Eric Tabarly never managed to win The Whitbread, but the tough, tight-lipped Frenchman certainly left a mark on the race, inspiring generations of sailors with his offshore exploits and his determination to fight for victory until well into his sixties.
The former naval officer, who fought in the Indo-China war as a pilot, first made his mark in 1964, when he won, in Pen Duick II, the Singlehanded Transatlantic Race from Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island, beating the winner of the first race, Sir Francis Chichester, by nearly three days.
President de Gaulle was so impressed he awarded Tabarly the Legion d’Honneur – although Tabarly famously told him he couldn’t pick it up at the appointed time because it coincided with low tide and he needed to clean his hull.
The yachtsman went on to win almost everything in the racing calendar, including Fastnet, Sydney-Hobart, San Francisco-Tokyo, Falmouth-Gibralter, the Turn of Gotland races and he competed four times in The Whitbread.
He entered the first race in 1973-74 on the newly built Pen Duick VI, but the boat ran into trouble on the first leg; the main mast collapsed, forcing the crew to sail to Rio de Janeiro under jury rig. Later in the race, an even more serious problem with the main mast caused another huge delay and ultimately put them out of the running.
Four years later, Tabarly came into the race having claimed a second high-profile victory in the single-handed transatlantic race. But Pen Duick VI was disqualified for having a spent-uranium keel, which was a banned substance.
In 1981-82, he was back for a rather uneventful campaign on Euromarché and again four years later, sailing under a Belgian flag on the 83’maxi, Côte d’Or. Tabarly was 62 when he took over as skipper of La Poste at the end of Leg 2 in the 1993-94 race.
His leadership pulled the crew together and they finished in third place in the maxi class. Utterly fearless, Tabarly was also a fine tactician whose purity of purpose coincided with the French love affair with sailing. It was a national tragedy when his death was announced; he had been knocked overboard while sailing to Scotland onboard the first Pen Duick in 1998 for its centenary celebrations. He was 66.