Flo, formerly Pierre 1er, is the iconic 60ft trimaran which Florence Arthaud sailed to win the 1990 Route du Rhum, now returned to its golden glory and racing again

There are many iconic raceboats, but few capture the feeling of an era as much as the 60ft trimaran in which Florence Arthaud won the 1990 Route du Rhum. She beat Philippe Poupon, winner of the previous edition, by eight hours to become the first woman to win a major offshore race, inspiring a new generation of young women to follow in her footsteps.

Arthaud had already broken the west to east transatlantic record earlier that year, taking a whopping 20% off Bruno Peyron’s existing time. She also became the first sailor to be awarded the title ‘Champion des Champions français de L’Équipe’. It was a remarkable turnaround for someone who, only four years before her first Route du Rhum, had been gravely injured in a car accident that left her in coma and hospitalised for six months.

The pace of change in yacht design in the 1980s was as breathtakingly fast as it is today. Although they’re separated by only 12 years, this boat could hardly be more different to Mike Birch’s 39ft plywood Walter Green trimaran Olympus Photo in which he won the inaugural Route du Rhum in 1978. Birch’s boat, for example, had little more than half the beam of Arthaud’s.

The ORMA 60 trimarans that quickly came to dominate the scene from the mid-1980s were huge vessels by comparison, built of the most hi-tech materials available, while their creators pressed hard against the boundaries of design and engineering knowledge. Pierre 1er, as the boat was originally named, was built to a VPLP design of fibreglass and Kevlar by Jeanneau’s former JTA (Jeanneau Techniques Avancées) division.

iconic image of Arthaud at the finish of the 1990 Route du Rhum in Martinique. Photo: Thierry Martinez/ Sea&Co

These boats had an unprecedented power to weight ratio that, despite their enormous inherent stability, led to a number of capsizes. This came to a head in the stormy 2002 Route du Rhum in which five boats capsized and only three of the 18-strong fleet finished. As a result sponsors rapidly quit the class, which collapsed within three seasons.

Nevertheless, Pierre 1er went on to have an illustrious 20-year history of racing and record breaking. American billionaire and adventurer Steve Fossett, who renamed the boat Lakota, became her second owner in 1993.

He picked up 5th place in the 1994 Route du Rhum, despite a lack of experience at the time, before taking line honours in the Transpac the following year. In a seven-year period he broke 12 world records with the boat, including Round Britain and Ireland and around the Isle of Wight.

Poupon reduced the size of the staysail for heavy weather work and added a furler. Huge asymmetrics are flown from the bowsprit. Photo: Jean-Marie Liot

Her next owner was Atlant Ocean Racing in Sweden, with the boat again breaking records under several different names. Andrew Pindar chartered her in 2001, when she was renamed Pindar Systems for Emma Richards to race in the Transat Jacques Vabre. She finished 9th, with Miki von Koskull, who had sailed with Richards on Tracy Edwards’ 1998 Royal Sun Alliance Jules Verne attempt, as co-skipper.

The boat picked up line honours in the 2003 Cape to Rio race, before heading east under the ownership of an experienced French multihull sailor from 2011-2021 who was based in Hong Kong and kept the boat in Subic Bay in the Philippines, using her primarily for fast cruising and ocean voyages.

Flo – Golden girl

Despite all the different owners and skippers, when I visited Flo in Saint Malo, just before the start of the 2022 Route du Rhum, it was striking just how original the boat remains. There’s a huge curved mainsheet traveller on the aft beam, while the giant winches in the small cockpit are physically much larger than today’s equivalents. And, despite the boat’s awesome power, there are no pedestal grinders.

Both amas have helm seats in a similar way to MOD70s, but without the foot pedal to dump the mainsheet in a hurry. Photo: Jean-Marie Liot

Equally, Flo still has both a central tiller in the cockpit and helm seats perched precariously at the aft end of each ama.

Below decks the boat is surprisingly small, with a vestigial galley, just one berth, plus a navstation tucked in the corner between the daggerboard case and the main bulkhead.

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The original striking gold colour scheme on the hulls and spars was reinstated earlier this year, when she was renamed Flo by Poupon, who skippered her in the 2022 race, 36 years after his 1986 victory.

Surprisingly, he told me very few changes were needed to prepare Flo for her latest transatlantic: “Almost nothing has changed, the electrical system and electronics are new, but the deck gear and layout are almost all original.”

Relatively minor alterations included lowering the head of the staysail and adding roller furling for it. “I prefer a smaller sail that’s easier to handle and has better shape for this purpose,” says Poupon. He also added a fourth reef to the mainsail, “which has a lot of surface area.”

Philippe Poupon, runner up to Florence Arthaud in the 1990 Route du Rhum, now skippers Flo. Photo: Jean-Louis Carli

Dramatic new role for Flo

What led to Poupon’s current involvement with Flo? “Me and my wife [film maker Géraldine Danon] were very close to Florence Arthaud,” he told me. Indeed, in French media interviews he has even described her as “part of the family.” Poupon and Arthaud competed together as co-skippers on a later Fleury Michon in the 2000 Transat, and Arthaud also took part in a Figaro ll and Transat Jacques Vabre campaign with Poupon’s brother Luc in the mid-2000s.

“Géraldine started working on a script for a film about Florence two years ago,” continued Poupon. “We started to talk about what boat to use for the film and of course it had to be this one.”

The trimaran turned out to be easy to find, as Vendée Globe veteran-turned yacht broker Bernard Gallay was listing the boat for sale at the time. However, Poupon and Danon lacked both the €250,000 purchase price and the time to sail her back to France. Poupon says those problems were “… solved in a bar,” and the deal was completed in December 2021.

Controls for the wing mast. Daggerboard needs to be fully lowered to clear the boom in tacks and gybes. Photo: Rupert Holmes

The new owner, Philippe Brillault, took a crew that included Bernard Stamm as skipper out to deliver the boat back to France, via the Red Sea. The four-month trip was not without incident. New batteries were needed in Thailand, engine problems forced a stop in Sri Lanka, and having strayed too close to the coast of Yemen after departing Djibouti, the delivery crew was attacked by pirates.

“There were bullet tracks on the mast!” Fortunately they were able to escape and return to Djibouti, before proceeding with a military escort.

Poupon took over the boat in Cannes in July last year, where shooting for the film started. Flo took pride of place in the Vieux Port and anchored overnight off Île Sainte Marguerite, where Arthaud’s ashes were scattered after her 2015 death in a helicopter accident while filming a reality TV programme in Argentina.

Return to Rhum

The final leg took the boat to Michel Desjoyeaux’s Mer Agitée yard at Port La Forêt, where Flo had a short refit ahead of an opportunity for Poupon to complete the 1,200-mile solo qualifier needed for the 2022 Route du Rhum.

I visited him on board just before it was announced the race would be postponed by three days to avoid a dangerous sea state in 7.5m waves with a brutal 12 second period. How concerned was he at the prospect of sailing an old boat in such conditions?

“I have sailed a lot before on this type of boat and I am sailing more than six months a year on my own boat [a 66ft high latitude expedition yacht] so I will know what to do – maybe it will be to wait in Finisterre. I don’t have sponsors and I am not out to win overall, so I can decide for myself. I am here just to pay homage to Florence and for the movie.”

Poupon was also quick to point out that when he did the first race back in 1978 medium range weather forecasting didn’t exist and all that could be expected was a rough idea of what to expect the day after the start.

Flo’s small cockpit has most of the original winches and no grinder, despite the boat’s enormous power. Photo: Jean-Marie Liot

Poupon finished the race in 7th place in the 17-strong Rhum Multi class, crossing the line in 18 days and 19 hours, more than three and a half days slower than Arthaud’s 1990 time. Her Route du Rhum victory was just months after Tracy Edwards’ all-woman team on Maiden finished the Whitbread Round the World race 2nd in class, having won two legs, including the gruelling 7,260 mile Southern Ocean section. Back then there was real hope that professional sailing was changing from its entrenched position of male dominance. Yet three decades later only seven of the 138 Route du Rhum skippers were women.

It’s a concern Volvo Ocean Race winner and ex-race organiser Knut Frostad (now CEO of marine electronics and equipment conglomerate Navico Group) highlighted in his keynote speech at the most recent Yacht Racing Forum – not just for the sake of fairness, but also for the threat it represents to the sport in the longer term. Frostad warned: “Our industry will die in a generation if carry on as we are…”

Flo specifications

Design: VPLP
Launch: 1989
LOA: 18.28m / 60ft 0in
Beam: 15.10m / 49ft 6in
Draught: 1.54m-2.88m / 5ft 1in-9ft 5in
Displacement: 6,000kg / 13,230lb
Upwind sail area: 230m2 / 2,475ft2

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