1964-2014: 50 Years Since Eric Tabarly Won Solo Trans-At by Peter Marsh

 Was Pen Duick II the First Modern Singlehanded Racer? by PM

In 1964, when a motley crew of thirteen Anglo and two French sailors arrived in Plymouth (SW England) for the second Singlehanded Trans-Atlantic Race, the scene was nothing like modern-day offshore racing. The fleet was moored in Millbay Docks, a vacant commercial dock basin entered via a lock too narrow for modern ships. The race had been well publicized in the yachting press, but the scene in the historic dock was so informal it could easily have been a stopover on a weekend cruise of Plymouth Sound.

French poster for the 50th anniversary event.

French poster for the 50th anniversary event.

No information was available and no thought had been given to public viewing of the yachts–there was nothing to suggest that this event would witness a revolution in the sport of ocean racing. Only a handful of spectators were on hand, waiting patiently for something to happen, or huddling under a warehouse awning to escape the rain. I was one of them, and eventually managed to beg a program from a race official and started to identify the competitors.

There were three multihulls: a 35′ Piver trimaran with a flush deck, a 30′ ballasted twin fin-keel catamaran, and the 40′ cruising catamaran Dr David Lewis had dreamed up to pursue his dream of a round-the-world voyage. All ten of the British keelboats were typical full-keeled cruisers. The smallest was the Folkboat of Colonel H.G. Hasler—the WW II commander of the famous kayak raid on German shipping (the “Cockleshell Heroes”)–who had pioneered the use of Chinese lugsails.

The largest was the 40′ Gipsy Moth III of Francis Chichester, who had won the first race in 1960 in 40 days and had then laid down the gauntlet in 1962 by racing against the clock and lowering the time to 33 days. He was now 63 but was reckoned the favorite–at least by the British. But a new sailing star was about to emerge.

Lines of Pen Duick II

Lines of Pen Duick II

1964: 44′ Pen Duick II—French Winner of the Second OSTAR

Even to a sailing novice like myself, the boat that really stood out was the Pen Duick II, the sleek black 44′ ketch flying the French tricolor. The skipper was an unknown French navy officer named Eric Tabarly. He had only started offshore racing in 1963 with the Costantini family who owned a boat yard in Brittany. Tabarly decided to enter the solo race and asked Gilles Costantini to design a boat that could win it!

The 31′ Margilic V the family owned was a lightweight plywood hard-chined boat with a fin keel, so Gilles drew a longer version with a ketch rig, displacing 15,000 lbs. This hardly sounds revolutionary, but it was truly an unprecedented step. The unknown Breton designer built the biggest, lightest boat anyone had ever tried to race singlehanded–on the predominantly upwind course to Newport R.I.–and started an arms race for “line honors” that continues to this day.

Eric Tabarly's 44' Pen Duick II on the wind The day before the start, I was fortunately standing by the ladder up the dock wall and saw one of the skippers emerge on the dockside. Having nothing to lose, I offered to do some shopping for Derek Kelsall and spent a couple of frantic hours searching for Tilley lamp mantles and batteries in the traditional chandleries around the docks. That evening, I gave the items to the boatman of the Royal Western YC who was running a ferry service out to the boats in the middle of the dock.

The next day I watched the start from the vantage point at Plymouth Hoe—where Sir Francis Drake was supposed to have played bowls while the Spanish Armada advanced. I recall how calm the scene was with sails flapping and not much progress being made. Hasler’s Chinese sail stood out, the mizzen on Kelsall’s tri looked tiny, and then I distinctly remember observing Tabarly’s father hug his son, climb over the stern of the Pen Duick II, and calmly  scull back to shore—with one oar over the transom. A few minutes later Eric set his red spinnaker and took off for the open ocean, showing every one know he meant business. (Supposedly, no one else in the fleet even carried a spinnaker!)

Then it was time for me to hitch-hike back to London and the high school that I was rapidly losing interest in. Tabarly and Kelsall stayed neck and neck for the first week. Then Tabarly lost his complicated self-steering system, and Kelsall hit a whale, breaking his rudder and dagger board. Fate decreed that Tabarly would continue on steering by hand and won in 27 days. He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur by French president Charles de Gaulle and became a national hero overnight.

The victorious Eric Ttabarly arrives in Newport, R.I.

The victorious Eric Ttabarly arrives in Newport, R.I.

Chichester finished three days later. (In 1967, he was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II after sailing round the world with one stop in 226 days at the age of 66.) Kelsall turned back to Cornwall, replaced his foils and set off again, becoming the first person to singlehand a trimaran across the North Atlantic. But two years later, after Derek had built the world’s first foam sandwich racing trimaran, the 42′ Toria, and won the Round Britain Race, it was Tabarly who asked him for a chance to experience a multihull offshore.

They delivered the Toria up the Channel and along the River Thames to London, where it was exhibited outside the 1967 Boat Show. (Kelsall now lives in NZ and continues to design innovative D.I.Y. catamarans—www.kelsall.com)

1968: The Pen Duicks Re-Write the Rules

The next year Tabarly launched the world’s first maxi-multihull—a 70′ aluminum tri with two wing masts! That was just one of a fleet of legendary Pen Duicks that Tabarly would build, with the backing of the French government, helping French long-distance sailors to achieve the supremacy they enjoy today.

Pen Duick V was a revolutionary design that still looks modern--and fast!

Pen Duick V was a revolutionary design that still looks modern–and fast!

One of those boats, the 35′ Pen Duick V, deserves a mention. Four years after his first triumph, Tabarly’s concept of a line honors boat had evolved to a type that still looks fast today. It featured a wide stern, radiused deck edge, deep fin keel with bulb, and water ballast tanks.

When he retired, Tabarly was able to complete the restoration of the family’s elegant turn-of-the-century Fife–designed cutter, which became a familiar sight at classic boat festivals and regattas. In May 1998, the original 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. At the age of 66, while reefing the large mainsail in the dark, he was struck by the gaff and went overboard. He wore no life jacket and was unable to grasp the lifering thrown towards him.

All five remaining Pen Duicks (except the trimaran that was lost at sea) are still sailed by non-profits in Brittany. They all gathered in Lorient at the end of May for a festival of remembrance at the Cité de la Voile Eric Tabarly (Eric Tabarly Sailing World)–a modern nautical museum and marina where France’s biggest racing multihulls are based.

1960-64: The Evolution of Singlehanded Racing

This new sport of solo ocean racing had been quite literally invented by two upper-class British yachtsmen in 1960. Chichester and Blondie Hasler had convinced the Observer newspaper to sponsor the first Singlehanded Trans-Atlantic Race (OSTAR). Conventional wisdom held that Chichester was too old (58), his boat too big (40′), and the challenging course against the westerly winds, too hard. Chichester won by two weeks against three rivals in 25 footers.

He enjoyed the effort so much he set off again in 1962. This was a purely personal effort to beat his 40-day time, but he agreed to radio reports back to a newspaper. He not only succeeded by four days, but achieved something far more far-reaching: he turned ocean racing into a sport like track and field, where record breaking was an accepted goal.

When the second OSTAR took place, 13 yachtsmen entered, including Frenchman Eric Tabarly, who kicked off the sailing boom in France with his victory in 27 days. Chichester was second in 30 days, but was already dreaming of greater things. And by the time of the 1968 OSTAR, ambitious sailors were already setting their sights higher to the last great “first”–a non-stop circumnavigation of the planet.

In the late 60s, a small-boat voyage around the world was still a journey into the unknown….and a race around the world of any type had never even been attempted. This was also a time when the US was about to win the “space race” to land a man on the moon, and there was the realization in England that here was a chance to show the world that Britannia still ruled the waves.


About seamarsh

Still trying to find the answers to life's nautical questions.
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