Right now there are three major ocean races taking place in the Northern Hemisphere, the Transat Jacques Vabre, the Mini Transat and the Brest Atlantiques and they all have one thing in common; they all started from France. Either there is something in the water over there or their love for racing sailboats has seeped into their blood but the French people can’t seem to get enough of it.
The lead boats in the Transat Jacques Vabre finished in Bahia, Brazil over the weekend, the Mini Transat fleet is approaching their finish in Martinique and the four Ultime maxi’s are hurtling down the South Atlantic toward their first turning mark off Rio de Janiero. Earlier this year I was commissioned to write an article for Seahorse Magazine to try and explain what it is about the French that make them so passionate about sailing, especially solo or short-handed sailing. It’s a fairly long article but I include it here for your, if not enjoyment, at least interest.
La Transat Anglaise is no more and with its end comes the end of an era. The end of England playing a large part in the global offshore racing scene. The race, which has started from the south coast of England for almost 60 years, will now start from the French port city of Brest and that’s a sad reality. There was a time when England and British sailors dominated the offshore sailing scene, when the likes of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston sailed “for Queen and Country,” but that mantle has been handed squarely to the French and another chapter closes on the UK yachting scene.
The Transat, or as the French affectionally referred to it, La Transat Anglaise, came about in 1960 when a handful of British sailors made a bet to see if they could sail single-handed across the Atlantic to America, and also to see who could do it the fastest.
It was an inauspicious idea but the proponents were not just ordinary sailors. Among those gathered was Francis Chichester and Blondie Hasler but when they announced their plan it was at first ridiculed and criticized as foolhardy. Nonetheless 115 people expressed an interest in taking part, there were 50 declarations of intent, but only five intrepid sailors crossed the start line off Plymouth. Chichester was the first to arrive in New York after 40 days at sea and announced, “every time I tried to point Gipsy Moth at New York, the wind blew dead on the nose. It was like trying to reach a doorway with a man in it aiming a hose at you.”
The bravery and daring of those sailors captured the hearts and imagination of the British public, not only the sailors but the general public as well. They liked the idea of the British being the first to do something and being out there pushing the edges of adventure. Chichester later went on to circumnavigate the world single-handed which in turn inspired Robin Knox-Johnston to become the first person to circumnavigate solo, without stopping. It was heady times for British sailing but by then a French sailor by the name of Eric Tabarly had already started to steal some of their thunder.
Tabarly, an officer in the French Navy entered the second Transat race in 1964 and won, beating Chichester by almost three days. It shot him to instant fame and the rank of Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, or the Legion of Honour, the highest military and civil award in France. The French loved Tabarly not only because he won the race, but because he won a British race beating the British at their own game, something that has warmed French hearts for centuries.
Four years later, in 1968, Tabarly returned to the event with a trimaran but was forced to retire after colliding with a cargo ship. He may not have finished the race but this incident only continued to seal his place in the hearts of the French public. He was even featured on the cover of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo although not in a totally flattering way.
Tabarly is depicted floating naked on his back with his, well you know what, being used as a mast to fly a spinnaker with the caption “Je continue pour la France.” The French loved it and Tabarly, along with the sport of sailing, rose in the hearts and minds of the all French people and remains there today.
The British yachting scene was also continuing to steal the hearts of their own countrymen with Francis Chichester completing his solo circumnavigation and getting knighted by the Queen. In a sort of tit for tat in the medals race Chichester was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire for “individual achievement and sustained endeavour in the navigation and seamanship of small craft”. For the ceremony, the Queen used the sword which was used by her predecessor Queen Elizabeth I to knight Sir Francis Drake, the first Englishman with his crew to complete a circumnavigation.
The love of all things yachting appeared now squarely back in the hands of the British and it was about to get a boost with the announcement of the first Golden Globe Race. The Sunday Times newspaper in London had agreed to underwrite the first ever single-handed, non-stop race around the world and there were quite a number of British sailors entered. The odds were good that the winner would be a Brit and it turned out to be the case when Robin Knox-Johnston claimed the victory.
There is no doubt that Robin’s win was a big deal, especially in England, but it was another sailor in the same race, a French sailor by the name of Bernard Moitessier who in his own way eclipsed Knox-Johnston’s victory. Moitessier had started to meditate to calm his nerves and through his meditation he realized that his stress was being caused by the thought of returning back to land and all of the glitz and publicity that would surround his arrival.
He sent a message to his London Times correspondent announcing that he was withdrawing from the race by firing message by slingshot onto the deck of a passing ship, stating: “parce que je suis heureux en mer et peut-être pour sauver mon ame” (“because I am happy at sea and perhaps to save my soul”). This was the kind of move that endeared him to each and every French citizen and once and for all sealed sailing as “the” national sport of France. Moitessier had done what Tabarly had done after his Transat victory; he had shown the British sailing scene his middle finger, another favorite past time of the French.
Through the 70’s and 80’s and beyond the French and UK sailing scenes followed parallel courses. England played host to a number of Whitbread Round the World races and large crowds descended to the south coast of England to see the fleet off. I was lucky enough to participate in a number of Whitbread Races in the 80’s and it didn’t go without notice that the French sailors were very different from the rest of us.
There was something unique and individualistic about each one of them. We would all clean up and shave for the finish of each leg and would make a dash for the nearest shower as soon as we could. Clean clothes, freshly shaved, all good, but I would notice that many of the French crews days after arriving were still wearing the clothes that they had worn all the way across the Southern Ocean and neither a comb or a razor, let alone hot running water had come in close proximity. If it was the winning ream you could still see patches where the champagne had been sprayed.
There was another incident that took place that made me realize that the French were profoundly different from the rest of the sailing world. I had been recruited at the very last minute, as in two days before the start of the 89/90 Whitbread race to join Fazisi, the first, and by happenstance last Soviet Union entry in the race. The boat was banana shaped, rough as guts and barely ready when I boarded the night before the start. I was below packing my gear when I heard a knock on the hull.
It was Connie von Rietschoten, the venerable Dutch sailor who had won two earlier editions of the race. He was asking for permission to come on board. He cleared the lifelines and looked around in interest. His interest turned to dismay when he looked below at the stark, rough interior with bare aluminum frames and no standing headroom. He left walking down the docks shaking his head. Ten minutes later there was another knock on the hull. It was Eric Tabarly asking for permission to board. He cast his eye over the deck and I could see him smiling. He asked to go below and his eyes lit up when he saw how stark the interior was. “Tres bien,” he said simply. “Tres Bien.”
I was at sea sailing alone across the Atlantic when I heard the news that Eric Tabarly had been lost at sea. I was listening to the BBC and they mentioned that a ‘famous French sailor’ had been washed overboard from his yacht while sailing in the Irish Sea, but they didn’t mention any name. I had to listen for a few agonizing minutes to the world news, weather reports and cricket scores before they returned to the story and broke the news that Tabarly was gone.
When I arrived in the Azores and ran into some French sailors it was as if a god was gone. I knew that Eric Tabarly had a place in sailors hearts but I was just coming to realize how much of a place he had occupied. He alone, with a bit of Moitessier hovering, had inspired generations of young French sailors to find themselves in sailing, and those sailors went on to make magic with the sport.
Bruno Peyron and his crew became the first to lap the planet in less than 89 days. Michel Desjoyeux won the Vendée Globe; twice. François Gabart sailed his massive trimaran single-headed around the world in a record time of 42 days and 16 hours while Francis Joyon and his (all-French) team hold the record for the fastest non-stop circumnavigation; the Trophée Jules-Verne. Here is one story that may illustrate why the French now dominate the offshore sailing scene.
Joyon had just raced the Transat Race crossing the same waters that Francis Chichester had sailed all those years earlier. Joyon was in New York looking for a place to anchor his massive trimaran for a few days but his boat, IDEC Sport is huge and there really was no ideal place to keep the boat. Joyon made a quick decision. He went ashore, bought some eggs and bananas, returned to the boat, bade his crew farewell and sailed alone back across the Atlantic. Très formidable.
Here is how it works in France these days. The sailors are sport superstars and sponsors like sport superstars. Think about this. Tomas Coville, who for a while held the record for the fastest single-handed circumnavigation, is sponsored by a company that makes frozen pizzas. Well to be fair they make a lot more than frozen pizzas these days but back when they first started their sponsorship of Coville they were a much smaller company. They hitched their fortune to a sailing campaign and both Coville’s sailing career and Sodebo, the frozen pizza place, have thrived. Can you imagine an American company like Dominos Pizza getting into the sailing space? Neither can I.
All of this starts to point to the fact that the French now dominate offshore sailing and the UK, despite the best efforts of Alex Thomson and Dee Caffari among others, is lagging. I knew this was going to happen years ago when I went to the start of the Vendée Globe. Les Sables-d’Olonne was dreary and cold but in the days leading up to the start a million ordinary French sailors descended on the town to see the boats and to meet the sailors.
Moms and Pops stood shoulder to shoulder in a cold drizzle for hours just for a chance to get onto the pontoons and to get closer to the boats. Kids argued among themselves and chewed on baguettes lathered with brie. Young tattooed men smoking gauloise cigarettes and sporting punk hairdos were also in the crowds. I once saw a large, brawny man with a tiny poodle under his arm waiting for his chance to meet a Vendée Globe skipper. The ordinary and the extraordinary follow sailing in France and when you get a cultural moment like that, history happens. – Brian Hancock.