Obituary: Eric Tabarly

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The Independent Culture
FRENCH OCEAN sailing lost its father figure with the death of Eric Tabarly. The 66-year-old French navy captain was an icon to all those who followed him, often were taught by him, and a national hero not just in the grand manner of the lonely man of the sea, but one who came to fame by beating the Anglo-Saxons at their own game.

That he should be lost at sea, sailing the boat he inherited from his father, the original Pen Duick, only added to the sense of tragedy felt about a man whose passion for what he did had touched even those who would never set foot on a sailing yacht. His honesty of purpose and committment coincided with a French love affair with sailing and sailors at a time when it was becoming much more accessible to the man in the street, not just the very rich.

Although from the Loire, Tabarly spent family holidays in Brittany, went to the Ecole Navale in Brest, and sailed out of La Trinite. He may not have been born there, but he was an archetypal Breton. That included a rather taciturn exterior, one that was quickly broken down when among friends, especially if they were talking about boats. He could also be heard in full voice when it came to singing sea shanties. Although not an engineer or naval architect, Tabarly was full of ideas about new designs and construction methods, resulting in some notable creations, including all the subsequent Pen Duicks.

The platform was created in 1964 when he won, in Pen Duick II, the Singlehanded Transatlantic Race from Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island. President de Gaulle was so impressed he awarded Tabarly the Legion d'Honneur. But, at a later date, when de Gaulle invited him to the Elysee for dinner, Tabarly told him on the telephone he could not come as that coincided with low tide in Brittany, when he wanted to clean the exposed hull of his boat. His priorities were clear. The same boat took him to Cowes the following year in the French Admiral's Cup team and two years later he won the Fastnet Race, again sailing in the Admiral's Cup, in Pen Duick III. This was a schooner for which Tabarly had worked out he could increase sail area and power without any handicap penalty. It took the rule makers to snuff out that advantage.

His next boat, Pen Duick IV, was a trimaran, Pen Duick V took him to single-handed victory in the San Francisco to Yokohama Transpac in 1969, and then came PDVI. The 74-foot aluminium ketch was the vehicle for three of Tabarly's five Whitbread Race appearances and featured a keel made from very heavy spent uranium. The rule makers had to act again.

By the end of the 1970s it was the French, not the British, who were organising high-profile races across the Atlantic and Tabarly was at the forefront not just in terms of boats, but commercially. His trimaran with foils, Paul Ricard, gave him second place, by only a few minutes in a race from Lorient to Bermuda and back. It also established his appeal to big sponsors.

Last year he won, with Yves Parlier, the Jacques Vabre two-handed transatlantic. Parlier said he learned more new things in those two weeks from the obsessively tidy Tabarly than he had learned in years.

Eric Tabarly, son of a businessman from near Nantes, knew how to apply himself to getting the things he wanted. Most of all he wanted the 49ft 6in Pen Duick and was beaten for advising a prospective buyer that it was a poor prospect. By fighting in the Indo-China war , and also flying a bomber, he made enough money in two years to buy it himself and then spent a lot more and his friends' time rebuilding it in glassfibre, when that material was in its infancy.

He was sailing that beloved boat when he was lost off the coast of Wales, just days after its 100th birthday celebrations in Benodet and the month before his own 67th birthday.

Stuart Alexander

Eric Tabarly, yachtsman: born Nantes, France 24 July 1931; married (one daughter); died off Wales 12 June 1998.