Frenchman Robert Scharr is one of the participants in the Global Solo Challenge, which will start in September in A Coruña, Spain. On board Yako, a wooden epoxy ULDB built by himself and designed by Patrick Balta (Enfant Perdu Design), he will set out to achieve a new challenge in his fascinating life as a sailor.
« So you’re the one on duty today! » As we begin our conversation to write this interview, Robert Scharr is in a teasing mood. With a warm and jovial voice, he continues: « Aren’t you tired of listening to our stories? » The question is asked candidly, but nothing could be further from the truth. The stories of the participants in the Global Solo Challenge are all amazing and fascinating to hear. And Robert Scharr’s story sounds like something out of an adventure movie. Let me tell you about it.
Robert was born in Gagnoa, in the centre of the Ivory Coast, and grew up in the African bush between the two cultures of his parents. It was not until his teenage years that he moved to Abidjan, where he discovered sailing at the local school on a 470. A passion was born. At 19, Robert left for Paris, in France; the culture shock was violent. «I wondered what the hell I was doing there! I only wanted to get out of the city. Then I came across Bernard Moitessier’s La Longue Route, and I felt sailing was my calling.»
Robert left for his first sailing holiday at the famous Glénans school. Then another one. And then another… « Atthat time, I was going back and forth between Saint-Malo and Paris whenever I had the chance. I sailed on everything that was around!» At 22 years old, Robert made a foresightful choice. He bought the bare hull of a Vulcain V (Brument shipyard), which he renovated in a hangar near Paris. 18 months later, Robert decided to leave the capital to live by the sea and thus be able to sail on his boat. He decided to settle in Brittany, an ancestral land of sailors.
In winter, Robert began working in a shipyard and felt in his element. Welding, plumbing… He learned how to do everything. On sunny days, he went sailing—to Spain, Portugal, or England—working on an old expedition boat. But Robert was often homesick. He longed for his native Africa and wanted to see his mother and grandmother again after many years of absence. This gave him the idea for a new challenge: sailing to the Ivory Coast with his boat. At the age of 28, he embarked on the voyage with his wife and their 8-month-old son, headed for Abidjan, passing through the Canary Islands, Senegal, and Guinea.
« At first, I was afraid to leave. In the end, I was afraid to go back. »
Robert Scharr ended up remaining in Abijan for three years, continuing with a life devoted to the sea. He worked in the town’s marina before turning to fishing. However, the life of a seafarer has its drawbacks: the French skipper would see very little of his family. Therefore, he decided to return to France. It was then that he made his first solo passage: 53 days from Abidjan to Brittany. «At first, I was afraid to leave. In particular, I was afraid to leave my family behind. And then, in the end, I was afraid to return to normal life.»
Once ashore, a new adventure began for Robert. He decided to set up an organic bakery (he has been a vegetarian for 40 years) and continued to sail whenever he could. Business was good, but Robert soon needed a new challenge. «I was bored on Sundays, so I decided to build a boat. I wanted a boat that would sail fast yet be easy to handle. One day a friend said to me, Look, I have an interesting design; I’ll build one with you», explained the skipper. Robert Scharr had then unknowingly found the boat that this year will see him participate in the Global Solo Challenge, almost 20 years later.
The boat, which took him 6 years to build in his spare time, is an Patrick Balta “Enfant Perdu” design in epoxy and wood. «It’s a very narrow boat, low on the water, and very light», he says. The righting moment is provided by a one-tonne fin keel and bulb with a 3-metre draft. Launched in 2013, Yako deserved a challenge worthy of her, and the Global Solo Challenge seemed like the perfect opportunity now that Robert has sold his business. «I’ve always dreamed of doing this kind of race, but most of the events are financially unattainable. The format of the Global Solo Challenge allows me to participate with my boat and to make a childhood dream come true», he explains, then adds: «We go there to have fun. There’s always pleasure in a challenge. I think it’s to prove to yourself that you can do it; it’s a bit selfish. What’s nice about the Global Solo Challenge is that you can do it with other participants. It’s like a game, really.»
When asked if the boat is strong enough to take on the Global Solo Challenge course and the Southern Ocean, Robert is honest: «It’s a question I ask myself; it’s the big unknown; it’s hard to know. But there are people who have sailed around the world with boats that are much less efficient than this one; I think of Marcel Bardiaux for example. It’s an adventure.»
For the past 6 months, Robert has been working on Yako to bring her up to the safety requirements of the Global Solo Challenge and to follow the specifications. «It’s not always easy, especially on this type of boat. But Marco (Nannini, the organiser) is helping us a lot to find solutions.» Yako should be ready by mid-April for the French skipper’s qualifying sail in May. A return trip to the Azores before going back to sail in Brittany for the summer. Yako will be taken out of the water one last time in mid-August to check the keel and apply the antifooling before the departure for A Coruña in September.
«I think it’s a very good idea to have chosen A Coruña, it’s a very beautiful city,» continues Robert, who has already visited A Coruña about 20 times and can recommend the best fish restaurants in the city. The return to the Galician city will be an opportunity for Robert to write a new chapter in his rich life as a sailor. Perhaps the hardest, but also the most beautiful.