tabarly-3041Arguably Europe's most influential sailor of the 20th Century, Eric Tabarly is the subject of a superb film shown last weekend on the closing night of the Newport International Film Festival (Rhode Island, U.S.A.). Released a year ago in France on the 10th anniversary of the death of the French hero, Tabarly has only been shown three times on the west side of the Atlantic, and only recently acquired English subtitles.

Born in 1931, Tabarly joined the French navy, but for most of his career in the service represented his country as a competitive sailor. Sailing Pen Duick II, his fame across France was instant when, in 1964, he clobbered the British sailors in the fledgling singlehanded transatlantic race called OSTAR, from Plymouth, England, to Newport, R.I. In his next boat, an even more innovative design of his own called Pen Duick III, he handily won the most famous British distance race, around Fastnet Rock (Ireland) and back. He probably would've won the Whitbread Around the World Race aboard the maxi ketch, Pen Duick VI, in 1973, were it not for his dismasting on the first leg; he still put his boat back together and had the best performance for the rest of the race. And in his radical foil-borne trimaran, Paul Ricard, Tabarly set a west to east transatlantic record of just over 10 days. Tabarly also trained a generation of French offshore sailors, who have dominated the sport for the last 20 years.

But in my mind, the highlight of Tabarly's sailing career and of the film, was his's second OSTAR victory, in 1976, when he raced Pen Duick VI...a boat designed to be managed by a full crew of 14. Tabarly beat his protege, Alain Colas, who had won the previous race (in Tabarly's trimaran, then called Pen Duick IV) and was heavily favored to win in a four-masted schooner, the 231-foot Club Mediterrannee. Tabarly survived a savage storm in the process and, I should add, was the last skipper to ever win the race in a monohull.

Pierre Marcel, director of "Tabarly", at the helm in Newport, R.I.

Pierre Marcel, director of "Tabarly", at the helm in Newport, R.I. Photo by Nina Streich


So, who would direct an epic film about this icon of offshore sailing? Enter Pierre Marcel, a 29-year-old professional sailor, born and raised on the coast of Brittany, in St. Malo. I met the unlikely director during the film festival and spent a few hours sailing with him and others from the festival aboard a J/133 on a blue-sky day with a 14-16 knot seabreeze. As the professional skipper of Pen Duick VI, which is owned by Tabarly's widow, Jacqueline, Pierre has sailed the boat 30,000 miles, but he was still a teenager when Tabarly died and never met his subject.

Pierre started shooting film as an amateur and made a short film for the Eric Tabarly Association about a season aboard Pen Duick I, from its commissioning in the yard to sailing in several regattas. It eventually earned him the assignment from producer Jacques Perrin (Winged Migration, Microcosmos), who gave him six weeks to edit the full-length Tabarly film. Anyone who has heard much about Tabarly would've known that the superstar was notoriously shy before the cameras and a man of few words, but Pierre soon had in hand some 400 hours of Tabarly fotage and more than 60 hours of audio.  "It took me one year and two months to edit the film," Pierre said.  "Jacques Perrin just kept telling me to go back and edit some more."

The director made excellent use of the audio, in particular, using Tabarly's voice throughout the film and avoiding voiceovers entirely. In the process, Pierre proved the point he made to me: "The media says he was a bear and never talked. But that's not true. If you asked the right question, he could talk for five hours."

How did Pierre bring to life the 1976 OSTAR when the skipper didn't take a picture along the way? Unlike most directors, Pierre could bring his own skills to bear, along with the original boat, sailing it and his film crew across the Atlantic in search of a storm. He got one, while sailing from the West Indies back to Europe, and the footage is fantastic. Married to original footage of Tabarly's departure from Plymouth and arrival in Newport, the emotional effect is on target, even for a viewer such as me, who knew what was going to happen.

I watched the movie with my 18-year-old daughter, Olivia, and she agreed with me that the film is well worth watching. I enjoyed the great footage and the insight into the man's relentless instinct for innovation. I loved the realistic sounds of the boats going through the water...especially the Paul Ricard trimaran, with the wind moaning across the square crossbeam. When I asked Olivia what she liked, I discovered that the sailing was, for her, just the backdrop for the person revealed. She said, "I just really liked him."

Pen Duick, a lifelong companion of Eric Tabarly's

Pen Duick, a lifelong companion of Eric Tabarly's

Tabarly's life as a sailor essentially began and ended with the same boat, a beautiful gaff-rigged sloop named Pen Duick (see photo), a William Fife design, that his father bought. Tabaraly sailed Pen Duick from age 7 to 67, rebuilding it twice. When he was swept overboard in June, 1998, he was sailing her to a regatta in Scotland as part of a celebration of the boat's centennial year. At the end of the film, Pen Duick's skipper is singing a ballad of the sea that foreshadows his death, and for a man who supposedly never spoke, it's a poignant moment in a powerful film.

–John Burnham