Route du Rhum originator dies

Christian Fevrier pays tribute

Wednesday November 7th 2001, Author: James Boyd, Location: France
Michel Etevenon, creator of the classic French singlehanded transatlantic race, the Route du Rhum, died on Sunday, 8 July. A service will be held tomorrow (Thursday, 12 July) at Notre Dame de Boulogne, Neuilly, Paris.

Having spent five years working three metres from Michel's desk in the 1970s, when I was his yachting advisor, Michel's passing comes as very sad news.

When he first became involved in yachting - with Kriter in the first Whitbread in 1973 - he barely knew anything about sailing. His love was the theatre and he ran a small, Paris-based, advertising agency. But Michel was a visionary.

For many hard years he fought both the French Federation of Sailing (FFV) and the IYRU - (mostly its then-president Beppe Crocce) to allow sponsorship into yachting, thereby allowing barefoot and empty-pocketed skippers to earn a living.

Etevenon was the first to really understand the necessity of sponsorship at a time when rich private yachts owners were becoming increasingly scarce. It is worth remembering that at the time sailing authorities all the world totally prohibited any form of sponsorship.

When the Royal Western Yacht Club decided to limit the size of the boats in the Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race (OSTAR) following the 1976 event in which Alain Colas had successfully sailed the 236ft four master Club Mediterranee, Etevenon reacted immediately and decided to create another singlehanded transatlantic race starting from France.

This was the birth of France's most famous ocean race, the Route du Rhum, held, like the OSTAR, every four years but running from St Malo to the Caribbean.

If Eric Tabarly was the catalyst for the rapid growth of offshore racing in France, the Route du Rhum was one of the key vehicles in its development. With the Route du Rhum, Michel turned French sponsors to sailing. With sponsorship funds, skippers could commission new racing machines. It was a fantastic boost for the development of ocean racing multihulls in France and is no less important today. The current growth in the 60ft trimaran class is entirely in anticipation of the next Route du Rhum in 2002.

Michel effectively created professional sailing in France, turning his side of the sport into something similar to modern professional golf or tennis. In this respect he was many years ahead of his time. He was the first to offer major prize money for yacht races. For the winners of the first Route du Rhum in 1978 there was US$130,000 in cash prizes.

Michel Etevenon also handled the sponsorship budget of Kriter (the sparkling wine) and supported many sailors through their patronage. This included many top names such as Jean-Yves Terlain, Olivier de Kersauson, Yvon Fauconnier, Michel Malinovski, Andre Viant, his daughter Sylvie and Philippe Monnet. In ten years, he gave birth to thirteen Kriter-sponsored yachts including catamarans, trimarans and monohulls.

All the top international sailors of this period such as Robin Knox Johnston, Chay Blyth and Eric Tabarly visited him at one time or other. His office was located at 6 rue de la Paix, near the Opera in Paris. He always amazed me in controlling everything. He hated to work in a team. In spite of the increased work this created, for 20 years he stuck with the same single secretary.

In 1975, when Roy Mullender was approaching Dover with GB II, to win the Clipper race around the world, his wife Jane received a dozen roses from Olivier de Kersauson (who at the time was still at sea) with the message "from Olivier de Kersauson, with his respects". The news made headline news in England, but in fact, Olivier knew nothing about it. Michel Etevenon had sent them, an example of his true 'panache'.

I will remember him forever as a kind of independent Cyrano de Bergerac figure - totally alone. We all will miss him deeply.

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