Pen Duick VI is the 73ft ketch built for Eric Tabarly’s 1973 Whitbread Round the World Race entry and is set to compete in the 50th anniversary Ocean Globe Race, in 2023. Rupert Holmes reports

Few yachts are more iconic, or have done more to inspire others, than the late Eric Tabarly’s Pen Duick series. Pen Duick VI, a 73-footer built for the 1973/4 Whitbread Round the World Race, is the ultimate boat in the line.

Although approaching 50 years old, Pen Duick VI is far from retirement, despite having already sailed an estimated 300,000 miles. Tabarly’s daughter, Marie, recently announced an entry in the Ocean Globe Race, the re-run of the original Whitbread organised by Don MacIntyre, and also took part in this year’s Rolex Fastnet Race.

A talented sailor and adventurer in her own right, Marie has already skippered the boat on voyages to Patagonia and Iceland.

“I was looking at what to do for the boat’s 50th anniversary that is coming up, after Covid wrecked our original plans for a circumnavigation,” she told me on board in Lorient, “So the OGR is perfect.”

Marie Tabarly is following in her father’s footsteps by taking Pen Duick VI onto a new series of racing campaigns. Photo: Martin Keruzore/ Element’erre

The boat is already in good shape, following a big refit over the winter of 2011/12, plus a further one ahead of the five month voyage to Greenland and Iceland three years ago. Therefore only minimal changes are needed to make the boat ready for the OGR.

The biggest of these is a return to Dacron sails and replacement of the standing rigging. The aluminium hull also needs to be fared and repainted, while a minor galley refit is planned.

Pen Duick VI was intended to win the first Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973/4. The André Mauric design was built by the French Navy and launched only a few weeks before the start of the race. Unlike some of his earlier boats, Tabarly was not the naval architect for this project, but worked closely with Mauric on every aspect.

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The boat clearly had enormous potential, but the mainmast broke when she was leading the first leg of the Whitbread. A replacement was flown out from France just in time to make the start of the Cape Town to Sydney leg, which Tabarly won. But this replacement broke not long after the start of the next leg, forcing his retirement from the entire race.

However, he subsequently won the stormy 1976 Observer Single-Handed trans-Atlantic Race (OSTAR) in a 125-strong fleet, having invented the spinnaker snuffer to ease handling of the 350m2 sail. Nevertheless, it’s easy to lose sight of the scale of the challenge of sailing Pen Duick VI solo, without the benefit of modern sail handling systems.

Built for a team

Unlike today’s deck layouts, where all but a handful of tasks are carried out at the back of the boat, Pen Duick VI is set up for a crew of 12-14 to work throughout the length of the yacht.

Pen Duick VI is well known in France, here taking part in the Brest Maritime Festival. Photo: Marcel Mochet/AFP/Getty

Coffee grinders, for instance, are well forward and high up on the main deck, rather than recessed in a cockpit. All winches are manual, without electric or hydraulic assistance. Equally, the hanked on headsails and symmetric spinnakers require far more foredeck work than today’s furling jibs and asymmetrics.

This makes Eric’s OSTAR victory all the more impressive, especially as his self-steering packed up at the end of his first week. It’s no wonder he regarded it as his finest achievement.

Equally impressive is the fact that it was his second victory across the five editions of the race that had been held since 1960. It was also the third time a Pen Duick had won the race, thanks to the trimaran Pen Duick IV’s 1972 victory with Alain Colas as skipper.

Today Pen Duick VI remains in remarkably original condition, with the feel of an expedition yacht, rather than a grand-prix racer. Nevertheless, there have been a number of changes.

Originally wire cable was used for much of the running rigging, even including headsail sheets and halyards. It was an arrangement that made the boat difficult to handle, with nerve-wracking snatch loads and massive captive reel halyard winches.

There’s a compact cockpit forward of the wheel, with shelter under the small doghouse forward. The helm has upholstered seating on both sides. Photo: Rupert Holmes

The hefty aluminium spinnaker poles and coffee grinders are still the originals. However, the only sign of the wire cables that were once used so extensively is for the inboard end of the spinnaker pole.

After the third main mast broke in 1974 Pen Duick VI was re-rigged with very substantial spars, with the main mast changed from deck stepped to keel stepped. This solved the problem of breakages, albeit at the cost of an extra 300kg of weight aloft, and these spars have now sailed more than 250,000 miles.

Primary winches are still original after 300,000 miles with no electric assistance. Photo: Rupert Holmes

Tabarly was a master innovator and Pen Duick VI benefitted from a single lifting point on deck which enables the boat to be easily craned out – a feature we’re accustomed to seeing today on small keelboats, but not yachts weighing more than 30 tonnes.

The keel was also a major innovation, though unsurprisingly not one that caught on. Depleted uranium has a 60% greater density than lead, so a much smaller volume (and slightly less weight) of ballast is needed. This translates to reduced wetted surface area and therefore better performance, especially in light airs.

However, the IYRU (forerunner of World Sailing) subsequently banned the substance, without grandfathering Pen Duick’s keel. She was therefore unable to compete in the 1977/8 Whitbread, despite having entered provisionally.

After a refit removed four tonnes of weight and added a new lead keel with a deeper 3.9m draught, Tabarly entered her under the name Euromarché in the 1981/2 edition. However, she proved no match for yachts two generations newer and finished mid fleet.

Other than the original gaff rigged Pen Duick, all Tabarly’s boats were conceived with a single purpose in mind – to win a specific race. The earlier monohulls were all aimed at victory in single-handed races, so interior accommodation was not a priority.

Given the need to accommodate a full crew, Pen Duick VI therefore has a very different philosophy below decks compared to her sisterships and is the only one with full headroom – although one feature shared with the other boats is the full size gimballed chart table with a Harley-Davidson seat.

Immediately forward of the saloon the boat is divided in half longitudinally, with pipe cots for seven people – one full watch – each side. There’s no separate skipper’s cabin, everyone is treated equally. The boat’s internal insulation is old and not up to today’s standards, so in Greenland there was condensation raining inside and the interior is liable to be equally damp in the Southern Ocean during the Ocean Globe Race.

“It’s not fancy,” Marie says, “but it works, so why would I want to change anything?” In any case it’s a lot more comfortable than today’s racing yachts.

Back on the startline

Pen Duick VI’s return to racing began with this year’s Rolex Fastnet Race, which Marie entered with her usual crew, and completed in just under five days.

Accommodation below decks is comfortable but intensely practical, with the saloon split into two distinct areas: a dining area aft to starboard, and a couple of settees forward of the galley to port. Photo: Yohann Grignou

After the Fastnet Marie will be off for a longer race on a very different kind of boat: the Transat Jacques Vabre with Louis Duc on his IMOCA 60 Kostum – Lantana Paysage. The old ketch is very comfortable by comparison.

Looking ahead to the OGR, Marie says: “A lot of people are already calling to ask about joining the crew, including older professional sailors who have already raced many times around the world but would like to go back to the south again.

The replacement 1980 keel kept a low centre of gravity bulb and increased draught to 3.9m. Photo: Theo Reynal / Element’erre

“But I also want to open the opportunity up to young sailors via a fair selection,” she says, “and we’ll have some friends who already sail on the boat and know the boat well.”

Despite the voyage to Patagonia, Marie has yet to sail in the Southern Ocean, though she is no stranger to heavy weather. On the way back from Iceland, for instance, Pen Duick VI encountered 80 knot winds, including a 48 hour period consistently above 60 knots.

In that storm they used a combination of different sails: either the small staysail alone, or staysail plus the No3 Yankee, or the No3 Yankee and the mizzen. “You need to keep the speed up so the sail choice depends on the wind angle and the waves,” Marie says.

She also has the on-going Elemen’Terre project, which uses the boat as a vehicle to highlight the concept of legacy and the issues around it. “The notion is very interesting in many ways and the OGR is an ideal platform,” she says.

“We like to sail with artists and can make a spectacular show in port, with high lines that run from the top of the masts to the shore.

“It’s also very cool when you sail with artists and climbers who are not sailors – you see things differently through their eyes. It’s also about the environment and social issues and the human mindset,” she says.

However, Marie adds it may not be possible to run the project during a race where teams will typically arrive in port tired, with things to fix on the boat, and a short time scale in which to turn around before the next leg.

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