Britannia once ruled the waves but in recent weeks France has been the dominant force on the high seas.
On January 19 the French skipper Armel Le Cléac’h, 39, won the Vendée Globe non-stop solo round-the-world yacht race in a record time of 74 days, finishing just ahead of Alex Thomson, his British rival.
A month earlier Thomas Coville, 48, who like Le Cléac’h is from Brittany, set a record by sailing around the world single-handed in his trimaran, taking just over 49 days.
Armel Le Cléac’h, winner of the Vendée Globe, began as a child in one of the French Sailing Federation’s clubs
This week Francis Joyon, 60, from central France, set another record in the Jules Verne trophy for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe. Joyon and his five crew got round in 40 days to make Phileas Fogg, the hero of Verne’s 19th-century novel Around The World In Eighty Days, look a little sluggish.
The flurry of records is in part thanks to highly favourable meteorological conditions. “It is a passionately interesting maritime winter,” Loïck Peyron, 57, one of France’s best-known skippers, said. “It’s very fast everywhere.”
Mr Peyron said that technological progress was contributing to faster times, with foil-equipped yachts dominating the first places in the Vendée Globe. Le Cléac’h said that the foils had been “a gamble taken with designers three years ago. At first we were sceptical. In the end, we proved that it works.”
Le Cléac’h joined one of the French Sailing Federation’s 1,067 clubs as a child. He took part in national championships, was spotted by a federation scout and asked to join its centre of excellence in Port la Fôret in Brittany, one of four in France. They are for sailors what the FA’s National Football Centre in Burton-upon-Trent is for footballers — a potential path to fame and glory.
In 1966 Francis Chichester became the first person to circumnavigate the globe from west to east. Since then the French have seen single-handed off-shore races as their speciality — even if the likes of Ellen MacArthur, the British yachtswoman, have sometimes challenged their pre-eminence.
In other events France is less dominant. In this year’s America’s Cup the French boat is an outsider. In the Olympics, France has won 29 sailing medals, 11 gold, since 1900. Britain has 54 medals, 25 gold.
Francis Joyon, a Frenchman with five crew, set a record this week for the fastest circumnavigation of the world — 40 days — beating the record set by another Frenchman. The Vendée Globe non-stop solo round-the-world yacht race was won this month by Armel Le Cléac’h, the French skipper. He was not the only Frenchman to finish the race strongly:
January 2017 Vendée Globe rankings
1 Armel Le Cléac’h, French 74 days, 3hr, 35min, 46sec
2 Alex Thomson, English 74 days, 19hr, 35min, 15sec
3 Jérémie Beyou, French 78 days, 6hr, 38min, 40sec
4 Jean-Pierre Dick, French 80 days, 1hr, 11min, 9sec
5 Yann Eliès, French 80 days, 3hr, 11min, 9sec