Yvan Bourgnon: catamarans in the blood

Create a notification for "Catamaran"

Yvan no longer wanders round the Boat Show barefoot, but parades his good-naturedness and his big smile in the aisles. His little green 18-foot catamaran which he took round Cape Horn, with Sébastien Roubinet, is being exhibited at the back of Hall 1. The orange 'end of the world' lighting doesn't really do justice to the machine's incredible level of preparation. Moreover, are the visitors aware of what these two extra-terrestrials really did? The feat was extraordinary:  450 miles in 60 intense hours, up to 45 knots of wind and 7m waves. All this without assistance, of course. Anything but a stroll in the park.
Sailing aboard 'little boats' means being in direct contact with nature, with the body exposed to the elements. The equation is simple: to stay alive, you must remain upright. Yvan has this need to stretch himself physically, or even to risk his neck. Could he have participated in other extreme sports? Without a doubt. But what he likes in sailing is being able to be extremely well prepared. Otherwise? "Otherwise you're dead." Physical preparation of the sailor, of course as well as the inevitable technical preparation of the boat. But above all, an accumulation of miles. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, more than he can count, in all weathers, at all seasons, on all the coasts, in the most difficult conditions, he never misses an opportunity. And never has.  

Act 1: February 1988 on the Atlantic coast, close to Nantes. Yvan had just bought his first second-hand Hobie Cat 16. A dream realised through spending every holiday and every weekend doing small jobs. Already, during the round the world voyage aboard the family's monohull, and not really attracted by the windsurfer which was all the rage at the time, he 'knew' that his future would be on several hulls. For the excitement, the freedom, the speed and the fun. When he returned, this acquisition became a real obsession. The obvious way for him to become independent. The wind was blowing from the west, force 7. He didn't care that it was the first time out, he had to sail!  10 miles from the coast, he capsized. He saw his crew get hold of the boat. Lying at 90°, the cat drifted rapidly. Yvan couldn't catch up with it. "I can't swim very well!" The proud craft 'exploded' on the harbour wall at La Gravette. His crew was found safe and sound nearby. Yvan arrived on the beach six hours later, seriously hypothermic. First memory of multihulls. First of a long series of experiences, which is still running.

Save up. Buy another one. Set off again. With help from the town of St Brévin and the French Hobie Cat importer, he frequented the regattas with his girlfriend as crew, until he became French Champion in 1995. The year of THE monohull interlude: on his 6.5m Omapi-St Brévin he beat everybody, and realised a new triple (see box). His secret? Helming his mini "like a Hobie Cat" without ever taking a reef, for 72 hours running if necessary. Again this physical challenge, this need to surpass himself. The interlude was quickly over. There was no question of following the classic Figaro route, it was to be a 60-foot multihull, directly! Not a career plan, but a way of life. "A way of being". As a regular crew for his brother Laurent, 5 years older than him, and at the height of his success aboard the 60' Orma Primagaz, he was of course on all the crewed races, as well as on all the delivery trips, all the training sessions and all the outings. At not even 25 years old, he seized all the opportunities he was presented with. Building up the miles, to learn. Always. And when the big white bird didn't go out, he returned to sailing his little Hobie 16.

In order to live out his dreams, he launched his own projects, even though it meant not necessarily being on the fastest boats. With budgets that appear derisory today. Two hundred thousand francs (30,000 euros!) for his first Quebec-St Malo. One hundred thousand (15,000 euros!) for his first Route du Rhum. Yvan was in his element. Where he wanted to be. Singlehanded or two-up, it's a question of managing the manpower as much as the material support. Everything rests on the precise positioning of the cursor. It's so easy to go flat out. So hard to lift off when the battle is raging, and the level of competition has never been so high. Until, as a precursor, he launched the first multi-support team, bringing together knowledge of as many fields as possible (weather, physical condition...) with the ambition of training talented young sailors. A project which propelled him, perhaps a bit reluctantly, towards another profession: managing 25 people. A very rich experience. Very hard as well. A three-year adventure which didn't survive the death of the Orma class and the defection of its main sponsors. But behind the round face, appearing almost baby-faced despite the short pepper-and-salt beard, this man's determination is made of a really stainless steel. A will, and principles: never abandon, neither a project (despite being dismasted the day of his wedding – nice present), nor the boat (5 days in the central hull of his capsized trimaran in the disastrous 2002 Route du Rhum). And an image which will remain engraved in his memory for ever, the singlehanded 24-hour record: 610 miles. He was delivering the boat with his old sails, but the window was good. He sped out of the Bay of Biscay so as not to miss it, off Lisbon. He only slept for four hours in two days. At the helm and at the winch, at 32 – 33 knots for 22 hours...until the foil broke!  "Completely crazy, not at all responsible."

But when the ball was over, in 2007, he got back on the water, in a sport cat. Without nostalgia. Without frustration. On the contrary, with pure passion. As if he was indestructible. On reflection, he considers he was lucky to have known all these good years. He just wants to continue living multihulls. On any support. He returns happily to his role of sailor-acrobat. The simple pleasures of beaching in the heart of nature and meeting the inhabitant. Far from the elitism of the big boats, in sponsors' villages closed to the public (heresy). He could have gone cruising in the wake of his older brother, but there is always this need for a challenge which guides him. So, after the Horn, what could he do that would be worthwhile, other than sailing round the world on a sport cat? Of course it will no longer be a production cat, but will be just as powerful, and a bit bigger: 21 feet. A bit stronger, as well, as it will be in Kevlar. But still with no shelter. The pleasure of building the boat himself. Hardly disguised jubilation at again controlling (almost) everything. Small boat. Small budget. An eight-month 'trip', alternating long stages and rest periods of 2 – 3 weeks with locals. Without assistance, of course. Perhaps just a media boat on certain stages. But completely independently: a sextant, a solar panel for the Iridium and a manual watermaker! A classic trip via the Tropics, Panama and Suez. And the Red Sea pirates?  "We'll see!" No, what is worrying him most is looking after his skin. Exposed for too long to sea water, this is the main pathology on extreme passages. So he is working with a laboratory on a very innovative solution. He never leaves anything to chance. Especially when his life is at stake.

Wait! One last thing. A rare piece of advice, because as the anglo-saxon proverb says, 'a bad day at sea is always better than a good day at the office'. But if one day Yvan Bourgnon asks you to go for a sail with him, think twice before you accept. The term 'go for a sail' may cover notions in him which could appear to you, even as a confirmed and experienced sailor, rather 'extreme'. That's his way of life. Perhaps even, in a way, part of his reason for living.

Yvan Bourgnon in a few dates
6th July 1971: Born in Chaux de Fonds in Switzerland
1979 - 1984: Sailing round the world with his parents
1988: First Hobie Cat 16
1995: Triple: Mini Fastnet, Transgascogne and Mini Transat
1997: Victory in the Transat Jacques Vabre with his brother, Laurent
2000: Crewed 24-hour record: 625.34 miles
2006: Singlehanded 24-hour record: 610 miles
2012: 24-hour record in a sport cat: 344 miles, off Brazil in an F20
2012: Rounded Cape Horn, with Sébastien Roubinet, on a sport cat

Share this article