Chart­ing France’s his­tory on the high seas with Sandra Hau­rant

France - - Contents -

Find out about France’s fas­ci­nat­ing sail­ing tra­di­tion over the cen­turies.

France has a proud his­tory of nav­i­gat­ing the globe, em­bark­ing on im­prob­a­ble jour­neys across the oceans and dis­cov­er­ing new lands. The Bre­ton Jac­ques Cartier (1491 – 1557) was one of those to un­der­take a dar­ing voy­age across the At­lantic, in or­der to ex­plore the Cana­dian coast. There, he dis­cov­ered Prince Ed­ward Is­land and the Gulf of St Lawrence, as well as the St Lawrence River, in a trip which later led to France lay­ing claim to North Amer­ica.

More than two cen­turies later, Gil­bert du Motier, the Mar­quis de Lafayette, was to set sail across the At­lantic for very dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Hav­ing al­ready trav­elled to North Amer­ica and met with Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, Lafayette con­vinced France’s Louis XVI that he should sup­port the Amer­i­can fight for in­de­pen­dence. He took to the seas from Rochefort in a frigate named the Hermione in 1780, ar­riv­ing in Bos­ton some weeks later with the news that French re­in­force­ments were on their way. A faith­ful re­con­struc­tion of the Hermione was be­gun in Rochefort in 1997, and in 2015 the ship made the voy­age to Bos­ton once more.

In the 1800s, the nav­i­ga­tor, nat­u­ral­ist and ex­plorer Ni­co­las Baudin was se­lected to go even fur­ther, reach­ing the other side of the world and map­ping the coasts of Aus­tralia (then called New Hol­land) while his home coun­try was in tur­moil. Trav­el­ling with zo­ol­o­gists and botanists, he reached Aus­tralia in May 1801 and mapped the west­ern and south­ern coasts. How­ever, he never made it back to main­land France af­ter he suc­cumbed to tu­ber­cu­lo­sis on the is­land of Mau­ri­tius in 1803.

But grand voy­ages are not just a thing of the past, with mod­ern nav­i­ga­tors em­bark­ing upon equally chal­leng­ing jour­neys. Éric Tabarly was born in Nantes in 1931 and sailed from his early child­hood. It was dur­ing the 1960s while in the Navy that Tabarly re­ally be­gan to make a name not only for him­self, but for France. In 1964 he won the sec­ond ever Transat, the world’s old­est transat­lantic race, sail­ing from Ply­mouth to New­port, Rhode Is­land, in 27 days. In the first race, in 1960, the win­ner Sir Fran­cis Chich­ester had com­pleted the race in 40 days. Tabarly didn’t re­alise he had won on his ar­rival, since he hadn’t used his ra­dio, and it turned out his self-steer­ing sys­tem had given up the ghost eight days into the race. He went on to win the Transat again in 1976, and French names dom­i­nate the list of win­ning skip­pers over the years.

Pas­sion for sail­ing

Dur­ing his event­ful life, Tabarly also changed tack and took to the skies in the 1950s, be­com­ing an air­craft pi­lot with the French Navy. But he re­turned to the seas al­most a decade later, soon be­com­ing an of­fi­cer. He ended his for­mi­da­ble naval ca­reer as a cap­tain in 1985 but not be­fore Tabarly, who drowned in the Ir­ish Sea in June 1998, had awo­ken a fresh pas­sion for sail­ing in France.

In 1989, the Globe Chal­lenge, now known as the Vendée Globe, was launched. Of­ten called the Ever­est of the Seas, the race sees sailors start and fin­ish in Les Sables d’olonne in the Vendée. The chal­lenge in­volves sail­ing around the world sin­gle­hand­edly – with no stops and no as­sis­tance – nav­i­gat­ing the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, Cape Leeuwin in South­ern Aus­tralia and South Amer­ica’s no­to­ri­ous Cape Horn. The last race, which spanned 2016 and 2017, was won by Bre­ton Armel Le Cléac’h in 74 days, three hours, 35 min­utes and 46 sec­onds. The next race sets off in 2020.

Not long af­ter the first Vendée Globe, in 1991, Is­abelle Autissier be­came the first wo­man to com­plete a solo nav­i­ga­tion of the world in com­pe­ti­tion, dur­ing the BOC Chal­lenge. And France con­tin­ues to be a world player in sail­ing to­day, with world class com­peti­tors such as Marie Riou, Billy Bes­son, Claire Leroy and Elodie Ber­trand bravely tak­ing on the oceans. While the early French nav­i­ga­tors were dis­cov­er­ing un­seen coast­lines, to­day’s sailors ex­plore the very lim­its of hu­man en­durance.

ABOVE: The frigate Hermione is a working replica that makes an ar­rest­ing sight

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