Sailing is a diverse sport and at about the polar opposite end of the spectrum from December’s Star Sailors League Finals in Nassau is racing singlehanded across the Atlantic in a multihull. This is especially true when the multihull is one of the oldest boats in the fleet, being sailed in ‘retro’ fashion by the person who not only won the last race outright, but also set a new course record. However perhaps less surprising when the person in question is Loick Peyron, one of the most famous and much-loved personalities in the French sailing world.
Aged 58, having competed in the Vendée Globe, having set a new Jules Verne Trophy record for sailing the fastest non-stop around the world, having been a multiple ORMA 60 multihull champion, having been part of Artemis Racing’s America’s Cup team in Bermuda, and so much more, Peyron really has nothing left to prove.
This Sunday he sets off from St Malo in France’s most historic ocean race, the Route du Rhum, bound for the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.
Four years ago, just weeks prior to the start Peyron was asked to stand in for her injured skipper Armel Le Cléac'h on Banque Populaire. Usually this would have been of no great issue to the highly experienced Peyron only that Banque Populaire was a 32m long by 22m wide trimaran, which he was expected to manhandle across the Atlantic Ocean on his own. “It was probably the biggest challenge I’ve ever undertaken - it was absolutely crazy,” Peyron admits.
Nonetheless his triple-hulled beast flew ‘Lucky Loick’ across the Atlantic to Pointe-à-Pitre in a time of 7d 15h 8m 32s, averaging just under 23 knots.
Roll on four years and Peyron has in the build-up to this Route du Rhum been swamped by press, fans (he has his own fan club) and many of the 1.5 million visitors who are braving the wintery weather to roam around the race’s 123 entries. For in France uniquely, classic offshore races, like the Route du Rhum, hold the public’s attention just as much as football, rugby or tennis do.
This time Peyron is not hunting line honours in the latest giant carbon fibre multihull, but in a relatively tiny, 11.9m long yellow wooden trimaran. His aim: To recreate the voyage of Mike Birch, winner of the first ever Route du Rhum in 1978. In that race Birch, a Canadian cowboy turned delivery skipper, had entered a trimaran belonging to a friend of his (and the boat’s designer/builder), Walter Greene having picked up 11th hour sponsorship from Olympus Photo. That race entered ocean racing history books when, approaching the line, Birch overtook Michel Malinovsky’s 21m monohull Kriter V, to win by just 98 seconds - after 21 days of racing.
Peyron’s latest ‘re-enactment’ follows on from a previous attempt he made in 2012 to race The Transat bakerly, across the north Atlantic aboard Pen Duick II, the boat in which France’s most famous sailor, the late Eric Tabarly, won the 1964 OSTAR - the singlehanded race upwind from Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island. As with the Route du Rhum, Peyron was the race’s previous winner, in fact he had won three times – once more than Tabarly. Sadly Peyron had to retire from the 2012 race after his ancient craft broke.
For this year’s Route du Rhum, Peyron is sailing Lucky, a sistership of the Birch’s Olympus Photo. The inspiration he says came from seeing another Walter Green ‘Acapella’ trimaran (like Olympus Photo) while out training with Artemis Racing in San Francisco a few years ago.
“I got this little spark of an idea in my head - why not?” Peyron recounts. “The two ‘pillars of my life’, the most symbolic people are Eric Tabarly and Mike Birch.” He did some research. Birch’s Olympus Photo had been lost many years previously, but a sistership was for sale in the UK. In early 2014 Peyron acquired this and once back in France set about bringing the boat back to Olympus Photo spec.
“When we picked her up she was full of winches, big blocks, big solar panels,” Peyron recalls. “The previous owner did a nice refit, but it was for cruising. It had two big anchors on the bow…”
So how similar is she now to Olympus Photo? “The floats, mainhull and beams are the same. The rig is exactly the same - in alloy, with Dacron sails. The daggerboard is the original - 40 years old and made from in plywood. The rudder is not original... Otherwise the boat is the same. We sanded everything back to the wood, but otherwise it is the same structure.”
Getting a duplicate of Birch’s boat was just the first step of Peyron’s plan. He is also return to how sailed boats in this era. He explains: “I wanted to do a Transatlantic like I did my first time, in the Mini Transat in 1979, with sextant, alone, with no GPS, no nothing, because nothing like that existed then. I want to rediscover the beauty of ‘uncertainty’, because that uncertainty isn’t there anymore, although that’s fine too…” By this he means not knowing precisely where you are, what the weather will be doing, having the latest equipment to control your boat, etc.
But apart from his own curiosity, the main reason Peyron is undertaking this ‘historic voyage’ is in tribute to all the pioneers who have broken new ground over the last 40 years. It is these people that enabled Peyron to win the last Route du Rhum in just 7 days 15 hours, compared to Birch’s time for the exact same course 40 years ago of 23 days and 7 hours.
“That is some progress!” observes Peyron. “There is no other form of transport where the speed has increased by three-four times in the last 40 years. The only progress like that has been in sailing and hopefully I have been part of that story too. And for the second time I am at the start of a singlehanded race across the Atlantic being holder of the title and being sure to lose it! From first to last – again!”
Sadly Peyron will not be back in Nassau for this December’s Star Sailors League Finals, but he very much enjoyed competing in 2017. “I love to discover as many things as possible across the very wide field of sailing, although you have to accept that you can’t be good at everything.”
Is the Route du Rhum something which Torben Grael and Paul Cayard be competing in? “No. But that is interesting too - proof that the sailing area is very wide. There are a lot of America’s Cup winners who have never spent a night at sea - that doesn’t mean they are good or bad sailors, they are sailors, but in a specific way. And the Star also requires specific skills. In Nassau last year, that was the first time since I last sailed on an Optimist that I sailed downwind at more than 180°. All the Laser and Finn guys know very well how to sail that deep, but I’m not efficient.
“It was also such a pleasure to meet those legendary guys. Thanks go to SSL for that.”
Pictures: ©Yvan Zedda