One of the first pioneers of the ocean racing multihull plans a return aged 81

There are lots of witty old saws along the lines of ‘old golfers never die they just lose their drive’, or ‘old engineers never die, they just lose their bearings’, I’ve ever read a good one about sailors.

So I’ll make my own. I’ll say: old sailors never die, they just make a faster wake.

Someone of whom this is certainly true is Mike Birch, the Canadian sailor who was one of the great early pioneers of the ocean racing multihull. He is back and on course to do the two-handed TWOstar race next June with Franco-American sailor Etienne Giroire.

The pair are to race Francis Joyon’s old 60ft trimaran Eure-et-Loir. The return to three very high-tech hulls and super-fast sailing is remarkable given that Birch is 81 years old.

In fact they will almost certainly be the oldest in the transatlantic race, with a combined age of 138 years.

Mike Birch is a great hero of mine, as much for his modest style as his firestarter career. After working as a deliver skipper in Dartmouth in the Seventies he entered the 1976 OSTAR in the 32ft tri Third Turtle and finished 2nd, not far behind Eric Tabarly’s 73ft Pen Duick VI.

Two years later, he won the first Route du Rhum in the 30ft tri Olympus Photo.

He was well ahead of his time and has never really retired from ocean racing.

It was Birch who built the ground-breaking Formule TAG (later ENZA and latterly Tony Bullimore’s Doha), then the largest ever pre-preg structure ever made and the progenitor of all today’s record-breaking maxi multihulls.

In it he went on to set a remarkable world record by sailing 516 miles in 24 hours in the Quebec-St Malo race – and don’t forget this was 25 years ago. In the process, the ultra-modest Birch started a revolution, the latest evolution of which is the America’s Cup multihulls.

Birch continued to race trimarans Vital, Fujichrome and Biscuits La Trinitaine before making a return to monohulls in Open 60s in the Route du Rhum in 2002. I must confess that when I met him last at the 2007 Transat Jacques Vabre when he was racing an IMOCA 60 with American Rich Wilson I thought perhaps he might be concluding his ocean racing career.

But not a bit of it. Birch is back, and his race with and Etienne Giroire will be quite a story.

The pity of it is, really, that Mike Birch is a thousand times more famous in France than in his homelands of the UK and Canada, where his feats deserved to be far, far better known. As he has never craved fame, though, it will not bother him one bit.