Sailing into history – An Irishman’s Diary on French yachtsman Éric Tabarly

Éric Tabarly was just seven years old in 1938 when his father bought a boat that would mark the rest of his days. He would go on to spend his lifetime traversing the world’s oceans, winning a host of sailing records and in the process cementing his reputation as one of the greatest yachtsmen of his generation.

The boat was the Pen Duick, a racing yacht that was built in Ireland in 1898 for a member of the Royal Cork Yacht Club. Designed by the celebrated Scottish yacht designer, William Fife III, it was built at the Carrigaloe Gridiron and Marine Motor Works near Cobh in Cork Harbour.

The wooden ketch measured 15 metres in length and was originally named Yum. By the time Tabarly’s father bought it, it already had around a dozen owners and its name had been changed several times. The Tabarly family used it mostly for coastal sailing. The boat was not used during the second World War, so it was in bad shape when young Tabarly took it over in 1952.

Tabarly popularised the sport of sailing in his homeland but gained a reputation, among French journalists who had to interview him, as a taciturn sailor

He joined the French navy in 1953 and spent the following years training as an aeroplane pilot in Morocco. He was also based in Saigon. When he returned to France in the late fifties, he set his sights on restoring Pen Duick to its former glory.


He was disappointed, however, to learn that it was not going to be possible. The wooden hull was beyond repair and instead, he used the original as a mould for a new boat, and Pen Duick II was born.

The name Pen Duick is Breton for coal tit. The name is now synonymous with Tabarly. Whenever he had a new boat built, he invariably named it Pen Duick. In total, there were six Pen Duicks built, all in a variety of styles from schooner and sloop to trimaran, and using a variety of materials from wood to aluminium. Tabarly had his own input into the design of the boats, which incorporated the most innovative features.

Tabarly came to public consciousness in France when he won his first trans-Atlantic race in June 1964.

He popularised the sport of sailing in his homeland but gained a reputation, among French journalists who had to interview him, as a taciturn sailor.

However, the public took him firmly to their hearts, so much so that by 1984 he was voted the most popular sports figure in France.

His first big international victory came in 1964 when he won the Observer Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race (OSTAR). He was one of just 13 sailors who left the English port of Plymouth on May 23rd. Sailing on Pen Duick II, a 13-metre plywood ketch, he arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, 27 days later. The previous record for this 3,000-mile race was 33 days. In recognition of his feat, President de Gaulle made him a chevalier of the légion d’honneur.

His sailing and navigation skills were extraordinary and the records kept on coming. In 1967, Tabarly earned a plethora of solo and group sailing titles. As a member of the French team, he won the Channel Race and the Fastnet Race.

Sailing solo the same year, he won the Sydney to Hobart race. Two years later, he won the trans-Pacific race, a feat he repeated in 1972.

His next big achievement came in 1976 when he sailed once more from Plymouth to Newport. This time, he made the crossing in Pen Duick VI, a 22-metre long boat that was designed to be sailed by a crew of fourteen. He was the only sailor on board. He had to battle against some of the worst weather in the history of the race, which included force-ten winds which raged at over 100 km/h and swells of six to seven metres. His vessel became lost from view and the French navy even sent a boat to locate him. Initially, he made use of the automatic pilot, but it broke during the competition and he briefly thought about abandoning the race altogether. He persevered and went on to win the title. He later said that this was his favourite race.

Tabarly continued to sail competitively well into his sixties. The original Pen Duick was restored several times and in June 1998, Tabarly was sailing to Scotland on the restored boat to take part in festivities to mark its centenary. On the night of June 12th, disaster struck when he was knocked overboard while changing a sail in rough seas off the coast of Wales.

Despite efforts by the crew, he could not be located. When news of the tragedy reached France, the prime minister said that Tabarly was “the very symbol of yachting for the people of France” and the National Assembly held a minute’s silence in his honour. He was just 66 years old.