He’s a guy for whom adventure is the ultimate calling. Gaëtan Thomas, aged 32, wants to beat the solo, non-stop, around the world speed record for a Class40. The previous record was set by the late Guo Chuan, currently standing at 137 days. Gaëtan's goal is to set a new record at closer to 100 days, a benchmark set by the larger IMOCA60 in the earlier editions of the Vendée Globe. After his around the world record attempt scheduled for late 2020, Gaëtan wants to rub shoulders with many of the sports most talented competitors by taking part in The Race Around. When asked why, he answered “because the level of competition will be high and I’m looking to further myself against the best!” Whilst in Lorient, putting the finishing touches on his Class40 #55 ‘Be The Drop' Gaëtan took time to speak with The Race Around about his journey and the challenges that await.
Gaëtan, you've recently announced your intentions to break the current Class40, solo around the world speed record! Can you tell us more about your journey to date? "I’m Belgian by birth, 32 years of age and I’ve been sailing since I was a child but I became a ‘professional’ in 2009. My first adventure in a boat was on a small Corsair and then a 35ft cruiser. From sailing with my family I went on to compete in the Optimist and 420, even representing the Belgian national team! I did this until the age of 15 when I took a break from the water due to family and financial reasons. To be honest I went a little crazy, I finished school the day before my 16th birthday but the call to return to the ocean was strong and by the age of 18 I knew I had to return and that sailing professionally was my dream."
And your pathway to professional sailing?
GT: I went to Les Glénans Sailing School as a volunteer. I was then able to train in Corsica and then in Brittany. In order to continue progressing I learnt English and decided to move to Australia. I had no plan but I ended up staying for two years, I sailed on lots of boats including several of the famous Maxi’s. Upon completing my Yacht Masters, I returned to Europe and worked as a delivery skipper and racing crew.
How did you get into Ocean Racing?
GT: Ocean Racing came calling relatively quickly! A few years ago I crossed the North Atlantic three times in 18 months. Alone! Okay, I was delivering boats, but I had fun, experimented with the sextant and further learnt my trade. I was 22 years old and I’d dream of doing the Vendée Globe. I tried to put a campaign together however in 2017 an opportunity I couldn’t turn down presented itself with the Clipper Race, I was selected as the skipper of Team Garmin and a wonderful story unfolded. We came 4th overall but the experience was out of this world.
You talk of your experiences with the Clipper Race, what was the biggest thing to away from this?
The crews are made up of hugely passionate amateurs, my sailing role was obvious, to lead team around the world but the team management and coaching was much different. I learnt a huge amount about people! The Clipper Race is the longest around-the-world race and during the race Team Garmin had over 100 different crew members! It was fascinating.
So the Class40? Why did you choose this record? "After the Clipper Race I needed to continue the story. The question was whether to target the Vendée Globe or not?! We finished our race in 2018 and 2020 would have come too soon! That and the IMOCA/Vendée budgets have gone crazy. My dream has always been to circumnavigate the globe solo and to do it on a racing machine! After doing some research I found the stories of Guo Chuan’s around the world record set in 2013. He completed his voyage in 137 days, so that’s the target. My attempt will start at Ushant and finish at Ushant. I’ll look to start in October, November or December. I’m going into this project with a new voice and I hope my record attempt will inspire others to get to know the Class40 better. These boats are now more efficient than the older generation IMOCA60, much more sustainable too. I cannot hide my own personal challenge to beat the time of the first Vendee Globe by completing the course in closer to 100 days."
Can you tell us about your Class40?
I recently purchased hull number 55 built by Giovanni Soldini in 2007. It won almost everything until 2010. She is a prototype designed by Guillaume Verdier and was built at the FR Nautisme shipyard in Lorient. At the moment I’m making several changes in order to prepare for the record attempt and prolonged periods in cold and often dangerous waters. It is known that the Class40 is more commonly associated with transatlantic races but the adaptions I’m making, such as the addition of bulkheads, watertight compartments etc. make the vessel much safer. We are also working on understanding the calculations required to right the boat in case of a capsize.
What is the budget for your record attempt?
We’re looking at around €200,000 however with the current crisis it will not be easy to finalise this. That said I am supported by a former teammate from my Clipper Race days and by supporters through a crowdfunding page! Things are tight, I do everything myself!
Following your record attempt, you want to test yourself against other Class40 sailors in The Race Around? Why? "As I mentioned, I always had the intention of launching a campaign for the Vendée Globe in 2024. I would have done the Route du Rhum in 2022 and the Transat Jacques-Vabre in 2023 but when looking at the budgets required it seems unattainable. I want to compete against the best and soon after exploring the IMOCA60s I found The Race Around. When I read that Lalou Roucayrol had signed up and that a large number of very good skippers from various classes were talking about it, I thought it made perfect sense and I had to include it within my racing schedule. The fact that there is the possibility to race solo or double-handed is also interesting. My intention is to compete in the Class40 circuit on a newer boat or perhaps even a new build. The Class40 represents unbelievable value for commercial partners, it’s exciting!"
Which part of the course excites or inspires you the most?
It all depends on the rankings, but when sailing we sail to win, each leg can become complicated or inspiring depending upon who is around you and what you’re playing for! Geographically, the Great South is what we dream about. Potentially dangerous with endless surfing and a beautifully bleak ambience. In these places we know the margin for error is small. You’re really alone, you have to live it and you have to understand it. It’s unique but it’s what we dream of.
You could potentially circumnavigate the globe twice in just over two years! What attracts you to this course?
There are two ways for me to circumnavigate the globe. I could do it as Moitessier did on ‘Joshua’, with everything onboard and living your life day by day with no care for speed. The other is to race, having a racing machine underneath you, where things are complicated. Where you must understand eating, sleeping, getting dressed and adapting to a new rhythm of life and a new outlook on purpose. It is a sporting challenge like no other and above all I love the ability to navigate the oceans at speed. I’m at my best after 4 or 5 days of sailing. My longest solo voyage was 37 days, I loved it! There is also a philosophical, almost romantic approach to sailing, where one spends time soul searching! I believe in dreams and in energies. I want to enjoy my life and to live in the elements that surround us.
Your record attempt carries an environmental message, can you tell us more about this?
The name of my boat is ‘Be the Drop’. I created this when I launched my crowdfunding campaign! The idea is to educate people about the daily actions we take and the gestures that must be spoken about in order to create a cleaner planet. Offshore racing has for years defended environmental causes and this is something that must continue. We are inherently linked to the oceans, they provide a home, a playground and life experiences that affect us deeply. We see the changes and we see the importance the oceans have in our global ecosystem; we are therefore in the privileged position to be the oceans spokesperson!
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Photo 1: Gaëtan Thomas
Photo credit: Copyright Alain Roupie
Photo 2: Gaëtan Thomas onboard Class40 #55 'Be The Drop'
Photo credit: Copyright Alain Roupie