For 17 years between 1977 and 1994, Pierre Fehlmann devoted his professional energies to the Whitbread Round the World Race. As the skipper of Swiss entries, with almost exclusively Swiss crews – bar the odd Frenchman or Kiwi – he has done more for the sport in his native country than almost anyone else.
His illustrious Whitbread record began in the 1977-78 edition as skipper of Disque d’Or. They finished the 26,780nm course in fourth place. In the next edition he finished fourth again aboard Disque d’Or III. This was the edition in which furious storms led to three yachts being dismasted in the first leg and damage being reported by 21 out of 29 of entries.
By this stage in his career, Fehlmann was no stranger to bruising Atlantic encounters. In 1976, aged 34, he was forced to abandon his boat Gauloises during the Transat after suffering damage during a Force 10 storm. With a background in engineering and computer sales, Fehlmann’s expertise was in tapping into corporate budgets to fund new builds – and for the 1985-86 race the result was UBS Switzerland.
He established the Swiss shipyard Decision SA in order to build the boat, the first maxi to be built in composite in the country. After pulling off a brilliant tactical move on the first leg which resulted in them finishing 16 hours ahead of the fleet in Cape Town, Fehlmann explained: “We based our strategy on a computer study of the weather patterns for the past four years.”
Fehlmann and his crew also won the third leg. In one seven-hour period, the UBS crew completed 14 sail changes in a bid to maintain speed. An entry from their log read: “We are crazy.
Eighteen to 20 knots with flanker, close to broaching, just under the boat’s safety limit. But we don’t know what the safety limit is.” The boat again finished fourth overall. Fehlmann was back for the next two editions, finishing third with Merit in 1989-90 and second with Merit Cup in the Maxi class of 1993-94.
He began sailing early – ‘since I was born’ he once said. And he once claimed that it was the skills he learnt dinghy sailing on lakes that he took to offshore racing. “I simply imitated on a twenty-metre boat what I was doing in the dinghy,” he once recalled.