One of offshore racing's most celebrated skippers, Mike Birch, who won the first edition of the Route du Rhum on a 36ft trimaran in 1978, has died aged 90

One of offshore racing’s greatest heroes, Canadian Mike Birch, has died at the age of 90.

Legendary Canadian skipper Mike Birch won the first edition of the Route du Rhum in 1978, crossing the finish line on the diminutive yellow trimaran Olympus Photo just 98 seconds ahead of his nearest rival Michel Malinovsky’s mighty 21m yacht Kriter V

Birch’s win was a catalyst to a revolution in offshore sailing, the reverberations of which are still being felt today: cast iron proof that – in the right hands – multihulls could be as fast, or faster, than monohulls over long ocean crossings.

Born in Vancouver, Canada on 1 November 1931, Birch had a varied career which included working as a gold miner, on oil derricks, as a mechanic – where he developed a love of beautiful sports cars, and even as a real-life cowboy competing in rodeos, before he began sailing full-time. 

Birch was in his mid-40s when he moved into offshore racing. After working as a delivery skipper in Dartmouth in the 1970s he entered the 1976 OSTAR in the 32ft trimaran Third Turtle and finished 2nd, not far behind Eric Tabarly’s 73ft Pen Duick VI.

Two years later, he won the Route du Rhum in the smallest boat in the fleet, the 30ft tri Olympus Photo. The nail-biting finish which was broadcast live, making not only Birch but the new French transatlantic race (set up as an alternative to the English Transat from Plymouth) famous.

OlympusPhoto, skippered by Mike Birch overtakes (foreground) the yacht Kriter at the finish in Point-à-Pitre, Guadaloupe, of the 1978 Route du Rhum. Photo AFP via Getty Images.

Birch went on to spend the next decades innovating in multihull offshore racing. He built several Nigel Irens designs, beginning with the 50ft Vital

That was followed by Formula Tag (later ENZA and Tony Bullimore’s Doha, now Energy Observer), which was at the time the largest ever pre-preg structure ever made, and in many senses the yacht from which today’s record-breaking maxi multihulls and foiling Ultimes have evolved. Birch skippered the 26m (85ft) catamaran to victory in the Monaco-New York Race in 1985, and sailed a remarkable 516 miles in 24 hours in the Quebec-St Malo race  – unheard of speeds nearly four decades ago.

He was a force to be reckoned with on the ORMA circuit during the 60ft trimaran class’s heyday, twice finishing on the podium of the Route du Rhum – Destination Guadeloupe.

Birch continued to race for many decades, competing in every edition of the solo Route du Rhum until he was 71. He was 9th in his final outing in 2002, and finished 3rd in 1982 and 4th twice, in 1986 and 1990. 

He carried on double-handed racing even longer, competing in the two-handed Transat Jacques Vabre aged 77 in 2007, with American co-skipper Rich Wilson on the Open 60 Great American III, and the 2012 TWOstar race with Franco-American sailor Etienne Giroire, aged 81, on a 60ft trimaran Eure-et-Loir

Mike Birch helming Fujichrome ahead of the 1990 Route du Rhum. Photo by Nicolas LE CORRE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Birch divided his time between his house in Brittany and a remote cabin in his native Quebec, also continuing to sail his own boat – named Dolly, after his mother – until last year.

While his actions on the water were often revolutionary, and widely celebrated, Birch himself was modest, self-deprecating, and a fan of the quiet life.

“I have never done anything but what I wanted,” he said when his biography was published in 2017,  “But also I’ll make a confession. I have always hated to talk about myself.”

I met him in St Malo ahead of the 2018 Route du Rhum when Birch, then 87, was there to wish his good friend Charlie Capelle good luck, who was racing A Capella, a yellow Walter Greene trimaran that is a sistership to Olympus Photo. Birch was treated like a true celebrity by the gathered crowds on the pontoons, but preferred to quietly step down below aboard A Capella, and chat about the race – politely and self-deprecatingly deflecting any questions about himself. 

Canadian former skipper and first winner of La Route du Rhum Mike Birch in November 2018 in Saint-Malo. Photo: FRED TANNEAU/AFP via Getty Images

“A character from a novel,” is how fellow solo skipper Thomas Coville summed up Birch’s remarkable life when news of his death was announced today. Coville had sailed with Birch on the ORMA Fujicolor trimaran in the 1990s. 

“I discovered very late that he had had this life before and rode the great outdoors. I read his book, one of the rare seafaring books that I read to the end, as if I had read a story by Jack London. This gentleman has always been young.”

Fond memories of Birch have been widely shared by those in the offshore racing community The Route du Rhum, which starts on 6 November, will be paying tribute to Birch with his photo projected on the ramparts of Saint-Malo every evening.

Birch died peacefully last night at his home in France, just a couple of days before his 91st birthday.