A profile of one of the most modest, skilful, seamanlike sailors ever, and a great hero of mine

I’m very surprised by the new solo record just set by Francis Joyon: 668 miles in 24 hours. Not that he could do it, as he is actually the most likely person on earth.

No, I mean simply taken by surprise. It happened on the quiet.

Joyon, 56, is an extraordinary man who deserves to be better known outside France than he is. I doubt he’d care about that, though, and this imperviousness to publicity is one of his special charms. He’s all action, little talk.

I promised a short profile of him, as he’s one of the sailors I admire most, so here’s a short voyage round Francis Joyon.

“When Francis leaves to go to sea, even around the world, it looks like he’s going out to pick strawberries from his garden. He has this animal strength that seems to come from a medieval era.” That was how fellow solo sailor Jean-Pierre Dick once described Joyon.

Like Eric Tabarly before him, Joyon seems to come from a different time.

He was born in Hanches in the Eure et Loir départment, south-west of Paris, a long way from the sea and into a family with no nautical background. At the age of 16 he went on a cycling tour which took him to coast. He was close to Les Glénans sailing school his bike fatefully broke down. Joyon was offered a job doing small repairs to the boats and stayed on. He was completely captivated by sailing.

Throughout his twenties Joyon worked as an instructor at Glénans, did deliveries and bummed about on boats. The foundations laid at Glénans were to be crucial.

The school was started after the war and its philosophy of simplicity, seamanship an almost spiritual affinity with the sea profoundly shaped successive generations of offshore sailors including luminaries such as Jean-Luc Van Den Heede, Michel Desjoyeaux, Vincent Riou and Franck Cammas.

Les Glénans taught lessons Joyon took to his heart: to make do and mend, to ‘feel’ the wind, to spurn engines, sail on and off a mooring and scull a tender quietly ashore.

Joyon built his own boat, a 9m cold-moulded monohull, and lived aboard, later taking his first family cruising across the Atlantic to South America. While in the Caribbean he saw the finish of a multihull race and began to dream of taking part in some of the big races.

In 1986 he bought the hulls of the catamaran Elf Acquitane, fixed her up, re-rigged the boat and did the 1988 Route of Discovery race in her as JB Express, finishing 3rd. He caught the eye of Paul Vatine, who invited him to take part in the 1989 Round Europe Race aboard his Nigel Irens-designed 60ft trimaran Region Haute Normandie and afterwards he decided to buy the Adrian Thompson-designed tri Paragon from Rodney Pattison and Mike Whipp.

This was to forge a lasting friendship. “We couldn’t have sold paragon to a nicer guy,” Pattison remembers. Ever after, when Joyon returned across the Channel to sail in the Round the Island Race, he always invited Pattison to race with him.

Joyon went to campaign the boat in the Route du Rhum and the 1992 OSTAR, with creditable results despite the boat’s age. His big problem was that he wasn’t a marketable commodity. He was not interested in developing a corporate image or in cultivating the media. Simply, he was blind to such essential niceties. Nonetheless, he had done enough to attract Banque Populaire as a sponsor and in 1994 he launched a new Nigel Irens trimaran.

Joyon continued getting good results but never quite managing to win and the relationship with Banque Populaire began to wear thin. On one occasion a PR arranged a big interview with Le Figaro magazine and the journalist and photographer turned up at a weekend. Joyon simply shrugged and said: “Sorry but I’m doing things with my family.”

That and Joyon’s tendency to disappear off cruising and diving all winter with his family caused a rift, and in 1989 Banque Populaire fired him and replaced Joyon as skipper by Lalou Roucayrol.

Here, the story takes an incredible and ironic twist. Roucayrol persuaded Banque Populaire to build a new Lombard trimaran, and Joyon used an intermediary to purchase the old trimaran, which was reluctantly sold back to him by Banque Populaire. The two boats lined up for the 2001 OSTAR: their state of the art, high budget new trimaran against Joyon the underdog, in one of the oldest multihulls in the fleet, heavily built in Kevlar not carbon and sporting a recycled ten-year-old rig and world-weary sails.

Joyon was last off the dock at Queen Anne’s Battery Marina because he had no RIB to help tow him out. Eventually he was offered help, though he refused assistance to hoist his sails and hauled them up himself.

The race favourites, Alain Gautier and Franck Cammas, headed north seeking wind that never materialised while Joyon stuck to his guns. Joyon’s call was right and he went on to sail past everyone, winnng the race and setting a new course record by ten hours. When he came alongside at Newport he had no fenders and no shore crew to help take his lines.

In 2003 he decided to set out to break the solo round the world record in the 90ft trimaran, Olivier de Kersauson’s old Sport Elec, in which de Kersauson had sailed round the world alone with two stops, Joyon did so with the support of Patrice Lafargue, the president of engineering company IDEC. Lafargue has become as much a personal benefactor as a sponsor. There was no formal contract between, just a bond of trust.

Many people thought IDEC would be too much of a handful for Joyon to sail round the world, even reefed down. No-one had ever sailed non-stop round the world alone through the Southern Ocean and it was considered very risky.

Joyon and his boat were more than a match. The boat was big, simple and strong, some might say like the man himself, and Joyon pushed harder than anyone expected and he slashed the time back to 2d 22h.

After Ellen MacArthur broke his record in February 2005 Joyon began planning how to recapture it. His first choice as designer for the new trimaran was Nigel Irens and his design partner Benoit Cabaret. He was aiming for simplicity and economy.

“Francis is someone who works almost completely in a vacuum,” says Irens. “He makes up his own mind about almost everything without having the slightest respect for what is normally considered normal practice.”

Everyone who knows Joyon will tell you that he is understated and private. “He is a very modest character, incredibly so, and a great family man. He loves to spend the winter sailing with his family,” says Rodney Pattison.

In 2008 he went on to set a new solo round the world record of 57d 13h, which stands today and looks likely to for some time.

Irens says the spirit of simplicity is a defining feature of Joyon’s success. “I would say that if you had to put it in a nutshell traditional seamanship values are what he’s got. That doesn’t always mean buying a new one. It means looking at this one and deciding whether it’s right or not. Francis loves all that stuff.”

One thing that has not changed despite Joyon’s fame is his absolute disregard for fuss or publicity. Fortunately his sponsor knows and understands this. “He fascinates me; he’s so simple and reserved,” says IDEC’s president, Patrice Lafargue, admiringly. “People like him stand out.”