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Eric Tabarly: the Best Sailor ever, Lost at Sea 20 Years Ago

Unhappy is the land that needs a hero,” said Bertolt Brecht. But happy are the people who can recognise a hero and love him. Like the sea lovers and sailors, who, on a June day twenty years ago, filled the roads and alleys in Brest, who crowded vessels of all kinds in the bay that is the symbol of the French navy. One thing bound them all – bidding farewell to the man who, for many, was the greatest sailor of the modern age, Eric Tabarly.

I was there, a twenty-year-old youngster who wanted to make the sea his future. Around me I could see faces lined by the wind and burnt by the sun, hair hardened by salt, pirate earrings, calloused hands wiping away tears.

Ten days earlier, in the night between 12 and 13 June 1998, Eric Tabarly had fallen overboard from his beloved Pen Duick during a sailing manoeuvre off the coast of Wales.

Searches in the Welsh waters went on for a long time, involving British vessels and ships from the French navy. The French went mad when they learnt it was the Breton… the British calling off the search almost triggered a diplomatic row, as Paris objected, but eventually even the French had to give up.

Eric tabarly

The Pen Duick survived its owner. Theirs was a long love story. They met during Easter 1938. Eric was on holiday in Basse-Indre with his family when they came upon a 15.05 metre wooden yacht designed by Fife III. It was forty years old, discarded and in poor condition. It was love at first sight for the Tabarly family. Eric’s father became the twelfth owner of the yacht.

Let’s jump to 1952. Eric had joined the Navy Aviation and had started to have the Pen Duickrenovated. He was helped by the Costantini brothers (from the shipyard of that name in Kerisper). What about the money? “Pay us when you can,” the two brothers said to him.

With them, the Breton designed Pen Duick II for the 1964 Ostar competition. Eric managed to launch the yacht just two weeks before the competition began.

He won the Ostar in 27 days and 3 hours, before people like Chichester, who was amazed the Breton had managed to haul an 80 square metre spinnaker – something that had never been done in a one-sailor regatta. It was an important victory for Eric, who was awarded the rank of Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. Kersauson christened him “the god of the waves”, and the name caught on immediately in media channels.

The rest is history. Eric won time after time and the Pen Duick saga continued until vessel VI. Then came Paul Ricard, Cotè d’Or I and II and the Bottin Enterprise. The Breton was also an innovator – his was the first Duralinox bottom, the first bottom with hanging appendages, the first light-alloy oceanic multi-hull. His were the idea of the first ballasts, the first ocean racer of the modern age and the first maxi carbon yacht. His too was the first flying boat, a foiling trimaran.

But the love and respect for him that seamen showed twenty years ago (feelings that live on to this day) are founded on something different. Eric had strong values and he always kept his word. He was a man who liked life aboard, during regattas, with its comradeship, misery and glory. He was gruff and shy, but not touchy or cranky, because “life on board is not for such people – it is made of devotion to the small community that has boarded and of respect for others.

Eric Tabarly was not just “the best skipper in the world,” as Chichester acknowledged. He was a great teacher.

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