Experienced sportsman, pioneer amongst the precursors, all-weather manager and undisputed leader in an industry in which personalities are not lacking; the expression is often overused, but if there is one key person in the nautical industry in general and the little world of multihulls in particular, it’s Jean-François Fountaine. We managed to steal an hour of his time. Encounter.
Because the problem with Jean-François Fountaine is that it is hard to know where to start. His Olympic record, which led him to the Montreal Games in 1976? His incredible career as a visionary captain of industry? The generosity which inevitably drives a man to give up some of his precious time to manage the destiny of the Fédération des Industries Nautiques? The passion which also drove him to invest in the Association Hermione Lafayette? His political career, or even the ambitions certain people ascribe to him? No more, the glass is full. Sorry, the CV is full! And the days, too, we suspect…
However his life began far from the sea. Boulogne Billancourt is already to the west, you might say…but to the west of Paris! Not really the ideal birthplace for a career on salt water. But for the person who was to pass via the Ecole Centrale de Nantes (even further west) the sea was to be THE matrix for a whole life. Through sailing, he turned to racing. As M. Fountaine rarely does things by halves, he qualified for the Montreal Games in 1976. On his return, already at the head of a little group, he created his own boatbuilding business. Dinghies, then well-known racing trimarans (Philippe Facque and the sorely missed Loïc Caradec’s ‘Royale’) came out of the La Rochelle-based yard, whilst he continued to have success in the racing world: half-ton world champion in 1980, second in the Solitaire du Figaro in 1981…if you please! But there was absolutely no question of a catamaran. So what, at the beginning of the 80s, triggered thirty years of revolution in architecture, industry and therefore society for all of us fans of sailing on two or three hulls?
He remembers exactly. In a calm voice, he recalls the photo glimpsed in an American catamaran magazine, of a catamaran at full speed. Fascinated, captivated, as a man of action he immediately ordered the plans from the architect, Michel Joubert. Inevitably at the head of the Association, he launched the construction of the first Charente Maritime. Recognizable amongst all the others, with its curved crossbeams, high above the water, it was above all light – the first boat to replace aluminium with polyester. He insisted on reminding us of the duo he formed with Pierre Follenfant, who skippered the boat. And pride appears when he evokes a very quickly flattering racing record and races which have disappeared today, but forged the legend of Ocean Racing ‘à la Française’: La Baule-Dakar, La Rochelle-New Orleans, Two-up transat… an epic immortalised by Christian Février, at the Multihull Boat Show in La Trinité sur Mer, with the boat on one hull, showing all its power. His eyes became mischievous and with a loud burst of irreverent laughter, he told us what Eric Tabarly had said at the time: “I wouldn’t cross La Baule bay in it!” Obviously, the pride in having been right to dare, to innovate, to risk, outweighed the more academic recognition of the Legion d’Honneur he received many years later. However this was only the start, as just two years later, he dropped a bombshell on the Anglo Saxons, who were then the only cruising catamaran builders, by launching the Louisiane: light, fast, liveable, in a word, modern; this boat had everything and was an immediate success. But JFF acknowledges with humility that this model would make the current clientele laugh. Two years later, in 1985, came another bombshell, the Casamance, which had a really attractive amount of interior volume. This was the start of a fantastic entrepreneurial adventure in a market he helped to become more professional. Up to 400 people to manage, a company which is quoted on the French Stock Exchange, a worldwide distribution network – the days of slightly bohemian friends at the beginning are a long way in the past.
And after the racing and the company management, Jean-François Fountaine’s third life appears, as a unifier of a whole sector. He admits to having been greatly inspired by the friendly advice from Yves Gonnord (CEO of Fleury-Michon) who passed on his sense of the long term. Thus, when Annette Roux (Groupe Bénéteau), whose career he greatly respects, wanted to step down from the presidency of the FIN (Fédération des Industries Nautiques), in 2009, she naturally turned to him, and his name equally obviously won over all the rest. A lifetime member, be believes in the strength of collective action, is enthusiastic about the development of the profession, even in this crisis period, where adapting is a euphemism. He is passionate about the variety of subjects (construction, services, charter…) and the international vision that current events impose.
The interview had not even lasted for an hour. Other obligations awaited him. An aeroplane would take him west that afternoon, towards La Rochelle. He would like to find more time to sail. The catamaran he co-owns (we didn’t manage to find out its name and model, but we have a clue!), after having cruised from Canada to Cuba, now awaits him in the Mediterranean. His thoughts strayed. He remembered all the past good times. The naming of his first catamaran by Bernard Giraudeau (who subsequently became a friend). The dream of sailing in Polynesia. Soon perhaps. But not, I believe, until he is sure that his team, in the wide sense of all his associates, or perhaps even all his colleagues, are in a stabilized environment. In the meantime, in the middle of the storm, many people are following the broad frame and leaning on the sturdy shoulder of this Monsieur, with a capital M. Respect.