Éric Tabarly

March 1976, Toulon, France -- Éric Tabarly visits Alain Colas on his new giant yacht, Le Club Mediterranee.

March 1976, Toulon, France — Éric Tabarly visits Alain Colas on his new giant yacht, Le Club Mediterranee.

The red trimaran alongside us crashes through another short steep sea and a jet of water with the ferocity of a fire hose blasts her from stem to stern as she claws her way upwind into a steady 35 knots at the start of the 1986 Route du Rhum race off the French port of Saint Malo. I haven’t caught a clear view of the skipper for the last five minutes and I ponder whether he, like myself, is wondering what on earth possessed the organisers to start a single-handed Transatlantic race in such northerly waters in early November.

Not that it has dampened the enthusiasm of the public for the event. An estimated 2 million people visited the city in the week prior to the start to view the yachts and catch a glimpse of their national sporting heroes. And on this foul morning they are out in force, with approaching 100,000 people watching from the cliffs between here and Cap Fréhel. And arguably the reason they are here is largely because of the man on the trimaran I’ve been straining to see—the legendary Éric Tabarly.

Éric Tabarly was born into a sailing family, his father owning one of William Fife’s beautiful creations. Named Pen Duick, built in 1898 in Ireland, the young man loved this yacht like no other, and she was to remain a constant figure throughout his life.

After his father gave him the yacht in the early fifties, she was found to be as rotten as the proverbial pear, and a lesser man would probably have given up and scrapped her. But in 1956 Tabarly set about rebuilding her, taking a moulding off the original hull and laying up a new one in glass fibre—at the time the largest such hull in the world. She was far more than just a boat to him and he wasn’t going to let her die.

Serving in the French Navy allowed him the time and opportunity to sail aboard their fleet of yachts, and he soon made a name for himself as a competent and highly competitive skipper. A series of Pen Duicks ensued, each bearing his imprint as a relentless innovator, and the victories soon followed. In a remarkable career he won just about every major ocean racing event, single handed or crewed, from the OSTAR (twice) to the Fastnet and the Sydney-Hobart, in a racing career that spanned nearly 40 years.

His Greatest Victory

For me his greatest victory has to be the 1976 Observer Single-handed Trans Atlantic Race, an absolute war of attrition, which saw the fleet decimated by five severe gales from the West, one after another. Sailing the 73ft ketch Pen Duick VI—a yacht designed for a crew of 12 to contest the Whitbread Round the World Race—Tabarly saw his self steering gear smashed just a few days into the race, but decided to continue anyway. Radio out of action, navigating through fog for the last miles, he had no idea what had happened to his fellow racers until he arrived off Newport after 23 days to claim his second win in this toughest of events.

Design Philosophy

His design philosophy? Simple, strong and light should sum it up. One of the first to adopt aluminium construction (Pen Duick III from 1967) he was also an early promoter of multihulls, starting with Pen Duick IV. But for me the greatest of his boats was the smallest, the 35ft Pen Duick V. With her light displacement, wide stern, flat underbody and water ballast, this pocket rocket is arguably the forerunner of the Vendee Globe boats of today, and was lethal in competition: In 1969 Tabarly won the single-handed Trans Pacific Race in her by more than 11 days over the second placed boat.

Not that he wasn’t also capable of getting it wrong. Pen Duick VI was dismasted twice in the 1973 Whitbread, the race she had been designed specifically to win. And the depleted uranium used as ballast caused her to be disqualified from a number of future races and alarmed many of his young crew members, who feared that their chances of future parenthood might be drastically reduced by sailing aboard her…

And His Crews

A guy I knew who sailed with him regularly told me that as far he was concerned, crews were no more than a nuisance to Tabarly, who would have done without them to save weight if he could. Sometimes if a job needed doing he’d simply elbow them out of the way. If it hadn’t been for the fact that certain races specified a crew, he simply wouldn’t have bothered—and I wasn’t entirely sure he was pulling my leg. Whether true or not, he did inspire great loyalty amongst most of his crews members, and his campaigns became an academy for future French talent, some of whom are still at the peak of their careers today. Olivier de Kersauson, Philippe Poupon, Jean le Cam, Michel Desjoyaux, the Pajot Brothers, and many more benefited from their time aboard with Tabarly.

And Cruising?

All the time that he was breaking records he was saving money and working on his first love, the elegant Fife designed Pen Duick, restoring her to her original glory. As his racing career wound down she soon became a familiar sight at classic boat festivals and regattas with Tabarly and his friends enjoying her. Marrying and starting a family late in life, restoring with his own hands a beautiful old French farmhouse on the banks of the Odet river with Pen Duick on her mooring below, Officier de la Légion d’honneur, and a national idol, a happy, well-deserved retirement beckoned.

But Pen Duick still had to be sailed, and Eric loved to be amongst other enthusiasts for the glorious Fife designs; despite a reputation for taciturnity, few who met him said that this was so, unless reporters were around, when he clammed up entirely. In May 1998 Pen Duick celebrated her 100th anniversary amidst a fleet of Fife designs in her home waters, following which she set off to take part in the Fife regatta at Fairlie on the Firth of Clyde in Scotland, the birthplace of many of the surviving Fife designs.

Pen Duick lay stormbound for several days in Newlyn, Cornwall, awaiting a break in the weather to round Lands End. Anyone who knows these waters will be aware that that’s only the first of your worries as the next major tidal gate between south-east Ireland and south-west Wales awaits you 24 hours later, and it’s one of the nastiest pieces of water around Britain. A confluence of ferocious tides, shallow waters and the mighty Atlantic swell make this a place to get past as quickly as possible.

During the night of the 12/13th of June 1998, whilst approaching the Pembrokeshire coast, the wind and sea got up and the decision was taken to shorten sail drastically. Éric Tabarly was working alone on deck stowing the main when the boat rolled badly, the swinging gaff struck him and he was pitched into the sea. On a dark night in such a place and in such conditions, even the most experienced of crews would have struggled to retrieve a man from the water, and despite their best efforts he was soon lost from sight. So ended the life of France’s greatest sailor, tragically lost from the boat that he had spent a lifetime preserving.

His Legacy

It may seem strange to have an Anglo Saxon say this (after all, he spent much of his career beating us!), but I don’t think sailing would be the same without him—and not just racing, either. Inspired by the exploits of Éric Tabarly and Bernard Moitessier (talk about the yin and yang of sailors!) the French public embraced sailing as the national pastime, which in turn spurred the development in the 1970s and onward of the colossal French boatbuilders (Dufour, Jeanneau, Beneteau, to name a few) who went on to dominate and democratize yacht ownership not just in France, but around the world, too.

In France, of course, he remains a much-celebrated legend. Most of his Pen Duicks are still actively sailed (as I’m sure he’d have wanted), and as a result his exploits live on. Fifteen years, to the day, after his loss at sea from his beloved Pen Duick, I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to pay respect to a man who embodied so much that is best about France—a fierce, brave, competitive patriot who loved the sea as much as he loved his home country —Chapeau! Éric.

{ 33 comments… add one }

  • FAIVET DANIEL June 12, 2013, 9:27 am

    Bonjour a tous
    Je rends honneur a votre site, pour l hommage que vous rendez a un marin Français, votre article est complet, tout a été dit sur ce marin d exception , je ne rajouterai rien si ce n est que je suis passe devant sa maison en bateau , sur les bords de l Odet, sa fin tragique a été une grande perte pour la marine
    Tous les grands navigateurs ont ressenti comme une partie d eux même qui s en allait Encore merci pour ce travail de memoire D Faivet

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie June 12, 2013, 2:28 pm

      Daniel

      C’etait un honneur et un plaisir.

      Colin

      Reply
  • Patrice Venne June 12, 2013, 9:38 am

    Well said Colin,
    I learned sailing reading Eric’s magnificent book “Naviguer avec Éric Tabarly”; a book written for kids, I was 30 something . . . real gem as humble as the man himself. I since sailed many miles around the blue planet and he helped me to do it with knowledge, spirit and humanity. Thanks Éric you’re still with us!
    Patrice

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie June 12, 2013, 2:32 pm

      Hi Patrice

      He was indeed an inspirational and humble man. I met him very briefly (even shook his hand!) at an earlier Route du Rhum, where we were both attending an event for the competitors, and he was polite and charming to everyone. An impressive man, indeed.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • richard dykiel June 12, 2013, 9:59 am

    Well written, thanks for keeping the Memory.

    Reply
  • Alan Teale June 12, 2013, 10:17 am

    Colin, Thank you for the memory, and for the beautifully written and inspiring story of a true giant of our species. Alan

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie June 12, 2013, 2:33 pm

      Richard, Alan

      thanks to both of you for the kind words – I’m glad it struck a chord with you.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Robert McDermott June 12, 2013, 12:01 pm

    Thanks for reminding us of this tragic event. Tabarly was a true giant of the sea. True to tradition, yet a pioneer when it came to picking the best boat for his needs. I believe he would endorse the choice of fast cats for the current America’s Cup.

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie June 12, 2013, 2:35 pm

      Hi Robert

      I wouldn’t doubt it – he was always at the forefront in the quest for speed – look at his adoption of foilers, for example. He was a pioneer in the best sense of the word.

      Kind regards

      Colin

      Reply
  • Dick Stevenson June 12, 2013, 12:51 pm

    DearColin,
    There is much in maritime history that is interesting and very worth knowing, but their are some figures every sailor should have at least a passing acquaintance with and Eric Tabarly is certainly one of them. And the picture of him: do they come more iconic?
    Thanks, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    Reply
  • Viv June 12, 2013, 1:04 pm

    Great tribute to a great sailor.
    I remember Tabarly’s passing with sadness – he was always an inspiration in a era that brought ocean racing to the fore.

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie June 12, 2013, 2:37 pm

      Hi Dick and Viv

      Judging by the response to this piece he remains an important figure, one of t he few in my view who could live up to the title of ‘legend’.

      And the picture? Very Jean-Paul Belmondo!

      Best wishes to you both

      Colin

      Reply
  • richard s. June 12, 2013, 1:44 pm

    i knew there was a good reason last year when i could not resist purchasing lakota my then-new, and basically still so, dufour 432…she’s not perfect but she has the potential for that with the sustained tlc that i find so rewarding to lavish on her…in return she lavishes on me her inherent grace, strength, and fearless beauty…hence her name in honor of the noble native american sioux nation of the same ilk…many thanks for illuminating the dufour heritage

    richard s., s/v lakota, tampa bay

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie June 12, 2013, 2:40 pm

      Hi Richard

      Few people are aware these days that Dufour were the biggest of the lot in the early days, with designs such as the Sortilege and the 35 to their credit. And as I’ve argued in the above piece, perhaps the French domination of the boat building scene was partly (at least) a product of the national obsession with the sport that Tabarly inspired.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Scott Kuhner June 12, 2013, 10:17 pm

    When Kitty and I were in Papeete on our 30 foot Seawind Ketch Bebinka back in 1972, we were tied up next to Bernard Moitessier stern to on the seawall. A few days later in sailed Eric Tabarly and he turned his boat around in the harbor and back onto the seawall all under sail. I will never forget watching him do it. Those were the days to be out sailing around the world.

    Reply
    • Marc Dacey June 13, 2013, 12:31 am

      Taberly and Moitessier on the same wall? That was indeed a historic day. I wonder if it felt like that at the time? The pair of them, along with Yves Parlier, define not only for me the spirit of French seamanship, but of seamanship period.

      Colin, this was a very moving post.

      Reply
      • Scott Kuhner June 13, 2013, 9:35 am

        For sure, it did feel like an historic day. Also on the wall was Hank Searls who wrote the book “Overboard”. Then when we were in Wangerai New Zealand, we were tied up next to Eric and Susan Hisscock, who invited us over to their boat for dinner. Yes those were the days to be out their.

        Reply
        • Colin Speedie June 13, 2013, 11:23 am

          Hi Scott, Marc,

          Heady days indeed – you may be surprised to learn that some film exists of that meeting between Moitessier and the Tabarly crew, viewable in an excellent documentary ‘Tabarly’ from 2008, still available, albeit only in French – well worth watching.

          And of course Yves Parlier and Eric Tabarly teamed up and won the Transat Jacques Vabre in 1997, Tabarly at the age of 65 showing he’d lost none of his drive. With Parlier’s extraordinary talents they made a formidable team.

          Best wishes to you both

          Colin

          Reply
  • Victor Raymond June 13, 2013, 9:59 am

    Colin an absolutely beautiful post. Thank you for bringing his life into focus for us. I knew the name but never had a concept of his depth of passion for and contributions the sport.

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie June 13, 2013, 11:25 am

      Hi Victor

      As Dick Stevenson wisely remarked in a comment here, every sailor should know a little (at least) about Eric Tabarly, one of the few real giants of sailing.
      It’s a pleasure to bring that to you, and thanks for the kind words of appreciation.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Horatio Marteleira June 14, 2013, 6:23 am

    An excellent post capturing the magic of sailing and its mighty grip on sailboat aficionados. Sadly, sailing legends have a penchant (or courage) for breaking safety rules – not wearing a harness is one of them.

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie June 14, 2013, 4:36 pm

      Hi Horatio

      Eric Tabarly was known for not liking to wear harnesses, preferring the freedom to move around his boats unfettered, so he knew the risks. It remains a great shame that his philosophy of freedom was put to such a harsh, unforgiving test, especially as it left such a large hole in so many lives.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
    • Alan Teale June 15, 2013, 11:12 am

      Horatio, I have to say I am a little saddened that you felt you had to raise the matter of what you refer to as “safety rules” in this context. I don’t wish to detract further from an excellent original post and subsequent commentary by initiating a debate here, but may I suggest that if you haven’t already done so you might do well to read John’s post of 27th March “Can we have too much safety?”. If you have read it you might wish to revisit. It is the most balanced take on this contentious subject that I have seen. Perhaps I could add that I have worked as part of a team of four to shorten sail on a powerful 20 ton gaff-rigged Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter on a black night in a mid-Atlantic gale. Two of the team, the experienced and skilled owners, wore neither harnesses or lifejackets. Two of us, including me, wore both. We all respected each other at the time, and after a number of years during which individual approaches have not changed, we still do. Alan

      Reply
      • Horatio Marteleira June 17, 2013, 11:18 am

        Alan,
        Yes, it was poor etiquette and irrelevant to bring up safety issues (not to mention finger-pointing) in a post paying homage to a great man, regardless of my opinion.

        Reply
        • Alan Teale June 17, 2013, 4:43 pm

          Horatio, Thank you for the response. It is much appreciated. Kindest regards, Alan

          Reply
  • Pascal Cuttat June 14, 2013, 11:20 am

    Great tribute, thanks. And if I may: (…) democratize yacht ownership (…) is for me the absolute key, here: he was one of several great, mainly French, sailors to initiate a trend which eventually took yachting/cruising/sailing out of the hands of a small elite and started making it, well, attainable, as you would put it….

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie June 14, 2013, 4:39 pm

      Hi Pascal

      I couldn’t agree more – without that pantheon of greats the sailing world as we know it today might never have come to pass. Their exploits animated us all – hence this post.

      Non French readers might not be aware of just how extraordinary was that explosion of interest in sailing, caused by those men and women. I was there, though, at that time and saw it first hand.

      And I remember, too, that at one time France’s highest paid sportsman was not a golfer, or a footballer, but a yachtsman – Marc Pajot at the peak of his career.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Scott Kuhner June 15, 2013, 11:52 am

    Colin and Pascal,

    When Kitty and I were sailing around the world back in 1971 to 1975, we rarely saw what one would call an “elite” sailboat. In fact, the average size boat was 28 to 35 feet and the average age on those of us who were out there back then was late 20s early 30s. Also none of us had any electronic gizmos or Chart ploters etc. We all navigated with just a sextant, and Kitty and did not even have a depth sounder; we used a lead line.When we were in Whangarei New Zealand tied up next to Eric and Susan Hisscock, they invited us to dinner on Wanderer IV. They were in their mid to late forties. Wanderer IV was 48 feet and Eric said that it was too big and showed us all through the boat pointing out where it could have been made smaller with out loosing any comfort or function.

    While we were VERY impressed when we met Taberly and Moitessier and viewed them as Gods,, I believe that it was people like the Hisscocks and the rest of us on small boats that paved the way for the many cruisers out there now. (not to mention GPS and SSB radios)

    Reply
  • Elisabeth F. Hebert June 22, 2013, 11:36 pm

    Throughout his sailing career, Mr. Tabarly kindled a French appreciation for adventure by his solo exploits. His second sailboat, the 44-foot ketch Pen Duick II, was well thought out for the job at hand: finishing the 1964 Observer Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race first — in 27 days, a full two days ahead of Mr. Tabarly’s British rival, Sir Francis Chichester.

    Reply
  • neil August 25, 2013, 3:28 pm

    Thanks for this great well written post; I’m just reading memories of the sea in Brittany at the moment and was wanting more info on his death> Moitessier for me will always be where my romantic sailing heart lies but Taberly and Knox Johnson capture my head . :) I love them all and their wonderful books. I was wondering where Pen Duick is now, would love to visit it. ?

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie August 25, 2013, 4:32 pm

      Hi Neil

      glad you liked the piece.

      Pen Duick is still actively sailed, and you can even sail aboard some of the other PD’s, III and VI at least – visit http://www.asso-eric-tabarly.org for more details.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Nick Kats August 27, 2013, 9:50 am

    Superb article Colin, extremely well done. I knew of him only by name & I read this article 3x. Language is a barrier. I would love to see more articles on French sailors & sailing.
    Best wishes.

    Reply
  • Colin Speedie August 27, 2013, 12:27 pm

    Hi Nick

    glad you like it, and thanks for the praise.

    I’ll do my best to come up with further news from France over the coming months.

    Best wishes

    Colin

    Reply

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