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Thomas Coville: an optimist at the helm

In Luxembourg for "Défis de l’entreprise" (Corporate Challenges) organised by Arendt & Medernach, Thomas Coville, skipper of Sodebo Ultim’ - a record holder for the North Atlantic crossing and a former record holder for single-handed around-the-world sailing in 49 days and 3 hours - answers our questions.


You failed four times in your attempt to sail single-handedly around the world before breaking the record. Were you tempted to give up?


I believe in resilience. I grew up late in life. I remember my sports teacher rubbing his hands before making fun of my performance when I was 16. As soon as I found myself on a boat, I loved the simplicity I found there. Nobody bothers you. An action leads to a reaction and an error leads to you being hit by a sail. It's all very clear. Six months before the record, I hit a cargo ship after 11 hours of racing on the Route du Rhum and morale was at a low. But after several failures, the incident transformed my team: through these successive setbacks, we developed a form of resilience which made us much stronger. My sponsor Sodebo – managed by 3 women – had my contract extended on the condition that I worked with a mental coach. It was then that I realised that I was too focused on criticism and not enough on enjoyment. If I give you 9 compliments and mention a single flaw, you only remember the flaw because mankind used to be prey, endangered by any flaw. By extension, these flaws also jeopardised the entire species. Having understood this, I now focus much more on enjoyment, the positives and happiness. I'm reactivating areas of my cortex which have been inactive for millennia.


"For me, winning is all about aligning the little boy I was, who I am and who I want to be."


How do you view the changes of our era?


I'm very positive! Those who say that technology or the new generation are unsafe are trying to create an atmosphere of terror. For example, technology is ubiquitous on my boat and I think it's great when used in the right way. By using technology, the team of my technical manager, Elie Canivenc, helps me to travel faster than the wind. Electronic systems can also save my life. I always ask young people what it means to them to "win" because it's not an end in itself. For me, it's about aligning the little boy I was, who I am and who I want to be. To move forward, everyone must ask themselves these fundamental questions: what are you capable of in order to win? If you fail, how far are you willing to go? I think it's essential to commit to failure! I surround myself with troublemakers rather than "yes men" who always agree with me. Above all, I want to work with people who are committed. At a management level, for example, we're inspired by chamber music to create different leadership dynamics. I also like to work with people who inspire me, such as the philosopher Michel Serres and the actor Jacques Gamblin.


How do you manage your sleep?


The problem isn't sleeping or not sleeping - the problem is falling asleep. I sleep for a maximum of 25 minutes so I have to be able to fall asleep in 3 minutes. There are two key factors: firstly, timing. I have to find the right moment, between one operation and another. Then it's about techniques: I use self-hypnosis and deep-breathing exercises. For example, I imagine one of those glass pyramids which are used for pouring champagne at tacky weddings. I see myself in the centre of the pyramid. The liquid flows over my head, then onto my family and the more the circle widens, the better I feel. In total, I sleep 3 hours a night, with a fourth hour during the day. Taking medication isn't an option in our sport. It could work for a few days, but not for 6 weeks. We're too afraid of losing control of the boat.

Is Olivier De Kersauson's nickname for you "the little swine"?

On my first round-the-world trip with him in 1997, the crew used to throw their rubbish overboard. I was the "young one" on board and so I was in charge of sorting the rubbish. One day, I saw Olivier urinate on my recycling. I clearly expressed my dissatisfaction - and I think that's where he gave me that nickname!

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