Francis Joyon will be lining up on 4th November for his seventh attempt at the Route du Rhum. Francis will be aboard his giant trimaran IDEC SPORT, the legendary boat that has won the race twice – with Franck Cammas (Groupama 2010) and Loïck Peyron (Banque Populaire VII 2014) – and aboard which he triumphed in the Jules Verne Trophy with a crew in 2017.
So much water has passed under the bridge since his first experience of the Rhum in 1990, when Francis, a sail instructor and deliverer of boats, set off alone across the Atlantic, aboard a jig-saw puzzle of a catamaran that he partially built himself. Learning how to make do, be inventive, take risks and show that superhuman resilience we know him for, already made up Joyon and he already had that inimitable style we grew to love over the next few decades, as he became the fastest man to sail around all the oceans.
A jig-saw puzzle of a boat
Francis Joyon and ocean racing. Words that go together well today, but nothing really gave a hint of that back at the start of the nineties, when the sail instructor looking for freedom moved to the elite ocean racing circuit. However, already back in 1986, Francis was in the French Antilles and fell in love with Philippe Jeantot’s catamaran, Crédit Agricole. Although he had no money, his stubbornness shone through and he did all he could to get his hands on his very own catamaran. In early 1988, he acquired the two 22m long hulls of the Elf Aquitaine catamaran for next to nothing. He set up a makeshift yard in a field next to the Gulf of Morbihan to piece together this huge puzzle. The rear beam was none other than the one from Roger&Gallet, which had belonged to Eric Loizeau. Francis made the central beam himself out of polyester and plywood. Using three bits of the mast from Stalaven, Francis built a new one. With sails he recovered partly from Florence Arthaud’s Pierre 1er, Francis set off for the first time racing solo. 17th in the Columbus Race between Cadiz and St Domingue, he sailed the boat back from the Caribbean to Brittany in mid-Winter and all alone during a voyage lasting a fortnight and practically without using an autopilot.
Using a chainsaw
The 1990 Route du Rhum was coming up and Francis Joyon wanted to race aboard his odd catamaran with the backing of Banque Populaire de l’Ouest, which marked the start of the bank’s commitment to sailing. But the organisers at the time were shocked by how boats were getting more and more complicated and expensive, so limited the size to just sixty feet. For many competitors, this was a blow and they were forced to withdraw or race outside of the rules and rankings. Francis was not going to give up so easily. Using his chainsaw, he sawed three metres off his boat in St-Malo. He used the means at his disposal to make her transom watertight again. But even that was not enough and five days before the start, the UNCL forced him to sail a, qualifier, which he did off Ushant in winds of force 8 to 9.
10th in Pointe-à-Pitre
The race would be remembered for Florence Arthaud’s win, but this certainly was no easy race. Without an autopilot, Joyon saw his sails delaminating or tearing early on. The mainsail was stuck at third reef and his catamaran weighed down by the dozens of litres of water she took on through the quickly made transoms, made it tough going to Guadeloupe. Exhausted, hungry and suffering from hallucinations, Francis made it to Pointe-à-Pitre in tenth place after 17 days, 13 hours and 14 minutes, two days and nineteen hours after Pierre 1er.
The story of the jig-saw puzzle boat would end dramatically a few days later on the return journey that Francis carried out alone. 1000 miles north of St-Martin, the boat was dismasted and the fallen spar led to an ingress of water forcing him to abandon his boat. Francis was recovered safe and sound by a banana boat heading for Panama. It is something of an anecdote, but 27 years later, Francis would learn that the remains of his first racing boat were found on the beach at Wild Cow Run, on the island of Middle Caicos in the Turks-and-Caïcos Islands.
See you next Wednesday for the story of Francis Joyon’s second attempt at the Route du Rhum in 1994.