barcelona on my mind (part two)

clean report

barcelona on my mind (part two)


As the rest of Europe suffers from snow and ice overload, from the gorgeous seaside city of Barcelona and the imminent start of the second Barcelona World Race I’m reflecting on the other two historic ocean races we’ve covered in 2010.

Yesterday I explained what we saw during our trip to La Rochelle, France for the start of the Velux 5 Oceans race.  In summary, it’s got the most history but the least health of the three races, and this is despite having a strong and committed sponsor for the past two editions as well as a very competent race management team in Robin Knox-Johnston’s Clipper Ventures.  Sponsor Velux may be just fine with the race as it stands, but we struggle to see how it can be sustainable without major changes. The Velux’s competitive difficulties stem from a number of sources: Competition with races in the cheaper Class 40 and bigger Barcelona World Race, general scheduling difficulties, lack of cooperation and coordination with IMOCA, and the increased expense of a circumnavigation with numerous stopovers.  But in contrast with the other two races we have available for comparison – the BWR and RdR – the Velux suffers from a bigger problem than all these:  The organizers simply cannot provide what the other races can to teams and skippers.  Tomorrow we’ll get deep into the attractive package that the Barcelona (and Volvo, and the Valencia AC before them) brings to the table, but today, it’s all about the biggest spectator event in sailing and one that literally transforms an entire region for a couple of weeks:  The Route Du Rhum.

Our trip to St. Malo for this incredibly popular race revealed it to be by far the healthiest of any major ocean race, a multi-million-Euro property that has to limit entries and captures a national audience’s attention that is unheard in sailing anywhere else.  All of Brittany seems to get in on the act, the event garners major market television, newspaper, and internet coverage across the entire country, and it seems to deliver to sponsors a fabulous platform for their message and keeps them coming back for more.  If I have any gripe at all about the Route Du Rhum it is a personal one (though shared by at least three top French skippers I spoke to): Organizer Pen Duick couldn’t care less about the world outside of France.  They pay only minor lip service to the English audience with a few weak translations of existing news, make no effort to help non-French media, and only with the help of my fluent French and support from Veolia staffers Ryan and Nicola Breymaier did we get the kind of coverage we needed to truly understand this awesome race. Perhaps Pen Duick really doesn’t want or need the additional coverage, since the waterfront and town of St. Malo probably can’t handle many more spectators, but since they are about as responsive as a croissant, I’ll never know.

With all the traveling we do, it is fairly simple to compare the different perceptions of sailing between one population and the next, but nowhere is there remotely close to the interest the French have for their solo offshore races and sailors.  The purpose of our French sabbatical was to dig deeply enough into the offshore solo scene to truly understand why the sport is so different there than anywhere else.  The answers figure into our understanding of the other two races we’re discussing as well, especially since one – the growing one – is being run under the French model, while the other isn’t.

Part of me – the one that’s always looking for the easy answer – was hoping to find some ultra-simple explanation for the widespread popularity of ocean racing in France so I could share it with the thousands of class, club, and event cheerleaders and decision makers that read this front page.  And while I think I did get to the root of the sport’s success in France, the reasons for it are neither simple nor likely to be easy to replicate on our own home turf.

Pimpin’ Alert:
Before going into the list, though, I’d like to express our gratitude for our title sponsor Magic Marine, which turned out to be a perfect partner for three weeks of wildly changing weather conditions and chase boats varying from 40 foot power cruisers to 20 foot open RIBs.  We’ve been testing Magic’s Coastal line for almost a year now, and the stuff from the former dinghy specialist is superbly waterproof and durable enough to deal with the extra abuse that an On-The-Water Anarchy team throws at everything.  Just as importantly, Magic’s sense of style – augmented by the fact that they are one arm of a company that includes surfing apparel and kiteboarding subsidiaries – is second to none, and the ‘Magic look’ helps us to look just as cool walking around town as it does aboard.  Be sure to check out their site, and keep your eyes out for the Ocean line that they just announced at the METS show when it hits stores in a few months – it should be extremely sweet and worth the three years of development that they’ve done to make it perfect.

Offshore racing emerged as part of France’s national identity because of a number of factors, each of them integral to the end result we see today.  Here’s how I read it:

Culture Wars. World War 2 obviously left France a shambles, but Brittany suffered more than the average region.  Already a proud and independent people with millennia of distinct history, a small but notable population of Breton nationalists allied themselves with the Nazis during the war.  After Germany’s defeat, the government and Church together used that collaboration as an excuse to completely suppress both the language and culture of the Breton people to the point that children were beaten for speaking Breton for decades.

The late 60’s and early 70’s saw a wave of cultural rebirth in Brittany, first in Breton music, then with Bretons reclaiming their nearly dead language, and finally with the emergence of a veritable superstar in international sports: Eric Tabarly, discussed below.  Regardless of Tabarly’s heroics, the most important thing about him was that he came from a culture that desperately needed heroic figures.  The Bretons, and France in general, needed someone who could help them regain their trampled pride, which still hadn’t nearly recovered from the humiliation of World War 2.  The fact that it was an ex-naval officer didn’t hurt, and the fact that his success came in the sport of sailing in an area with some of the most beautiful sailing grounds on earth and a rich maritime history didn’t hurt either.

People Are People As mentioned above, Tabarly was the perfect person to become a superstar to first the Breton and then the larger French public, who needed heroes almost as bad as the Breton.  But Tabarly was actually the second such hero, and without the exploits (and beautifully written books) of Bernard Moitessier, the French might not have been ready to embrace ocean racing as a real sport.  And if both these men hadn’t beat up on their traditional rivals in England, their countrymen still might not have so wholly fallen for these men and their sport.  Similarly, even the wild exploits of Baron Bich’s failed America’s Cup campaigns failed to ignite the public’s interest.  Firstly because there’s no real French/American rivalry to spice things up, and second because people looked at the 12 Meters and said “But what is impressive about that?  Monsieur Tabarly sails bigger and faster boats by himself!”

Moitessier not only beat Knox-Johnston around the world, but he did it on his own terms and with the poetic French flair of not even finishing the inaugural Golden Globe race when he was a shoo-in to win, instead continuing on for another circumnavigation before stopping in Tahiti.  Like Tabarly, he was a prolific writer, and in an age when books and newspapers were the mainstays of cultural exchange, the entire nation read the words of these men.  Moitessier (the non-native Frenchman born in Vietnam) set ‘em up, and with yachting now part of the national consciousness, the Breton Tabarly knocked ‘em down with success after success against mostly British competitors in races as diverse as the OSTAR, the Fastnet, and the Sydney-Hobart.  And essential to the publicity of it all, Tabarly wrote some 12 books, some of which continue to see reprints to this day.

Finally, Tabarly was a generous mentor who made unforgettable impressions on a ratty group of teenaged Breton boatbuilders and adrenaline junkies, the same men who just happen to completely dominate solo offshore sailing today.  Perhaps you’ve heard their names?  Desjoyeux, Le Cam, Jourdain, Gavignet, Guillemot…and they’ve continued the tradition with the next generation.  You can’t reign if you don’t train.   

Tubeless Fliers I should also mention in passing that France has never been a place rich in public media options.  As late as the early nineties, broadcast television had only two or three channels in the big cities.  It’s a culture that adores books, magazines, and newspapers, and continues to this day to get much of its news from a few networks and a lot of paper.  There are some 9 major sailing magazines in France, every one of them bigger, prettier, better-produced and more widely circulated than anything in America.  Had there been more competition for eyeballs in the 70s and early 80s, its likely that fewer Frenchmen would have been watching or reading about sailing.  I often think the US will be in a completely paperless economy with holographic TV before French newspapers even start losing market share.

The Public Option Somewhat depressingly for those looking to France for solutions useable to a US market, it turns out that all the factors above may create the spark needed to ignite a generation, but they don’t create the kind of continuity necessary to keep a nation interested in something, nor do they make a sport commercially viable.  The public may have remained excited as long as French sailors succeeded at an international level, but unless a significant portion of them went sailing from time to time, interest would wane.  But to get interest up requires some serious resources and concerted action, something only governments can do, and local and national French bodies stepped up in a way that hasn’t been seen in a long time, only now beginning to appear in places like Oman (with Oman Sail) and Spain (with huge efforts from Valencia, Alicante, and now Barcelona for major races). 

French governments came through first with access, then education, and then financial motivation.  Local governments began giving preferential treatment to developers (mostly small) of marinas, and maritime businesses that catered to sailing.  Not too tough when a) these look good anyway, b) they drive the huge engine of tourism, and c) there are two massive coastlines dotted with estuaries, bays, harbors and rivers everywhere.

Seaside French school systems jumped in as well after being convinced that sailing could do more for children than probably any other sport, and today numerous public schools in France start children sailing at age 7, for free.  Areas without this kind of program generally have government-subsidized sailing centers with seriously cheap storage for small boats as well as inexpensive learn-to-sail and rental programs that have made sailing anything but the ‘rich man’s sport’ it is seen to be in so many places.  And those folks – even if they never race boats – still pay close attention to the big races wherever they may be.

Finally, the French government actively subsidizes French yachting in numerous ways, by far the most important being the preferential tax treatment of funds spent on sailing sponsorships, but also through schemes such as ultra-low dockage and building rent for active Open 60 programs.  It also helps that France occasionally feeds millions into huge boatbuilding concerns like Beneteau and Jeanneau to keep them competitive. 

So there you have it:  The most incredible spectacle in all of yacht racing and the wildly successful French offshore racing scene owes its existence to a couple of strong characters, a few historically important factors, a lot of governmental and civic support, and a lot of luck.  And tomorrow, we’ll tell you how the Barcelona World Race is taking many of those lessons to try to create a race that has the potential to be even bigger than the top dog of all the round-the-world races, the Vendée Globe. 

You can check out our Route Du Rhum show from last month here.  (Part One  Part Two) and lots more photos and race discussion from St. Malo here in the thread.  If you want to debate my conclusions about French solo offshore racing, there’s already a thread to hit, and don’t forget to keep an eye on the Barcelona World Race Thread.

Part one
Photos from Meredith Block.