The OSTAR – the mother of all single-handed races
England has invented almost every sport known to man and offshore sailing is no exception. We can say that it all started in 1960 with the first edition of the OSTAR. Sponsored by the Observer newspaper , the Observer-Singlehande-Transatlantic Race actually gave life to everything that followed.
There is no sailing competition in the world that does not have to be grateful to the vision of Blondie Haslar and Francis Chichester who challenged each other on this route sixty years ago. At the first edition there were 5 starters and 5 arrivals. It is not just a statistic, everyone’s eyes were on the event and if someone had died, who knows how many years the next edition would have been postponed. In 1960 Francis Chichester won followed by Blondie Hasler, David Lewis, Val Howells and the only Frenchman Jean Lecombe.
Tabarly and the French
The race caused such an uproar that the legendary Eric Tabarly conquered the edition of 1964 (15 starter, 14 arrived). A legend was officially born which, like all races, was destined to be ruled by the French. 1968 (35/18) was the last time a Brit, Geoffrey Williams, won, but only thanks to Tabarly abandoning.In 1972 (55/40) the dominion of the trimarans begins which sees the victory of Alain Colas. 1976 (125/73) is again the year of Eric Tabarly with his maxi trimaran Pen Duick VI.1980 (90/71) there was a twist with the victory of the American Phil Weld on Moxie. 1984 (92/64) saw the return of the French with Yvon Fauconnier on Fleury Michon, still a trimaran.
The year of the record
1988 (95/74) was the year of records for the trimarans who with Philippe Poupon on Fleury Michon touched the 10-day threshold. The 10-day record 9 that remained unbeaten for a dozen years. 1992 (67/55) was the year of Loïck Peyron on Fujicolor II which took more than 11 days. In 1996 (58/42) it was again Loïck Peyron on Fujicolor II who touched the record with 10 days 10 hours. But it was in 2000 (71/39) that the last record of the regatta was established with the man of all records, Francis Joyon. On Eure et Loire it took just 39 minutes less than the previous record and managed to stay under the 10-day threshold.
The legend continues, or almost
The 2000 edition was the last race as it was initially conceived. That is, in real time divided by classes of length in steps of five feet. 2000 was also the year that put the Royal Western Yacht Club in crisis due to the pressure of professional sailors. A race that was born to become a legendary but had not kept up with the times.
The French sailors asked for the presence of television, greater media visibility. The RWYC remained the club it had always been, which even in 1976 had managed to organize a competition with 125 boats at the start. Yet under the pressure of the young and perhaps arrogant French skippers the RWYC had to succumb.
Professionals leave the event
2000 was also the year of the explosion of participation in the Open 60s. The event had in fact become the most popular for those who wanted to qualify for the Vendée Globe which always started the autumn following the OSTAR.
For 2004 in an unexpected and controversial move, the RWYC sells the rights to the history of the event for an undisclosed sum. Thus was born in 2004 “The Transat” for the Multi 50, Open 50 and Open 60 classes.
The Ostar, completely emptied of professionals, was postponed to 2005 recalling its original spirit with the name of Original Singlehanded Transatlantic Race.
The birth of the Route du Rhum
The first edition of the Route du Rhum dates back to 1978 and seems to have been born of a life of its own. In truth, anyone who knows the history of OSTAR well knows that La Route du Rhum is another daughter of the OSTAR. We mentioned earlier that in the 1976 edition of the OSTAR there were 125 boats on the starting line. Among these is the incredible Club Mediterranee by Alain Colas which, with 236 feet in length, I believe today beats all indecency records. The situation was out of control, the number of entries was continuing to grow.
The RWYC tried to make some order and introduced a lower limit of 30 feet and a maximum limit of 80 feet. This infuriated the French who having already built their huge boats found themselves without a respectable race. This is how the Route du Rhum was born, as an outlet for the excesses of OSTAR 1976.
The debut of the Mini Transat
For the same reason, but related to the lower limit of 30 feet, another competition was born, initially not at the hands of the French. In 1977 it was the English Bob Solomon who organised the first edition of what was destined to become the Mini Transat. The first edition was won by a Muscadet, a 6.50m boat. Also in this case the British did not have the foresight to maintain the control of the event which eventually passed under French control.
Do we want to talk about round the world circumnavigation and races?
The reason why I insist so much in defining the OSTAR as the mother of all races is because it simply was. After the 1960 OSTAR, rumors began to circulate about the hypothesis and the possibility of going around the world non stop on a saiboat by the three great capes No one had ever done it or tried it, the only testimony was that of Joshua Slocum on his Spray. Slocum, however, took several years and made several stops, no one had attempted without a stop.
Francis Chichester, who had won the OSTAR on Gipsy Moth III , commissioned the construction of Gipsy Moth IV with which participated in the 1964 edition. This man was out of every measure of the ordinary, a always out of common schemes. If it is true that he was beaten by the young talent that was Eric Tabarly, let’s not forget that he was 63 years old. Not only that, aged 57 he had survived lung cancer. He was a war veteran who had fought for his Majesty’s army as an expert navigator. At the age of 65, in 1967 Francis Chichester sailed with Gipsy Moth IV and completed the second circumnavigation of the world under sail. Second only to that of Joscua Slocum who, however, had done quite another navigation, taking 3 years.
There is a but in this fantastic story, Francis Chichester made a stop in Sydney. However, his endeavour thrilled a generation because, unlike Slocum, he was the first to pass by the three great capes. Cape of Good Hope, Cape Lleuwin and above all Cape Horn. Technically, however, he had not completed the non-stop circumnavigation which became the immediate next human must-do achievement.
The 1968 Golden Globe Race
It was inevitable that after Francis Chichester’s feat a race would be created to attempt the non-stop circumnavigation. It was 1968 when the notice of race for the Golden Globe Race was published, there were 9 entries. Francis Chichester, John Ridgway, Nigel Tetley, Bernard Moitessier, Robin Knox-Johnston, Chay Blyth, Bill King, Loic Fougeron, Donald Crowhurst and also the Italian Alex Carozzo. The French were 2, it was clear that the pioneers were once again the English.
The first edition was so fascinating and with such profound implications that I needs a dedicated article. For now, just say two things: the first is that it was the British Robin Knox-Johnston who won, the second is that he shook the souls of many. Most of all it was the mysterious suicide of Donald Crowhurst, who literally lost his mind. Among the worries about the debts he had made and the boat unsuitable for navigation for months he pretended to be still racing. This while he was wandering around the Atlantic Ocean. Forced to go ashore for a repair in a remote area of South America, he couldn’t stand his guilt.
With his mind whirling around trying to make his log book credible, he feared being discovered. In the end he could not stand his own anguish and, it seems, threw himself into the sea. His logbook, however, clearly spoke of a person who had lost all contact with reality. Between the last lines a formula, the integral of man from zero to infinity is equal to God. Perhaps by so elevating himself to God, the desperate Crowhurst found escape from earthly death and decided to leave this world.
Event postponed to an unknown date
In 331 days, Robin Knox-Johnston became the first man to go around the world alone without non-stop on a sailing boat. He donated the £ 5,000 prize to the Crowhurst family and the idea of repeating the race was not talked about for many years. Even Moitessier in some ways lost his mind and sailed for a round the world and a half before stopping. Instead of going up the Atlantic after Cape Horn he continued to Tahiti, not feeling ready for the crowd that would await him as the winner. Robin Knox-Johnston, who became Sir, was the only competitor to complete the circumnavigation.
It was only in 1982 that it was decided to organise a race in stages that went around the world. Known as the BOC Challenge, the Around Alone and the Velux 5 Oceans set the stage for a new attempt. Attempt of a circumnavigation, alone and without stopovers, on a sailing boat. Philippe Jeantot, after two editions of the BOC Challenge established the Vendee Globe in 1989. The first edition was won by Titouan Lamazou while Philippe Jeantot finished fourth. The event is held every 4 years and it is clear that indirectly it is also a daughter of OSTAR.
The OSTAR after 2000
The first non-professional edition was held in 2005 with just 34 entrants and 18 boats finishing. It is little consolation that the winner was an Italian, Franco Manzoli with Cotonella. This was not the epilogue we had dreamed of after Soldini’s placements for the Italians at OSTAR. Especially if you think that Franco Manzoli’s time was 17 days and 21 hours, which are out of tune with the records of previous years. Of course his trimaran was much smaller than Francis Joyon’s so we don’t make a question of the merit just it was no longer the same race.
The race first began adopting IRC compensated times to prevent the only recognised winner being only the first across the line. The compensated time replaced the classes by length, taking away the charm of the competition but making participation for the spirit of adventure more fair.
In the 2009 edition it was Jankees Lampe who was the first to cross the finish line with his Open 40 La Promesse, despite not winning on compensated time.
The Transat for professionals
The French, after buying the rights to appropriate the history of the regatta, ran the first edition of The Transat in 2004. The 2008 edition saw the replacement of the Open 50 with the Class40 where the excellent Giovanni Soldini won on board the Telecom Italia Class40. With no decent results to speak of, his Class40 took him back on newspaper frontpages and winning the Transat Jacques Vabre in 2007 and The Transat in 2008 reviving his career. The Class40 was in its infancy and its boat was by far the most competitive.
On that occasion Boris Herrmann distinguished himself who with a production Class40 (Akilaria RC1) followed him finishing only 6 hours later. All that, however, was enough to relaunch Soldini’s career, who however abandoned the racing circuit. Today he dedicates himself more to his new sponsor Maserati.
The French craftily rewrite history
The 2012 edition of The Transat was canceled due to the economic crisis. The 2016 edition was held with the sponsor Bakerley. But it is in 2020 that the havoc was completed by the French. Realising that as a qualifying event for the Vendee Globe the tough course of the OSTAR was not suitable, now it follows a completely different course. From Brest to Charleston in the United States, a real mischief. This event has nothing to do with OSTAR and it is an act of intellectual violence to even compare it.
The French have made a new route in warmer climates, also suitable for trimarans and the ultimes. Unfortunately on the “The Transat” site they still boast of the history of the OSTAR, declaring themselves the oldest of the regattas that have been run since 1960 despite this being now a totally different race. The 2020 edition, on the new route, has been postponed to a later date due to the Covid-19 emergency, and if you allow me, it suits them well. Ruining the mother of all races would require a minimum of intellectual honesty on their part.
They should stop referring to the OSTAR, to the myths of the past, Chichester and Tabarly are on display on their website, and they would turn in the grave. Now that all five original OSTAR contestants are dead (Val Howells the last to leave), history is being rewritten.