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