Paris – 98 seconds! With this gap, Canadian Mike Birch, who died on Wednesday at the age of 90, became a sailing legend when he won the first Route du Rhum in 1978 with his little yellow trimaran.
“He was weak for several months. He died very slowly in his sleep last night,” France Birch, the sailor’s wife, aged 40, told AFP.
Mike Birch died a few days before the start of the 12th edition of the Route du Rhum on November 6th at his home in Brec’h (Morbihan).
“He is really the person who forged the legend of the Route du Rhum (…) He was a lover of the sea who wanted to stay free,” responded Hervé Favre, president of OC Sport, organizer of the race, to AFP.
Aboard a small 12m yellow multihull (Olympus), the Canadian had beaten the mighty monohull of Frenchman Michel Malinovsky to last place after an anthology final, winning by just 98 seconds.
This victory of David against Goliath after 23 days 6 h 56 min regatta between Saint-Malo and Pointe-à-Pitre (Guadeloupe) established the superiority of multihulls over monohulls in offshore regattas.
From rodeo to sailing
She also revealed this atypical runner, shy, of great kindness and modesty.
“He was an extraordinary man. He was extremely discreet and simple. He kept that simplicity to the end,” his niece, attorney Aline Simard, told AFP.
Mike Birch was born on November 1, 1931 in Vancouver (British Columbia) and the former cowboy, rodeo enthusiast, discovered his passion for sailing at a late age.
In 1976, at the age of 44, he took part aboard the English Transat aboard the Third Turtle, the smallest trimaran in the fleet designed by the American Dick Newick.
At the helm of this 9.75m multihull, Birch will take second place behind Frenchman Eric Tabarly and his 22m monohull Pen Duick VI.
Birch, whose slim silhouette and bald head quickly became famous among sailors around the world, gradually built up an impressive track record, competing in all the Route du Rhum until 2002 (9th place at the age of 71!).
He would finish third in 1982, fourth in 1986 and 1990.
A World Offshore Champion in 1991 and 1992, he established himself as one of the rare foreigners to defeat the French, who monopolized solo offshore racing from 1976 after Tabarly’s win at England’s Transat.
Birch sailed for sixty years, but “gold digging was my first job,” he told L’Equipe newspaper before the start of the Route du Rhum in 2014. “Not for long. It was an interesting job, although I didn’t make much money!”
Until last year, he lived between Brittany and his chalet in Gaspé, Quebec, at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River, with a Jack Russell named Lucie as his only companion.
However, as his health deteriorated, he was taken back by his wife to their home in Morbihan in July 2021. “Before that, despite his age, he kept sailing” in a small monohull named Dolly, his mother’s nickname, France Birch explained.
A father of two (a boy and a girl) living in the UK, detached from ocean racing for years, he followed sailing news from afar with the composure of a wise old man, surprised he still remembered him and those 98 seconds of the eternity remembered.
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