Sailing: death of Canadian Mike Birch, first winner of the Route du Rhum

Sailing: death of Canadian Mike Birch, first winner of the Route du Rhum


98 seconds! It was with this gap that Canadian Mike Birch, who died on Wednesday at the age of 90, became a sailing legend by winning the first Route du Rhum in 1978, with his little yellow trimaran.  

“It had been diminished for several months. He died quietly that night in his sleep,” France Birch, the sailor's wife of forty years, told AFP.

Mike Birch died at his home in Brec'h in Brittany (western France) a few days before the start, on November 6, of the 12th edition of the Route du Rhum. “He is really the person who forged the legend of the Route du Rhum (…) He was a lover of the sea who wanted to remain free”, reacted to AFP Hervé Favre, president of OC Sport, organizer of the race.

Aboard a small yellow 12m multihull (Olympus), the Canadian had edged the powerful monohull of Frenchman Michel Malinovsky to win with 98 seconds in advance only, after an anthology finale.

This victory of David against Goliath, at the end of 23 days 6 h 56 min of racing between Saint-Malo (western France) and Pointe-à-Pitre (Guadeloupe, French West Indies) confirmed the superiority of multihulls over monohulls in offshore racing.

From rodeo to sailing 

She also revealed this atypical runner, shy, very kind and modest . “He was an extraordinary man. He was extremely discreet and simple. He kept this simplicity to the end,” his niece, lawyer Aline Simard, told AFP.

Mike Birch was born on November 1, 1931 in Vancouver (British Columbia) and it was quite late in life that this former cowboy, rodeo enthusiast, discovered a passion for sailing.

In 1976, at the age of 44, he took the start of the English Transat, aboard Third Turtle, the smallest trimaran in the fleet, designed by the American Dick Newick. At the helm of this 9.75m multihull, Birch will take second place behind Frenchman Eric Tabarly and his 22m Pen Duick VI monohull. Birch, whose slender silhouette and bald head quickly became famous among sailors around the world, gradually built up an impressive track record, taking part in all the Route du Rhum until 2002 (9th at the age 71 years old!). He would finish third in 1982, fourth in 1986 and 1990.

World champion in ocean racing in 1991 and 1992, he established himself as one of the few foreigners to beat the French, who monopolized solo offshore racing in the wake of Tabarly's victory in the 1976 English Transat.

Gold digger

< p>Birch sailed for sixty years, but “gold digger was my first job”, he told the French sports daily L’Équipe before the start of the Route du Rhum 2014. “Not for long. It was an interesting job even if I didn't earn a lot of money!”

Until last year, he lived between Brittany and his chalet in Gaspé, Quebec, in the mouth of the St. Lawrence, with a Jack Russell by the name of Lucie as his only companion.

But, his state of health deteriorating, he was brought back in July 2021 by his wife to their home Breton. “Before that, despite his age, he continued to sail” with a small monohull called Dolly, the nickname of his mother, explained France Birch.

Father of two children (a boy and a girl) living in Great Britain, detached from offshore racing for years, he followed sailing news from afar with the serenity of a wise old man, amazed that we still remember him and these 98 seconds of eternity.