The fourth edition of the Whitbread was the story of an old boat and a young skipper from France by the name of Lionel Péan, then just 29.
He had a crew of eight and a 58-foot boat, L’Esprit d’Equipe, that had already been around the world as 33 Export in the previous edition. Having a smaller boat turned out to be an advantage on Leg 1, the first of three victories for Péan and his team on corrected time.
The race turned into two distinct battles, with Pierre Fehlmann’s UBS Switzerland finishing first on elapsed time ahead of the other big maxis – shattering the outright Whitbread record by over two days – and L’Esprit d’Equipe triumphing overall on handicap, earning the right to pick up the Whitbread Trophy from Diana, Princess of Wales. Péan then capped his victory by famously stealing a cheeky kiss from Her Royal Highness.
Péan grew up in La Rochelle where his father was a doctor and excelled at both rugby and sailing before leaving home at 15 for the West Indies on board the legendary yawl, Striana. In his own words, he says he learnt his craft under three grand masters: Bertrand Cheret taught him the regatta, naval architect Philippe Harlé taught him about balances and elements related to the structure and speed of boats while from Canadian navigator Mike Birch he learnt about wind and waves.
Nicknamed ‘Rock’ – and not just because of his rugby physique – Péan is known for his coolness under pressure and his ability to correctly read the most complex situations. The winner of numerous crewed and solo sailing races, he’s devoted his life to the world of large sailing yachts and regattas.
A full 25 years after his original victory, Péan would once again skipper L’Esprit d’Equipe to victory in the first Legends reunion regatta on the eve of the 2011-12 race start in Alicante. More recently he’s achieved some notable performances with VOR’s Abu Dhabi – renamed SFS, including a Round Corsica record of 25h 57m 5s in October 2014 and record victory at the 900 Nautiques de Saint-Tropez before the boat was tragically destroyed in a fire.
Péan shows no sign of slowing down. In 2016, he and his crew spent 122 days at sea, covering more than 12,000 miles on the new boat, SFS II, which placed third in the Volvo Ocean Race of 2012 in its previous life as Puma.