names&LINKS to the video pages (take away the asterisks) ***** Roland Jourdain/Veolia Environnement***,329506.htm ***** Thomas Coville/Sodebo*** ***** Chris Pratt/DCNS *** ***** Marc Guillemot/Safran *** ***** Vincent Riou/PRB *** ***** Yann Guichard/Gitana *** ***** Arnaud Boissiéres/AkenaVeranda *** ***** Whew! That was an exhausting comment!

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