One Frenchman’s Obsession with Slocum and the Spray

In the Wake of the Spray

Guy Bernardin is a French racing sailor who had an impressive racing career in the 1980s sailing in the new Open 60 class in the OSTAR, the Route du Rhum, two BOC round-the-world races and the Vendée Globe in 1990. He never quite made it to the top of the podium and by 1992, he was looking for a new sailing challenge. “ I was tired of ocean racing and wanted to do something different. I’d recently re-read Slocum’s book, and found myself thinking about the Spray’s sailing characteristics,” he wrote.

I was skeptical yet curious about Slocum’s claims that the boat would self-steer and decided the only way to check them was to replicate the adventure. So I began to look for a Spray.”  With all the Spray replicas available in the world, finding one for sale is not hard , but

Bernardin didn’t want a modernized, updated version, he wanted the real thing, like a boat he seen while transiting the Panama Canal in 1976 named the Scud.

Even then had been so intrigued that he had examined it minutely. The Scud was the ultimate Spray replica, built in 1975 in Noank, Connecticut from Virginia pine planking over oak frames with painstaking attention to authenticity. The cast-iron steering wheel and windlass were identical copies specially cast by the same foundry in Nova Scotia, and even the interior was modeled precisely on the Spray.

One day he heard about a Spray replica for sale in a far-flung corner of the north-eastern US – but was warned it “was pretty basic.” The boat was Scud! He bought it in 1992 and renamed it Spray of Saint-Briac – after a little fishing village on Brittany’s northern coast where his grandfather (a former tall ship skipper) taught him to sail.

Learning to Sail Again

For someone accustomed to sailing fast boats like the Open 60s, learning to handle the Spray was a hard grind,” he reported. “Quite simply, I had to learn how to sail all over again and forget everything I’d done in the past. I can’t tell you how many times I had to clench my fists and my teeth to keep my calm in order to persevere with my grueling apprenticeship. To fathom Spray, and to sail her in accordance with her personality, I had to transport myself back to the time of Joshua Slocum and my grandfather.”              

“But what a joy it was to delve into the mysteries of this legendary vessel! I learned, sometimes painfully, the subtleties of this boat that reveal her as a marvel of naval architecture, the result of two centuries of breeding and molding through generation after generation. As the miles went by, this intimacy brought the contentment of being on the water to a new level, and the magic of Spray of Saint Briac would erase all notion of time and place.”

Guy and his family– his wife  Annick and 3-year-old son Briac– sailed back to Spain, weathering Hurricane Chantal along the way, and decided this was indeed the right cruising oat for a circumnavigation. Their plan was to follow the Spray’s route and arrive back in Newport R.I. in time for the celebration of the centennial of Slocum’s voyage in 1999. They missed the weather window to go around South America, so the next year, 1996, they headed south to the Canary islands and the Panama Canal.

Guy’s admiration for the Spray continued to develop as they joined Slocum’s route in the South Pacific and returned to the US via via Australia and South Africa: “She’s an excellent blue water boat – reaching 5.5 knots in a decent wind – 20-25 knots. Four knots is a more typical speed.” The sail plan allows one to balance the boat very easily, and lashing the helm, she self-steers on any point of sail.”

The climax was the return to Fairhaven. “The last few yards that brought us to the anchorage at Poverty Point were the most moving of them all. Preceded by a fireboat, with its water jets all in action, and a police boat, with the port captain aboard, lights flashing, and sirens screaming, we followed, a hundred years later, the course that led Captain Slocum to the conclusion of his incredible voyage. Tears of emotion ran down our cheeks and those of many of the other participants in the celebration. We’d never felt Captain Slocum’s presence so close….”

This adventure is described in Guy’s book “Sailing Around the World: A Family Retraces Joshua Slocum’s Voyage,”published by Sheridan House in the fall of 2002. That would have satisfied any other Slocum fan–but no sooner was the book completed than Bernardin began dreaming again. At the age of 60, he woke up one night and had a vision of a solo voyage, west to east through the southern ocean in the Spray.

Destiny Calls

“I think it is part of my destiny. I was the same age at the centenary trip as Slocum was. He was a British American and I am a French American. I feel every time I sail in Spray that I have a real contact with the past. There are no time limits and you have no cares for what is happening on land.….this is about gaining a greater understanding of the Slocum psyche,” he explained.

He undertook his circumnavigation with no financial backing, and the active support only of his webmaster in France, In September 2005, he departed from Les Sables d’Olonne, the French port that has become famous as the start and finish of the Vendee Globe solo non-stop race. He had originally planned to make the voyage non-stop but was soon forced to accept that the Spray of St Briac was not up to the task.

A broken chainplate forced a stop in Nambia’s Walvis Bay. He pulled into Cape Town 117 days later in March 2006. (Today, that is considered a slow time for a circumnavigation in an Open 60!) After a refit and a three-month visit with his son, aged 13, in France, Bernardin returned to his quest. He plunged back into the Roaring Forties at the start of the southern summer. His idea now was to take his time and reach New Zealand on the second leg. “I was very unrealistic to think I could do a non-stop voyage,” he admitted. This was still a huge challenge.

The Spray was a converted fishing boat with only internal ballast, so Bernardin was relying on a mere 1.4 tonnes of iron ingots in the bilge to bring the boat back from a knockdown, just like Slocum. Would they fall out if he rolled? “They might,” he answered. The only modern additions are an 80hp Iveco diesel and limited electronics (SSB radio, GPS and battery-powered radar alarm), and remember he was sailing without self-steering as we know it!

It took three months to reach the Bass Strait between Australia and Tasmania, and he then spent seven days tacking against uncharacteristic easterly gales. Nonetheless he pressed on across the Tasman Sea while pumping between 700 and 1,000 liters of water a day after a leak appeared around a keel bolt. He reached Opua, north of Auckland, New Zealand after another marathon passage of 105 days at sea.

The only stories in English about this amazing voyage appeared in two local papers at this time. Guy told one reporter that in rough weather he usually puts two reefs in the main, and in stronger wind drops it entirely and uses the staysail. “It is quite incredible – with the wheel lashed – how the boat steers itself.” He sometimes streams a 200m warp over the stern in a big loop, to help the boat track in large, following seas.

What does he do at night? “Usually I sleep right through. In shipping lanes, I wake up every hour to have a look around, and I have a little radar alarm which works very well.” Even his supplies are sparse. He ate a lot of full grain rice and spaghetti, while fresh water is carried in a collection of 10- and 20-litre containers and bottled water. He relied heavily on catching rain water.– there are no wind chargers or solar panels

Pictures of the Spray of Saint-Briac on the hard show a very basic wood hull looking the worse for wear, more like an old fishboat than a yacht, with peeling paint and rusting hardware. Again the skipper began his routine of replacing rotten wood and repairing broken fittings. Then a flight back to France, then a return to the boat for more work culminating in a fresh coat of paint. The southern summer arrived and by October he was ready for the final challenge–Cape Horn and north to France by June, before the schools following his trip via his SSB broadcasts begin their vacation.

From New Zealand, the long voyage continued along the Roaring Forties. Now the rigors of the voyage began to take a toll on the skipper. The numerous leaks had not been cured and much pumping was required, and Bernardin’s strength began to fail—he thought from a possible dietary deficiency. So Chile became the next unplanned stop.

He had arrived there twice before, both times also unplanned on naval vessels of the Armada of Chile. They had rescued him from a liferaft on two occasions after his yachts sank in appalling conditions. (He had named one of his racing boats Rancagua after the ship that rescued him.)

Again he was very short on funds to pay for more repairs, but found help from local sailors. Realizing that he had run out of time, he sailed north to the Panama Canal, and a return to American waters, when he stopped briefly in Florida.  When he passed north of Bermuda, Guy paid a solitary homage to Slocum who had disappeared in this area by dropping a message in a bottle and some red, white and blue flowers overboard.

 The final leg from New Zealand took six months at sea, making he total time on the water 405 days, with another 400 spent working on the boat onshore! On his return to France, the town of Les Sables welcomed him like a lost son. As he ghosted up to the breakwater, he was escorted  by two modern ocean racers. One was the Open 60 Akena on which  Arnaud Boissières is already planning his entry in the next Vendée-Globe.

The other was the 84’ Adrien II in which Jean-Luc Van den Heede set the record for a non-stop circumnavigation in the “reverse” direction in just 122 days. “Never could I do what Bernardin has just accomplished, declared VDH to the Agence France Presse reporter. “It is the exploit of a mariner with exceptional physical and psychological strength.”

At the conclusion of his epic voyage “a l’ancienne” (old-style) Guy was welcomed at the dock by an enthusiastic party of local school children–who had followed his exploits for the entire three years—and a low-key group of reporters, friends and well-wishers. Noticeably absent in any of the French reports was any mention of his son Briac, now 16 and a very competent sailor, and his wife Annick. So at the voyage’s end, the 64-year old Frenchman was still following Slocum’s example of leaving his family ties behind.

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