“Did you hear that?” asked my husband, Mark.
“What?” I looked up from scribbling notes in the logbook.
“I think somebody is calling us on the VHF. But it’s in French. And I don’t speak any French, remember?”
Mark sounded a bit more annoyed than necessary, but after cruising in French territory for almost a year, I could sympathize. We were sailing in the middle of the South Pacific. We had left Fakarava in the Tuamotu Archipelago a few hours earlier and were on our way to Tahiti, the most well-known island in French Polynesia, where we hoped to arrive in about 48 hours. I popped my head into the cockpit and looked around. Mark had already spotted something on the horizon behind us. It looked like a huge spinnaker, and it was approaching quickly.
“It must be one of the bigger boats we saw anchored in the lagoon,” he mused. “Based on the speed, it is heading toward Tahiti.”
“Why don’t we find out?” I volunteered. Having a little chat with strangers while sailing can be entertaining, so I picked up the VHF and in my best French asked who was trying to call us.
“C’est Ma Louloute. Je suis Yvan Bourgnon!”
Huh? Was that supposed to ring a bell? “Est-ce que vous parlez anglais?” I tried.
“Yes, I do.”
It was the answer I was hoping for. “Did you leave from Fakarava as well? Are you headed for Tahiti?” I asked.
“Yes, just like you probably. Are you sailing around the world?”
“Hmm, no, we are not planning on that as of yet. We are just trying to get to Fiji at some point. How about you?”
“Yes, I am doing a tour around the world to set a new record.”
Aha! I thought. As my brain was putting two and two together, Mark yelled, “It’s that tiny boat we saw tied up at the dock in Tetamanu! It will pass us soon.”
Mark and I had really enjoyed South Fakarava, and if we hadn’t been forced to go to Pape’ete for medical reasons, we would have stayed much longer. We had been anchored in a quintessential South Seas paradise: sandy bottom (in between the coral patches), clear turquoise water, a string of palm fringed motus (low laying islets) with white sand beaches in front of us and a family of curious reef sharks below. All the joys of an exotic location were just a swim or a dinghy hop away.
The fact that it had been quite tricky to get into this beauty of an atoll and a tad dangerous dodging all the reefs made it all the more interesting.
It was on our third dinghy ride over to the south pass to snorkel with the white tips and gray sharks that we saw what looked like a Hobie Cat tied up to the wooden dock of the Tetamanu Village Pension. Upon closer investigation, we noticed that the little craft was bouncing violently in the swell coming through the pass and a few tanned guys were doing repairs. A crowd had gathered on the jetty to take pictures, and because the whole scene looked quite intriguing, we did the same.
According to a rumor going around, “some French guy” was singlehanding this small catamaran around the world. Remembering our own rough and uncomfortable three-week passage across the Pacific on Irie, our 35ft catamaran, our sentiments had been: “Who would ever want to do that on a toy like this? Crazy!”
Now, that toy, a 21ft beach catamaran owned and built by the accomplished Swiss/French racer Yvan Bourgnon, was approaching Irie at 14 knots. During our radio conversation, I told the adventurer I would wave as he passed us, but by the time I got off the VHF, Ma Louloute was already a speck on the horizon. We couldn’t keep up our 6.5 knots, which was actually quite good for Irie given the conditions. Yvan would get to Tahiti in half our time.
Yvan originally planned to stay one week in Tahiti, but one week stretched into two after he bumped into one of the tricky reefs and hurt his arm. He pleased the local press with some conferences and interviews; met up with his brother Laurent (also a well-known sailor who was the first to cross the Atlantic in a beach cat in 1986) who he had not seen in six years and who lives in Raiatea; and spent some time fixing his boat. Famous or not: sailing means fixing your boat in exotic places.
In Yvan’s case, these places had been Agadir in Morocco, Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, Martinique in the Caribbean, Panama (to transit the canal), the Galapagos Islands, the Marquesas, the Tuamotus and now Tahiti. After this, he would continue on to the Society Islands in French Polynesia, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Australia and Bali in Indonesia. After that, his route would take him over the Indian Ocean via the Maldives to the Red Sea, and through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea. He left Sables d’Olonne in France on October 5, 2013, and hopes to return there by the end of 2014. The total distance of his planned trip is just over 31,000 miles, with 27 planned stops.
Initially, Ma Louloute left France with two crew: Yvan Bourgnon and Vincent Beauvarlet. Their goal was to circle the globe in a sailboat without a cabin, something that had never been done before. Vincent, however, abandoned ship in the Canaries, leaving Yvan alone to set the record singlehanded. Continuing on, he struggled crossing the Atlantic and capsized once in a storm with 60-knot winds. Not surprisingly it was tough to handle a beach cat equipped for a crew of two, so he stopped for a month in Martinique to refit Ma Louloute for solo sailing. Improvements were made so that she would be easier to right in case of future capsizes, which happened once more in the Caribbean. Luckily, the Pacific and its weather had been much gentler.
Not only is Ma Louloute tiny and lacking a cabin, but Yvan is sailing without GPS and weather forecasts. Using a sextant and paper charts, he navigates by the stars and the sun, a very appropriate way of voyaging among the Polynesian people, historically renowned as skillful navigators. French Polynesia is important to Yvan for another reason as well. As kids, he and his brother circumnavigated the world with their parents and went to school for a while in the Marquesas and Tahiti. During his trip on Ma Louloute, Yvan wanted to revisit some of the old friends and places from his past. Everywhere he stopped, people received him with open arms.
Unfortunately, although he was already over halfway around the world, the worst in many was ways still to come. The Indian Ocean—the longest leg of this trip—would bring high temperatures and monsoon rains, and the Red Sea means 1,500 miles of tacking and possible encounters with pirates. “My umbrella is not of much use when the wind blows,” Yvan told me. “The sun is my worst enemy, and sunstroke made me sick once already.”
Still, Yvan remained unfazed. “I love the way Ma Louloute is built and how she slices through the water. It would be punishment for me to do this trip on a slower boat. I am sailing at a speed that is awesome and exhilarating. Fast is fun. That is why I am a racer and not a cruiser!”
To read more about Yvan Bourgnon’s voyage around the world visit (French-only) ledefidyvanbourgnon.com.
MHS Fall 2014