The Swiss sailor Laurent Bourgnon was reported missing on Thursday after failing to return from a diving trip in French Polynesia. Laurent who, you ask? Well let me clarify that. If you are a non-European you probably have never heard of him and wonder why this is big news. If you are Swiss or French he is a household name, a sailing superstar, someone small French kids aspire to be, someone to whom the French President awarded the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honor, equivalent to America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom. So yes Bourgnon is a big deal and when he went missing with no trace it looks like we may have lost one of sailing’s best.
Bourgnon’s sailing achievements are too long to list, literally. He won so many offshore races from the Route du Rhum, Québec-Saint Malo and The Transat, a transatlantic race where he sailed double-handed with American Cam Lewis. In 1994 he set a new North Atlantic record sailing single-handed on his 60-foot trimaran Primagaz. His time of 7 days, 2 hours, 34 minutes and 42 seconds stood for 11 years until it was finally broken by Francis Joyon sailing his 118-foot trimaran. Bourgnon was not only a famous sailor but he was also a pretty decent rally car driver and placed consistently near the top in numerous Dakar Rally’s.
If indeed Bourgnon is deceased (as of now there is no body, dead or alive) it will be the second blow to sailing this year. In March Florence Arthaud died in a helicopter crash in Argentina. She too had won the Route du Rhum, but her victory was spectacular not only in her accomplishment as a sailor, but in the showmanship she displayed as she crossed the finish line in Guadeloupe. With the windward and main hulls of her bright golden 60-foot trimaran completely out of the water, she stood on the windward hull, her wild hair flowing in the night breeze, and roared across the finish line beating all her male counterparts by a significant margin. The photo of her finish, taken by photo journalist Thierry Martinez, remains one of the most iconic in sailing. Arthaud went on to become one of the most well known people in Europe gracing the front pages of many glossy magazines.
What you have to understand is that the Europeans, the French especially, feel an incredibly affinity with the ocean and have a deep respect for those who challenge themselves by taking on some huge sailing challenges. In 1976 when Eric Tabarly won the OSTAR, a single-handed transatlantic race, he was honored with a ticker tape parade down the Champs-Élysées. When French President de Gaulle invited Tabarly to receive his Legion d’Honneur, Tabarly declined saying that it coincided with the day he had set aside to paint his boat. President de Gaulle rescheduled the ceremony and sent another invitation that read, “I would be delighted to be able to count on your presence… if the tide is favourable of course.” Such is the pull of sailors as celebrities in France.
It’s hard to imagine someone like John Kostecki or Ken Read or some other top American sailor being touted up there alongside LeBron or Tiger Woods. It’s just never going to happen. Yes the Newport stopover of the recent Volvo Ocean Race was a great success, but measure it against the Vendée Globe where millions of spectators show up to see the boats and will stand for hours in the pouring rain for a chance to walk the pontoon, and you will see the difference between sailing in America and sailing in France.
I can only hope that they find Laurent Bourgnon sitting on a sandbar waiting to be rescued, but with each passing hour that seems less and less likely. If he is gone then the world will be a lot less colorful, of that I am certain.
– Brian Hancock. Take a look at his new website – All About Sails.