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Eric Tabarly (1931 - 1998) lost overboard 20 years ago

by Brian Hancock 13 Jun 13:35 PDT 14 June 2018
Eric Tabarly © vozdelosvientos.com

Many wonder why France is regarded as the top trans-oceanic sailing nation. The answer has just two words - Eric Tabarly.

Brian Hancock remembers the hero of the French sailing nation 20 years on from his surprising death at sea.

Twenty years ago today the world lost a great sailor. Eric Tabarly was regarded by many of his peers as one of the best offshore sailor ever and he inspired more than a generation of French sailors to follow in his wake.

It’s probably true to say that the reason the French are such incredible offshore sailors is because Tabarly inspired them. He inspired me. I met him a few times and his presence was magnetic. He was truly French from the rough unshaven look, twinkling eye and the ever present gauloises dangling from his mouth. He was a man’s man, an individualistic person and a damn good sailor.

Tabarly was a naval officer who sailed when he could but he had big ambitions when it came to sailing. The pre-eminent offshore race at the time was the single-handed transatlantic from England to the United States and Tabarly wanted to win it. He raced in the 1964 edition and won with a time of twenty-seven days and three hours. This achievement earned him instant fame and the rank of Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur or The Legion of Honour, one of France’s highest civilian awards. He also received the Blue Water Medal for his victory.

Eric Tabarly went on to win many more prestigious offshore races and quickly became a household name not only in France but across most of Europe. He was an incredible ambassador for the sport and many top French sailors like Olivier de Kersauson, Yves Parlier and Loick Peyron say forcefully that it was Tabarly that inspired and motivated them to become world class competitors.

There is a good story that pretty much sums up his view about boats. In 1989 I was in Southampton aboard Fazisi, the first, and by happenstance, last Soviet Union entry in the Whitbread Round the World Race. The boat was pretty rough, bare aluminium, low slung with very little headroom, pretty much unfinished but we were getting it ready for the first leg of the Whitbread which was due to start the following day. Conny Van Rietschoten, who had won two previous version of the race, asked to come onboard to take a look around. I could see the look of absolute horror in his eyes. He could not believe that we were planning on sailing such a monstrosity around the world. He left shaking his head. A while later there was a knock on the hull. It was Eric Tabarly and he asked if he could have a look around. I helped him onboard and he went down below. I can still remember his look as well. He beamed broadly. “C’est bien,” he said. “Magnifique.” He was clearly impressed with the sparse layout and rough living conditions.

A few years later I was sailing my own boat single-handed across the Atlantic. I loved to listen to the BBC World Service and tuned into the evening news. The announcer said something about a famous sailor that had been swept overboard from his boat and was presumed lost at sea. I missed the first part of the broadcast and didn’t catch the sailors name but stayed tuned to the radio to see if I could find out who it was on the next hourly news cycle. When the announcer said it was Eric Tabarly who had been lost as sea I was stunned. How could someone so experienced fall overboard? I was sailing alone and had not been wearing a harness of any kind but after that bit of news I wore one for the rest of the passage.

Tabarly was sailing his century-old sailboat, Pen Duick off the coast of Wales when he was reportedly hit by the gaff. The wind had been increasing in the night and Tabarly and his crew were lowering the mainsail and preparing to hoist storm sails when the boat lurched and along with a blow by the gaff he was knocked overboard. The crew threw him a lifejacket but later admitted that they could not see him and he likely never saw the lifejacket. They conducted a search and alerted the search and rescue authorities but his body was never found. As an indication of the kind of impact that Eric Tabarly had on the French public President Jacques Chirac announced, “Despite the last searches that seemed in vain, I didn't dare believe the demise of Eric Tabarly. It is with great sadness and much emotion that I now give in to the evidence.''

I am of the very strong belief that the main reason that the French dominate offshore sailing is because of Tabarly. He is still revered among the French sailors. When they talk about him there is a mist that comes over their eyes.

For the rest of this tribute, other images and others in the series click here

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