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Sailing’s iron man sets new record

Francis Joyon took 20 days off the solo circumnavigation record, a mark many say will be hard to beat

Francis Joyon took 20 days off the solo circumnavigation record, a mark many say will be hard to beat

Francis Joyon is the fastest single-handed round-the-world sailor on the planet.

With an older 90-foot trimaran named IDEC, a shoestring budget and steely determination, the 47-year-old Frenchman in February obliterated the world record for circling the globe, finishing in an astonishing 72 days, 22 hours. He shaved 20 days off fellow Frenchman Michel Desjoyeaux’s record-breaking 2001 voyage of 93 days in an Open 60. (Desjoyeaux still holds the monohull record.) The consensus within the international sailing community is that Joyon has established a benchmark that will be very difficult to beat.

“I find it difficult to put into words just what an extraordinary feat this is,” says Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who in 1968-’69 became the first person to sail single-handed non-stop around the world. The British sailor finished the journey in 312 days aboard the 32-foot Suhaili. In addition, Knox-Johnston and Sir Peter Blake in 1994 skippered the maxi-cat Enza in a sprint around the world for the Jules Verne Trophy, setting a record of 74 days, 22 hours.

“[Joyon] did not have a big budget, so he could not just spend his way through the all important preparations,” says Knox-Johnston. “He had a very large boat, where every task required enormous amounts of energy, which is tiring and can weaken determination. And yet he set out and beat the time we set on Enza New Zealand with eight crew. It is a quite phenomenal performance, and I suspect it will be quite a while before anyone betters his time.”

Joyon is one of the few sailors who could handle such a powerful racing yacht for so long. He is described as cool, confident and determined.

“Single-handed sailing is a mental thing, not a physical one, although a strong physique undoubtedly helps,” says Knox-Johnston. “But it really is the mind and determination that matters.”

Joyon is a quintessential old-school sailor who races not for trophies but for the challenge. A private man, he is considered a recluse in comparison to others who bask in the limelight. Joyon is reluctant to secure sponsorship money unless absolutely needed. And he has a reputation for being curt with reporters.

“The hardest part was coming back ashore to find a dock overcrowded with members of the press,” Joyon says of his record-breaking voyage.

A decade campaigning

Joyon was born in Eure-et-Loir, a tourist area at the gateway to Normandy and the Loire Valley, about 50 miles southwest of Paris. He was bitten by the sailing bug as a teenager after reading accounts by renowned French sailor Bernard Moitessier.

At age 17 Joyon attended the Glénans School, a sailing school that has trained some of the world’s greatest sailors. Established in 1947, Glénans fosters a non-competitive environment and focuses on learning about the sea. Joyon, who later built his own 29-foot sailboat, says his sailing heroes include such adventurers as Eric Tabarly.

While in Martinique in the late 1980s, Joyon met fellow Frenchman Phillippe Jeantot, two-time winner of the BOC Challenge (1982-’83 and 1986-’87) and founder of the non-stop Vendee Globe around the world race. While Jeantot raced both monohulls and catamarans, it was the multi-

hulls that captured Joyon with their great speed and power.

“They’re radical machines, fantastic to handle,” says Joyon in an e-mail interview. “And I don’t like to sail slowly.”

Joyon spent a decade campaigning multihulls. He has a reputation for cobbling together modest campaigns and surprising many with respectable finishes against newer boats and better-funded sailors.

In 1989 Joyon built a catamaran using discarded parts from other yachts, including the hulls of Elf Aquitaine and the crossbeams of Roger & Gallet. He raced that catamaran in the trans-Atlantic Route of Discovery Race, finishing third. He won the 2000 Europe 1 New Man STAR from England to Newport, R.I., in the 60-foot trimaran Eure et Loire. In the same boat the following year, he set a record in the Round the Isle of Wight Race and won the Fastnet Race.

A greater challenge

Joyon had been toying with the idea of racing around the world for a decade. “I wanted to see the great capes and the wild southern seas,” Joyon says. “It seemed to me that there was no greater adventure. It just took some time for me to be ready. Maybe before that I wasn’t mature enough.”

In an earlier interview posted on his Web site, Joyon had this to say about circumnavigating: “I imagined doing this 10 years ago, and then I said to myself that you really had to be completely mad to set off from one place and return to the same one after having gone round the world without seeing anything.”

Finally ready to tackle the challenge, Joyon was undeterred, even when his previous sponsor Banque Populaire dropped out. He found another sponsor, IDEC, a small French construction company.

“I do what I can, and what I cannot will not be done,” Joyon said in a pre-voyage interview with the French newspaper l’Humanité.

Joyon chartered Olivier de Kersauson’s 90-foot trimaran, the former Sport Elec, for the record run. Launched as Poulain in 1986, the Marc Van Peteghem/Vincent Lauriot-Prévot-designed trimaran has raced under a succession of names. As Sport Elec, Kersauson in 1997 raced around the world with a crew to win the Jules Verne Trophy, finishing in 71 days, 14 hours — a record that stood for five years.

Joyon spent three months tweaking the boat, doing much of the work himself and with the help of family. Because of budget constraints, he made few changes. He used the same decade-old mainsail and staysail that de Kersauson had used. He installed a new rudder blade and a Solent jib furler, and picked up three new foresails.

“That’s it,” says Joyon. “I did a thing or two about the deck layout, which was intended for a crew at first.”

Joyon set sail from Brest, France, Nov. 22, 2003. He insisted on doing everything himself, even his own weather routing. “If I had had outside assistance for routing, the adventure would not have been the same,” he says. “It would not have had the same value, and I like to rely on myself alone. That way, if I screw up there’s no one to blame but me.”

A high-pressure system over the Atlantic provided ideal conditions, and he was lucky with the weather heading into the Southern Ocean. He struggled in light air off Brazil, and a depression across the Pacific meant that he had to sail close to Australia and New Zealand, adding considerable miles to the voyage.

“Basically my strategy was to remain in the north to avoid icebergs,” Joyon says. “When alone, you can’t have a permanent watch on deck. I wanted to stay on the edge of lows and remain in a 20 to 30 knots of wind range. The main idea was to keep relatively high average speeds, and that meant anticipating since I couldn’t afford to get trapped.”

He averaged about 15 knots, with top speeds around 34 knots; his slowest was less than 3 knots. “I guess the best part was surfing down big waves at more than 30 knots,” Joyon recalls.

Joyon had provisioned for 90 days; he never considered completing the voyage in fewer than 80 days. “Then I started dreaming I could do it in less than 80 days, but I’d never have bet on 72 days,” he says.

‘Utterly amazing’

Did he ever want to quit? “Four times a day.”

“It’s human,” says Joyon. “I sometimes wondered why I had put myself in such a mess. But I really wanted to complete the journey, so I never let those ‘down’ moments overtake [me].”

Though Joyon would later say he could have done better, the circumnavigation was relatively trouble free. In December, near the Cape of Good Hope, IDEC struck something and damaged a daggerboard. Still, he didn’t lose any time.

“I just waited until there was enough calm [to do the repairs],” says Joyon. “I took it out of its casing and repaired it on the net with resin and fiber I had in stock. I was not forced to stop, since downwind the daggerboard is not necessary. Fortunately I encountered calms before my way back up the Atlantic.”

He reached Cape Horn — nearly two-thirds through the voyage — having conquered the Southern Ocean in only 49 days.

“I was right to be apprehensive about it. It certainly is very impressive,” says Joyon. “It was something that was utterly amazing.”

Off Cape Horn, his furling gear broke, and a sail went over the side in 45-knot winds. He managed to haul it back on board.

Joyon says he ate plenty of pasta during the trip, good for energy reserves, and tried to get four hours of sleep every 24 hours. “But of course that was almost never four hours in a row,” he says. “Whenever I had tiring maneuvers to do, I tried to make sure I could rest for an hour between each.”

And Joyon relied on his Hercules Performance autopilot. “I didn’t favor the helm; the automatic pilot does a better job than me quite often,” Joyon said in an earlier interview.

Joyon returned to Brest Feb. 3, where a bevy of reporters and champagne-soaked celebrations awaited him. After a hearty meal and a brief press conference, Joyon quickly headed for his home in western Brittany to spend time with his wife and two children. He held off giving additional interviews until after a long vacation with his family. What does a sailor do to relax after such a voyage? He went sailing for three weeks in the Pacific and hit the ski slopes.

So what’s next?

“We’re currently finalizing the program,” Joyon says. “Stay tuned.”