Performing a Circus on a Sailboat

Franck Rabilier and Delphine Lechifflart lead no ordinary life. As liveaboard sailors and professional acrobats who use their sailboat as a stage, they are something of a modern-day traveling circus.
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Franck Rabilier and Delphine Lechifflart lead no ordinary life. As liveaboard sailors and professional acrobats who use their 37ft sailboat, La Loupiote, as a stage, they are something of a modern-day traveling circus, casting performances around the world.

Along with their two daughters, Loeva, 13, and Ondja, 5, the couple uses the boat and its rigging to deliver breathtaking performances in marinas and on docks three to four times a week. “We use everything. The mast and boom, the sails, the spinnaker pole, the dinghy…you name it,” Rabilier says.

The show consists of two 20-minute performances: “The Sailors,” a slapstick comedy about a captain and his crew inspired by the couple’s own sailing experience, and “Between Wing and Island,” a romantic, sensual performance. Suspended from the mast by silk fabric, the couple uses intricate choreography set to an original score as they perform before a beautiful sunset backdrop.

Rabilier and Lechifflart were first inspired to perform on board in 1995, when they were sailing from Canada to their native France. “We wanted to travel. As performance artists, we wanted our own stage so we could perform anytime and in as many places as possible. We wanted to touch people’s lives,” Rabilier explains.

Finding the right sailboat proved difficult, but when Rabilier saw the Gin Fizz design in a boatyard in France, with its 13ft beam, 6ft draft and spacious flat deck perfect for acrobatic maneuvering, he fell in love. He purchased the boat in 2004, refurbished it, and named it, and his company, La Loupiote, meaning “small light” or “welcome light.”

“With the boat, he had our own stage,” Rabilier says. “We started with very little, imagined everything we wanted the show to be and then created it.”

The couple’s first performance was in Portugal in 2005. “At first, we just wanted to experiment with what we could do. We did improv shows and it was terrifying because we didn’t have set stunts,” says Rabilier. They continued to grow and learn and since then, have performed 600 times around the globe, most recently in Mexico, French Polynesia, and now in New Zealand.

Because the family embraces street art philosophy, admission is donation-based. “We’re by the hat. We want to introduce everyone to the show and have them love it, and people are very generous,” says Rabilier. “It’s nice when someone from the audience comes up to you with tears in his or her eyes and says that it was such a moving performance.”

Moving enough, in fact, that the family survives solely on donations from the show. Most of their income goes toward keeping the boat and rigging in top shape, which is vital to the acrobats’ safety. “We maintain everything and replace lines often. I’m lucky I can repair most things myself. When it comes to performing and to sailing, we just try to stay alive,” Rabilier says.

Rabilier has been an acrobat and sailor since he was 12, so it’s only natural for him to raise his daughters the same way, and they play a crucial role in the performance. Before each show, Rabilier and Lechifflart prep La Loupiote while their daughters complete onboard chores and pass out fliers to the audience. Loeva, the older daughter, had a role in the show a few years ago, but now takes care of her sister during the performance.

The most difficult part of the show is constantly modifying stunts for safety due to unpredictable wake from passing boats. Rabilier and Lechifflart must also acquire permission to perform at marinas in countries that have not yet heard of La Loupiote, which, at times, can prove challenging.

When the family is not performing, they’re living somewhat normal cruising lives. On board, the two experienced sailors teach their daughters how to sail, and homeschool them to ensure they pass French education requirements. The family spends lots of time together and also trains for upcoming shows through rigorous weight training and exercise.

Looking forward, Rabilier and Lechifflart hope to return to France to visit loved ones and start work on their next show, in which Ondja will have her first appearance. “We want this next show to be something special,” says Rabilier. “We want to present our emotional journey and express life’s hardships through dance and acrobatics both on board and in theatres. That’s the goal, but who knows what will happen. Life is always exciting!”

To book La Loupiote for a performance and get more information, go to voilierspectacle.com.

Photos courtesy of Franck Rabilier

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