Eight Bells: Mike Birch

Published on October 26th, 2022

Legendary Canadian ocean racer Mike Birch, who won the first edition of the Route du Rhum race by just 98 seconds, passed his final finish line at the age of 90. He was found on October 26 after dying peacefully in his sleep at his home in Brittany, north-west France.

The famous solo transatlantic race owes a huge debt of gratitude to Birch who at the age of 47, started it all when in 1978 when his yellow Walter Greene designed 12m trimaran won the race by 98 seconds ahead of Michel Malinovsky’s bigger, more powerful monohull.

Before offshore racing, Mike Birch learned his trade as a sailor which was far from being his first vocation. Born in Vancouver, he was in turn a miner, an oil worker, a cowboy, before taking another look at the horizon.

“A character from a novel,” summed up Thomas Coville, who had sailed with him on the ORMA Fujicolor trimaran in the 1990s. “I discovered very late that he had had this life before and rode the great outdoors. I read his book, one of the rare seafaring books that I read to the end, as if I had read a story by Jack London. This gentleman has always been young.”

Yet it was at the age of 44 that Mike Birch lined up at the start of his first transatlantic race, the formidable 1976 edition of the OSTAR between Plymouth and Newport. He followed up on his victory in the 1978 Route du Rhum and then built several multihulls to Nigel Irens designs. He competed in every Route du Rhum till he was 71 — he was ninth in his final outing in 2002

First the small 50-footer Vital then Formula Tag, a large 26-meter catamaran which gave him victory in Monaco New York in 1985. Then came the ORMA years, these 18.28 m trimarans on which Mike won twice third place on the Route du Rhum – Destination Guadeloupe.

The father of two had shared his time up till last year between his house in Brittany and a chalet in Quebec, but due to declining health, his wife of 40 years brought him back to France in 2021. His death came shortly before the start of the 2022 Route du Rhum, which sets sail on November 6 from Saint Malo to Pointe-a-Pitre in Guadeloupe.

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