While many of us are relaxing this weekend, feet up, game on, there is an astounding accomplishment taking place out on the open ocean. And I mean astounding. The French sailor François Gabart is currently rounding Cape Horn in record time and will soon be out of the Southern Ocean and for the first time in his solo, non-stop circumnavigation have his bows pointing toward the finish line off Ile du Ouessant, or Ushunt as us non Francophiles like to call it.

Gabart started from France just 29 days ago. He is sailing his massive trimaran Macif. The boat is 30 meters in length, just a shade under 100 feet. It has a beam of close 70 feet and an upwind sail area the size of two tennis courts. This is a giant boat by any measure and Gabart is alone on board attempting to break the solo, non-stop circumnavigation record set last year by fellow frenchman Thomas Coville. As he rounds Cape Horn François is 1,198 miles ahead of the reference point and has been ahead since he rocketed down the Atlantic toward the equator.

The amazing François Gabart
The amazing François Gabart

Gabart has set a new single-handed record time from France to Cape Horn of 29 days, 3 hours and 15 minutes. This is a full 2 days 8 hours and 15 minutes faster than Coville who previously held the record, but get this. Only one other boat and team in history have completed this voyage faster and that was Francis Joyon racing his boat fully crewed around the world. Did I mention that Gabart is alone?

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Let me try and put out some reference points so that you can get an idea of how extreme and difficult this has been for Gabart. For a start he is trying to beat a record set by one of the worlds best, if not the best solo, offshore sailor. Coville has (I think) eight circumnavigations under his belt. He sailed a flawless circumnavigation to gain the record and was dealt some pretty decent cards by the wind gods. When he finished I was as certain as anyone that his record would stand for a long, long time. It was a superhuman effort. In order for Gabart to break the record he needs to average in the region of 20 knots. How many of us have sailed at 20 knots for just a couple of minutes? To average 20 knots you need to be sailing over 30 knots for a lot of the time because there are days when there is no wind and they do damage to the average. Along the way Gabart needs to keep his boat together. We all know how things chafe, how things go bump in the night, and how the constant pounding grinds at both boat and man.

François Gabart’s Southern Ocean crossing was far from easy. At one point he dipped into the 60’s, a place where no sane sailor goes but a small low pressure ahead of him gave him little option. This part of the world is known as the Screaming Sixties. They are below the Furious Fifties and well below the Roaring Forties. Modern offshore races place waypoints that need to be honored to stop boats from going that far south. Other than the constant howling winds and giant waves it’s littered with ice and indeed Gabart saw icebergs. Imagine surfing along at a stately 30 knots when all of a sudden your radar picks up a mass ahead. You go on deck and it’s a foggy night but you are sure that it’s an iceberg. How long do you think it takes to gybe a mainsail that size, never mind the jib? Gabart and his shore team must be heaving a huge sigh of relief now that he is out of the Southern Ocean but they all know that the trip up the Atlantic is fraught with potholes and many records has come to a crashing halt from any number of reasons.

Bonne chance François we will be watching with bated breath.

Jean-Marie LIOT / ALEA / MACIF
Aerial image of Francois Gabart onboard Ultim MACIF