ARKEA ULTIM CHALLENGE - Brest: first solo round-the-world race aboard an Ultim 32/23!



As we’ll see, this race of the century has been nearly twenty years in the making after what has been an action-packed, treacherous and turbulent passage worthy of the Southern Ocean!

As is often the case in the Finistère department in north-west France, good ideas are often brewed in a bar! 

However, back in November 2006, Roland Tresca and François Cuillandre, respectively President of the Télégramme Développement Group and the Mayor of Brest, are not sitting in a Breton tavern sharing a pitcher of cider. Instead, they are sat at a table in the sticky tropical heat at Créole Beach Hotel in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, an establishment frequented by sailors competing in the Route du Rhum, a race won with great panache just days earlier by Lionel Lemonchois on his 60-foot ORMA trimaran Gitana 11. 

Roland Tresca explains: “I made the most of the opportunity to set out an idea, which I’d had on the back burner since Francis Joyon’s arrival in Brest, in early February 2004, which saw him shatter the singlehanded round the world record on a multihull set by Olivier de Kersauson in 1989. Back then, I was tasked by the Télégramme Group with diversifying the group. Two years earlier, we’d missed out on buying up the Vendée Globe, so I’d said to myself that it was imperative we set ourselves the ambitious challenge of creating a race for tomorrow, and it had to be this one. With this in mind, in June 2004, I wrote a short but detailed note along these lines to really set the scene: the first non-stop round the world race on a multihull, otherwise known as ‘the race of the century’. In the meantime, we’d taken control of the Pen Duick company, which specialises in the organisation of yacht races, namely the double-handed Transat Jacques Vabre, and we then bought the Route du Rhum, the Transat AG2R and the Trophée BPE. By that point, we were ideally placed to offer to organise a planetary event of this scale! As such, I explained the concept of this round the world race to the mayor, highlighting the fact that the city of Brest would be well advised to snap up this historic opportunity.”

On the strength of his team’s excellent organisation of the Route du Rhum race, Pierre Bojic, the then boss of Pen Duick, drove the point home, further reassuring the mayor about the credibility of the proposal. Régis Rassouli, a young man from Brest in charge of the race communication and a connoisseur of his city, backed up this sentiment, so much so that a meeting was arranged at the Paris Boat Show to move the project forward.

As agreed, the relevant parties came together in Paris in December 2006. Roland Tresca and Pierre Bojic met with the mayor and, before even going into the finer details of the project, they quickly realised that he was in complete support of their idea. Indeed, it was totally in keeping with his vision for the city which, aside from the many record attempts, had been out of the loop with major offshore races for a long time. A possible date is envisaged of 2010 to 2011, to give them time to rally together the racers and their operators and possibly build new boats, with the emphasis on finding financial backing along the way.

With this in mind, exactly a year later, at the Transat Jacques Vabre finish, Pierre Bojic suggested that the next Route du Rhum, which had a 60-foot limit up to that point, be opened to large boats with no restriction on size. This prompted an uproar from the ORMA class (60-foot trimarans), which boasted the largest fleet. It was a risky approach as there were few giant multihulls in existence at the time. However, these initial shock waves calmed down fairly quickly after a few heated discussions.

By this time, it was January 2008! Once again, the tireless Francis Joyon pulled off another massive achievement by making it back to Brest after 57 days at sea racing singlehanded around the world on his trimaran IDEC Sport, beating the previous record held by the sensational British sailor Ellen MacArthur by more than 14 days. The day after his triumphant finish, Pen Duick and Télégramme Group decided to ride the wave of positivity and officially announce the launch of the round the world race for Ultims with a start in Brest planned for late 2011. Despite what some might describe as a surprising reticence on the part of certain sailors, including Francis and Ellen, solely Thomas Coville really expressing any enthusiasm, the future looks pretty bright. 

With the relatively lukewarm response from certain racers, perhaps it’s important to understand that there’s a real difference between a singlehanded record and a race against other boats, especially over a long and exposed round the world course. Indeed, competing against others often prompts competitors to take more risks by pushing their steed beyond her limits. However, the limit for a multihull is capsize, with all that such an incident implies in the hostile, deserted regions that make up the Deep South!

As a result, the subsequent years will be devoted to various tasks associated with bringing the project to fruition, including drawing up a draft contract with the city of Brest and various media, registration of the Brest Ultim Challenge brand, searching for partners and definitively opening up the Route du Rhum to Ultims from 2010 to encourage this new category. Alas, their multiple efforts were in vain! 

Despite the enthusiasm of the Télégramme-Pen Duick-Ville de Brest teams and Franck Cammas’ fabulous victory in the Route du Rhum aboard the maxi-trimaran Groupama 3, the planned start in late 2011 is a no go. There are various reasons for this. The main one relates to the economic and financial crisis which has been rife across Europe for a good two years, delaying the construction of new boats and the arrival of partners. The second relates to the lingering doubts previously voiced by the sailors about the validity of such a singlehanded race around the planet.

It's another few years before business improves. With plans to build new maxi-trimarans, including Banque Populaire and Sodebo, the operators get together in 2013 to create an Ultim Collective, followed by an Ultim Class in 2015, with a rule drawn up between them: the length of the boats is set at 32 metres, with a beam of 23 metres, which automatically excludes the new MOD 70 class and the gigantic 40-metre Spindrift, the ex-Banque Populaire 5 bought by the Bertarelli family! Next up, this new 32/23 Class announces a round the world race setting sail from Brest in 2019, which it is keen to organise itself… However, things don’t go according to plan!

Despite the extraordinary performance posted in December 2017 by François Gabart, who sails solo around the world on his trimaran Macif in a record time of 42 days 16 hours, the Route du Rhum - Destination Guadeloupe 2018 witnesses disastrous results among the Ultim trimarans. Banque Populaire breaks a crossbeam, capsizes and cannot be recovered, Gitana retires, Sodebo and Macif, though they secure a podium finish, suffer serious damage. All these disappointments force the Ultim Class to give up on the planned 2019 start. They announce its postponement a few days later, after the Route du Rhum - Destination Guadeloupe, which sees the tenacious Francis Joyon take victory!

From this point, the organisation team for this round the world race is dealt a new hand! Discussions are resumed between OC Sport-Pen Duick, presided over by Hervé Favre by then, and the Ultim Class directed by its president Patricia Brochard. In 2021, negotiations result in an agreement between the two parties announcing the start of this famous round the world race in late 2023, with the possibility of a second edition four years later.

Off the back of this agreement, the authorities of Brest and Brest Métropole, the Breton region and the department of Finistère confirm their partnership and five Ultim racing stables confirm their participation. Further good news is to follow on 22 April 2022, when the ARKEA group takes on the role of title partner for the race, which will go by the name: ARKEA ULTIM CHALLENGE - Brest.

After twenty years coloured by various negotiations, this unique project has finally come to fruition and with it comes the promise of an eagerly awaited planetary race. In addition to Roland Tresca, the initiator and the common link between the project’s journey and its various ‘travelling companions’, Pierre Bojic and then Hervé Favre heading up OC Sport Pen Duick, numerous sailors and celebrities from the world of offshore racing have also worked behind the scenes to make this project a reality. More recently the Ultim Class and all its operators have played a key role in making the event happen. Without them, none of this would have been possible.

Finally, the Télégramme Group, through its president Edouard Coudurier, convinced by the idea of this race from the start, has been a tireless driving force in this interminable process. Today, it can be proud to rank among the famous press groups, which have created a major yacht race, just like the Sunday Times Golden Globe Challenge in 1968, the first solo non-stop round the world race, and the Solitaire l’Aurore-Le Figaro in 1970.


Arrival of François Gabart in the port of Brest in 2017

© Ronan Gladu

Brest Métropole
Région Bretagne
Département du Finistère
Brasserie de Bretagne