Obituaries - Lives well lived

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upnorth started the topic in Thursday, 6 Jan 2022 at 3:46am
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upnorth Thursday, 6 Jan 2022 at 3:51am

James Wharram was 28 when he sailed the 23ft 6in Tangaroa, a flimsy double canoe, or catamaran, from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean in the winter of 1956-57. He was accompanied by his two German lovers, Jutta and Ruth, and a small terrier dog called Pepe who helped to keep morale up when “things seemed really black”. With no GPS, no chart plotter and no clothes, it might be seen as the ultimate hippies-at-sea dream come true.

The five-week crossing was a challenge, not least because of his seasickness and the steep Atlantic waves. “Twice I feared the boat might topple over completely,” he recalled. “We just sat steering and waiting and holding on while the little Tangaroa rode up to the boiling crests of the waves, then slid sickeningly to the hollows. Often the waves broke right over us.” Yet there were clearly some calmer nights and once in Trinidad, Jutta gave birth to their son, Hannes.

The Tangaroa, modelled on a simple Polynesian fishing boat and named after the Polynesian god of the fish and sea, made landfall on February 4, 1957. “From out of the thick tropical vegetation a tiny water stream flowed into the sea,” he recalled. “At once the girls stripped and jumped joyously in for their first fresh-water bathe in six weeks. For myself, food was my first thought. Armed with a large knife, I went searching for coconuts.”

Wharram soon began preparing his next catamaran, the marginally sturdier 40ft Rongo, named after the Polynesian god of war. “Under the shade of three giant mango trees near a beach in Trinidad, I built her with the aid of my two-girl crew and the occasional help of two native boat-builders,” he said, adding that he built a raft house from bamboo for them to live in.

During the summer of 1959 they sailed to New York, where Wharram appeared on television with Sir Edmund Hillary. He and his fräuleins then sailed back to Britain through stormy seas, arriving 50 days later having completed the first west-to-east crossing of the north Atlantic by catamaran. “Though by no means a record voyage,” he wrote, “ours has shown that a catamaran, if designed on the principles of the ancient Polynesians, is a safe ocean-cruising boat.”

The achievement gained little recognition among sailing’s elite, perhaps because of his outspoken remarks about fellow boat designers, his northern accent or his unconventional domestic arrangements. “What really got ‘them’ was that ‘my girls’ were not only good at sailing and navigation, but very good at building boats too — and in addition, they looked beautiful,” he wrote.

They certainly brought him publicity, with one newspaper headline reading “Love tangle on the raft”. Wharram was unconcerned. “Many men are in need of two women in their lives, one to complement the other,” he told the Sunday Pictorial in 1959. “Many are like myself and are capable of walking the tightrope of human relationship necessary to do it.”

James Wharram was born in 1928 in Manchester, “quite a way from the sea”, and raised in Wythenshawe. He was the only child of James Wharram, a builder, and his wife, Blanche (née Cook), who declared that her son’s “only vice is reading”. His introduction to sailing came at age 17 during a climbing trip on the Isle of Skye, when a boatman called MacDonald took him out on the water. He was immediately hooked. “I decided what I wanted to do was to sail the oceans,” he said.

He spent countless hours in Manchester central library reading everything about boats he could get his hands on, especially the ancient Polynesian construction. Eric de Bisschop’s The Voyage of the Kaimiloa, about a 1930s voyage from Hawaii across three oceans to France, caught his imagination. “It was not only his boat and his voyage that inspired me, but also his theories on the migrations of the Pacific islanders,” he wrote.

Wharram “ran away” from technical college, where he had been chairman of the Labour Party youth group, and for his 19th birthday received a passport for a climbing holiday in Switzerland. “Within three weeks I was having my first love affair with a Swiss girl who was the same age as me to the day,” he recalled. Pat, an American girlfriend, sent him a book called Boat Building in Your Own Back Yard as a farewell present, while Traubl, a young Viennese psychologist, “saw me as a wild, primitive sexual animal, which she enjoyed and tried to civilise”.

He worked on a Thames barge, in the stores at Thornycroft boat builders and on a trawler off the west coast of Ireland but lost that job because he missed a sailing while seeing an actress girlfriend. In 1951 he was “bog trotting” around the Lake District when he met Ruth Merseburger, a German au pair who was seven years his senior. Three years later he collided with Jutta Schultze-Rhonhof while practising underwater techniques in a swimming pool. All three rejected the monogamous mores of the postwar years, instead forming a ménage-à-trois.

Wharram’s first serious boat was a 20ft converted lifeboat with a junk rig named Annie E Evans. He built the Tangaroa in a barn near Manchester airport in 1955, paying his way by working on building sites, where he was known as “professor” because he wore glasses and read sailing books during breaks. Having sailed to Germany and back, he prepared Tangaroa for its Atlantic crossing at Falmouth, where experienced sailors looking down from their large yachts advised his companions to stick to coastal waters otherwise they would surely die.

They were wrong and, after successfully returning from New York, Wharram and his companions settled at Deganwy, near Conway in north Wales. He prepared a boat design for a friend that was published, leading to a demand for more and the start of a successful self-build boat-design business that continues to this day.

Wharram and Jutta married in 1959, but she suffered a breakdown brought on by traumatic childhood experiences from when the Red Army entered Berlin at the end of the Second World War. She died in 1961 after falling from a building in Las Palmas, Canary Islands. Ruth, whom he married in 1964, encouraged him to record their transatlantic adventure in Two Girls, Two Catamarans (1969), its cover depicting a naked woman astride the bow of a catamaran.

By the late 1960s they had been joined both professionally and personally by Hanneke Boon, whom he had met when she was a teenager on a camping holiday with her Dutch parents in north Wales. They too had a son, Jamie. Over the years others came and went and in 1969 he was pictured with a group of young women under the headline “Jim’s away with another all-girl crew”, preparing to follow the clipper route to Australia via Cape Horn. Wharram, a tall, intense and charismatic man who in his prime lived with five women, insisted that it was never a “harem” in the sense of a man ruling his women, adding: “The girls also had the freedom to occasionally explore and expand their sexuality within our known group of friends.”

This group subsequently moved to Devoran, on the Fal estuary in Cornwall. “When we first arrived, some were hostile to our arrangements, but now everyone is very accepting,” he told the Western Morning News in 2001. “Cornwall had everything to offer the boat builder, and I fitted in.”

They went on to build Spirit of Gaia, a 63ft catamaran that from 1994 to 1998 he sailed around the world with Ruth and Hanneke. A decade later they undertook the Lapita voyage, following an ancient Pacific migration route on two double canoes, from the Philippines to the remote Polynesian islands of Anuta and Tikopia, reinforcing de Bisschop’s theories of migration on canoe craft out of southeast Asia. “I was 80 when I made this voyage and it was the hardest I ever sailed and physically the most strenuous,” he reported.

Ruth died in 2013 and Wharram is survived by Hanneke, whom he married in 2018, and by his two sons: Hannes, now known as Jonathan, is a GP in London, while Jamie flies light aircraft. Latterly Wharram was living with Alzheimer’s disease. “He was very grieved to lose his mental abilities and struggled with his diminished existence,” Hanneke wrote. “He couldn’t face the prospect of further degradation and made the very difficult choice to end it himself.”

One of Wharram’s final achievements was People of the Sea (2020), a memoir that not only covered his designs and sailing, but also his philosophy and ideas as well as his relationship with the ocean and its “people of the sea”, the Polynesians. Asked once why he sailed with an all-female crew, he replied it was because they were “easier to handle”, adding: “They work together better than men and carry out instructions without hesitation. In any case, they work harder.”

James Wharram, sailor and author, was born on May 15, 1928. He took his own life on December 14, 2021, aged 93

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Roystein Thursday, 6 Jan 2022 at 9:04am

Interesting upnorth
Know of the Wharram cats and now a bit more of his life. Might be worth reading more.

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upnorth Friday, 7 Jan 2022 at 12:32am

Definitely Roystein, going to have a look at Two Girls, Two Catamarans.

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zenagain Friday, 7 Jan 2022 at 12:51am

That was a great read of what's arguably a life well lived.

How good are cats.

(and smokin' Euro girls)

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zenagain Friday, 7 Jan 2022 at 12:52am

Ps- I think I actually know of that cover shot.

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views from the ... Saturday, 8 Jan 2022 at 11:00am

Brilliant life story. Hats off to him.
Alby did better with the boat beaver.
So inspiring he took his own life before Alzheimers kicked in too hard!

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Blowin Saturday, 8 Jan 2022 at 11:22am

What an amazing life and an interesting bunch of people. I’ll definitely be delving deeper into the James Wharram story.

You only get one shot at life!

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Prentice Saturday, 8 Jan 2022 at 8:22pm

Survived by" is typically used to refer to the closest family members when writing an obituary. In many families, the living members of the family that would be included are the spouse, parents, and siblings first. Then they might include children and possibly grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

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Prentice Monday, 10 Jan 2022 at 3:28pm
Prentice wrote:

Survived by" is typically used to refer to the closest family members when writing an obituary. In many families, the living members of the family that would be included are the spouse, parents, and siblings first. Then they might include children and possibly grandchildren or great-grandchildren.
Lives Well Lived celebrates the incredible wit and wisdom of people aged 75–100, who reveal their secrets for living a meaningful life. Encompassing 3,000 years of collective life experience, diverse people share life lessons about perseverance, the human spirit, and staying positive in the midst of life’s greatest challenges. Their stories will make you laugh, perhaps cry, but mostly inspire yo

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mickseq Wednesday, 12 Jan 2022 at 7:09am

Alone by Richard Byrd, is a good read.

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upnorth Friday, 21 Jan 2022 at 10:37pm

When Marvin Aday was 13 years old, he clumsily trod on the foot of his American football coach who, in the anger of the moment, turned on the overweight boy and called him a “meat loaf”. The jibe was taken up by his classmates and when he turned up at school the next day, the name had been daubed on his locker.

Recognising that there was no point in protesting against the innate cruelty of adolescent boys, Aday stoically accepted the nickname and set about turning it to advantage, creating the brash, larger-than-life personality that would in adulthood make Meat Loaf one of the biggest-selling names in American rock music.

A combination of a theatrical stage presence modelled on Marlon Brando and a bombastic musical style that borrowed from the Rolling Stones’ swagger made Meat Loaf’s 1977 kitsch tour de force, Bat Out of Hell, one of the most successful debut albums of all time, with sales estimated in excess of 43 million.

The album stayed on the charts for nine years and was still selling strongly decades after its release, a rock’n’roll behemoth that found new fans in every new generation. Operatic in its ambition, Aday alleged that the title track was one of only two pieces of music that required the singer to conclude by hitting three successive high Cs; the other, he said, was by Wagner.

Like many of his claims it was unverifiable, and the exaggerated melodrama of his music was frequently echoed in the self-mythologising of his public pronouncements. The awkward, unathletic, overweight boy who had trodden on his football coach’s foot created an indestructible, derring-do persona: he claimed to have had concussion 18 times in various mishaps, been in eight car wrecks and to have diced with death on several occasions in planes that came to earth with a bump, including a private jet that made a perilous emergency landing at Stansted in 2006 after losing its front wheel.

For decades his official biography knocked four years off his age and he claimed in his autobiography to have been present when President Kennedy was shot, seeing him arrive at Dallas airport and later turning up at the hospital to see Jackie Kennedy get out of the fateful car in which her husband died.

Sometimes he made up stories for the sheer hell of it or to test the media’s gullibility: he once told Sky Sports that he was a lifelong supporter of the English football club Hartlepool United. The story was swallowed so unquestioningly that it was even falsely reported that he was house-hunting in the vicinity. He subsequently admitted — with what degree of veracity we cannot be sure — that he had picked Hartlepool because he had been amused by the folkloric tale that during the Napoleonic wars the people of the town had hanged a monkey, believing it to be a Frenchman.

More credible was his insistence that he had never wanted to be a rock star and had hoped for a career as an actor. “I never figured on music. I was originally cast in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as Billy Bibbit, but there was a writer’s strike,” he said.

After appearing in a stage production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Washington, he was cast in the film version, which in 1974 brought him to London. His account of his time spent filming in Britain was embroidered with characteristically colourful detail. “I had the time of my life,” he said. “I made friends with a Pakistani taxi driver. He was a member of the Playboy Club and he took me. You could gamble there in those days. I went in with £40 and came out with £23,000 — I was rich, dude! I went and bought an apartment.”

Three years later came Bat Out Of Hell, which elevated him to a place among rock music’s highest earners, although he continued to hanker after an acting career and was content to take a drop in his usual headliner’s fee in order to do so. Perhaps his most notable film role came in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), “Actors are the people I’m most comfortable around and the people I find more real,” he said. “We’re doing Fight Club, Brad Pitt’s making $20 million, I’m making $300,000, but it doesn’t make any difference because when we’re working together it’s not about the money, it’s about the scene. We’re equal.”

The blurring of the lines between rock stardom and acting made his music unique and among his fellow rock singers perhaps only Queen’s Freddie Mercury rivalled his melodramatic theatricality. The songs on Bat Out of Hell and its two sequels, Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell, and Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose were written by Jim Steinman, and their working relationship, he suggested, was more like that between an actor and a playwright rather than a singer and a songwriter.

Meat Loaf was a role he invented and based on a method-acting technique he learned from the drama coach Lee Strasberg, in which he adopted a different persona for different songs. “I’m not listening to myself sing. I’m into the character, I’m into pictures,” he said. “It’s called image method acting. I have a movie rolling in my head when I’m singing.”

He happily admitted that Steinman’s compositions on Bat Out of Hell were “bombastic, over the top and self-indulgent”; but he insisted “all these things are positives”. Yet their relationship was not an easy one and at one point Steinman’s manager sued Meat Loaf for several million dollars, forcing him into bankruptcy.

If it was a “marriage made in hell”, they were repeatedly forced back together by mutual dependence. “Some people say, ‘If it wasn’t for Steinman, Meat Loaf wouldn’t be where he is,” the singer admitted. “Other people go, ‘If it wasn’t for Meat, Jim wouldn’t be where he is.’ I think they’re both right.”

It was while working with Steinman on the follow-up to Bat Out of Hell in 1978 that Meat Loaf met his first wife, Leslie Edmonds. They were married within a month and he adopted her daughter, Pearl, from a previous marriage, and who later went on to sing in her stepfather’s backing band. The couple had a second daughter, Amanda Aday, who became a television actress. The family regularly accompanied Meat Loaf on tour and while the two girls were young they slept in guitar cases which conveniently doubled as carry-cots. His marriage to Leslie was annulled after 23 years in 2001 and he married Deborah Gillespie in 2007.

While his children were growing up he coached baseball as a volunteer at their schools. He also enjoyed a moment of sweet revenge on the football coach who had called him “meat loaf”, when, during a charity softball game at Yankee Stadium, he hit a ball out of the park for a home run. The way he told it, the home run meant more to him than any of his chart-topping hits.

Born in the motor city of Detroit, for much of his career he claimed to have been born in 1951, although it later transpired that his birth year was 1947. His father, Orvis Aday, was an alcoholic police officer who spent his hours off-duty on drinking binges that lasted for days at a time. When he failed to come home Meat Loaf’s mother, Wilma, a school teacher who also sang in a gospel quartet, would drive around the Dallas bars looking for him.

He was educated at a Christian college and, when not treading on the feet of his football coach, used his considerable bulk to advantage as a shot putter, until one day he got in the firing line of a fellow competitor and was hit in the head by a 12lb shot.

When his mother died of cancer in the mid-1960s he inherited a substantial sum which he used to rent an apartment in Dallas. Locked in one of the deep depressions that would afflict him all his life, he spent several months there as a recluse before he moved to Los Angeles in 1966.

Despite his claim that he had set out to be an actor rather than a musician, he immediately formed a band called Meat Loaf Soul, which changed its name a year later to Popcorn Blizzard. The band toured extensively, opening for such names as Pink Floyd and the Who. But it wasn’t enough to pay the rent and in 1969, he took a job as a parking lot attendant at the Aquarius Theatre in Los Angeles, where the musical Hair was about to open. Asked to audition he was cast as Ulysses S Grant, a role that led to a recording contract with Motown, for whom he recorded an album of duets with the singer Shawn “Stoney” Murphy, a fellow refugee from Hair.

Yet it was hardly the big time: he claimed to have been paid an advance of $6.25, and when the album sold poorly he rejoined the cast of Hair. Further theatrical work followed when he played Buddha in the musical Rainbow and then landed a part in the off-Broadway show More Than You Deserve, written by Jim Steinman and Michael Walker.

It was the start of a long association with Steinman and the pair spent three years plotting Bat Out Of Hell, while he continued with his theatrical work, serving as John Belushi’s understudy in the satirical National Lampoon show on Broadway.

The songs pseudo-operatic excesses were hard to sell and were rejected by half a dozen record labels before Sony offered him a deal. Accompanied by a suitably overwrought video and described by one critic as “a bizarre and grandiose version of heartland America, in which ordinary lives are made mythic by gothic melodrama”, Bat Out of Hell became a huge seller and spawned four hit singles including the title song, You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth, Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad and Paradise by the Dashboard Lights.

Success brought with it problems. He fell off stage, broke a leg and spent the rest of the tour performing from a wheelchair. He started drinking heavily, developed a cocaine addiction, had a nervous breakdown which left him unable to sing, threatened to kill himself by jumping off a building and fell out with Steinman. “I spent seven months trying to make a follow-up with him and it was an infernal nightmare,” his partner complained. “He had lost his voice, he had lost his house and he was pretty much losing his mind.”

When he re-emerged in 1981 his comeback album Dead Ringer topped the charts in Britain but barely scraped the top 50 in America. As a result he concentrated his career in Europe, becoming a British media personality whose attempts at dieting were extensively chronicled and who was recruited to appear in the Duchess of York’s team in a celebrity fundraising edition of the TV show, It’s A Knockout. It was not entirely well received.

Meat Loaf’s declining record sales took a major upswing in the 1990s when he reunited with Steinman on Bat Out of Hell II. The critics derided the record as overblown and out of date, and Rolling Stone voted it the “most unwelcome comeback of the year”. But the album went on to sell more than 15 million copies, led by the hit single I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That), which reached number one in 28 countries.

An appearance in the Spice Girls movie Spice World endeared him to an adolescent audience not even born when he had first topped the charts; his other film appearances, including in Wayne’s World and Fight Club, kept him in the public eye while he sorted another legal battle with Steinman who had registered Bat Out of Hell as his own sole trademark. Meat Loaf sued for $50 million. They settled out of court and then made Bat Out of Hell III together.

In later years Meat Loaf suffered considerable health issues, but illness failed to stop him touring and he continued to perform with lung-busting ferocity. He collapsed during a concert at Wembley Arena in 2003 and was diagnosed with a heart disorder, and there were further collapses on stage in 2012 and 2016. Those predicting his imminent demise were out by six years. In death as in life, it seemed, he had defied the odds.

Meat Loaf (Marvin Lee Aday), rock singer, was born on September 27, 1947. He died of undisclosed causes on January 20, 2022, aged 74

And the last thing I see is my heart, still beating, rising out of my body and flying away, like bat out of hell…

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upnorth Friday, 4 Feb 2022 at 7:18pm

If Jean-Jacques Savin had lived in the 19th century, he would have gone over the Niagara Falls in a barrel or disappeared into darkest Africa in quest of Livingstone. If France had joined the space race in the 1960s, he would almost certainly have been at the head of the queue, bursting to be the first man on the moon.

As it was, he was destined to become France’s number one adventurer du troisième âge, who, the older he became, the more reckless he appeared. At 72 he was widely acclaimed for his 2019 Atlantic crossing in a high-tech barrel that took him 127 days. Undeterred by success, he died in pursuit of his latest dream, to row the Atlantic single-handed at the age of 75.

His adventurous spirit was stirred as a schoolboy when he read Naufragé Volontaire (Willing Castaway), the memoir of Alain Bombard, who in 1952, inspired by Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki adventures, had crossed the Atlantic in an inflatable dinghy, equipped with oars and a single sail. More than half a century later, having already traversed the Atlantic four times single-handed by conventional yacht, Savin would go one better. He would complete the voyage without a sail and without oars, relying solely on the trade winds and the Atlantic currents to bring him safely to land on the other side.

As if the ocean was merely an extended version of Niagara Falls, he would make the attempt in a barrel, sponsored by a Bordeaux wine barrel maker. The plywood craft he fashioned was 3m in diameter, painted bright orange, with a single porthole. Inside he fitted a sleeping bunk and kitchen area.

Equipped with a solar panel to power his GPS, a desalination device and something to read, he set off from the Canary Islands on Boxing Day 2018, and estimated that he would reach the French Antilles or the Dominican Republic in three months (in the end it would take him more than four). A high point on the journey was a delivery of food and supplies by the Ronald H Brown, an oceanographic vessel based in South Carolina. “They spoilt me. I got mail, T-shirts and a lot of chocolate,” Savin said, having lived for weeks on freeze-dried foods and fresh fish caught with his harpoon gun.

As he obviously anticipated, the winter storms proved unrelenting. Although he strapped himself to his bunk during the worst of these, he was frequently tossed around like a cork and at one point found himself dangling upside down “like a yo-yo”.

But he made it. On April 28 he was picked up by a passing tanker off Martinique, just west of the line that officially marks Caribbean waters. He was 4kg lighter than when he set off, but overjoyed. “It’s freedom,” he told the international press. “Complete freedom. It’s hard to convey. No one tells you what to do. There are no rules.”

Jean-Jacques Savin, the son of an oyster fisherman, was born in Arès, a small fishing port on the Bay of Arcachon, west of Bordeaux, in 1947. A restless boy, he had no interest in joining the oyster trade and was best known in the village for climbing the church tower using the lightning conductor. Aged 18, he joined the French army, serving as a paratrooper. Later, he learnt to fly and worked as a private pilot in Africa, where he also spent time as a wildlife park ranger. In 2015, aged 68, he climbed Mont Blanc. After making headlines around the world with his barrel crossing of the Atlantic in 2019, he soon grew restless again, assembling a team under his daughter, Manon, herself a sailor heading the tourist office in the Breton resort of Saint-Quay-Portrieux. She survives him along with Savin’s partner, Jackie.

Though he would continue to eschew sails, this time, setting off on New Year’s Day, he would rely on muscle power and aim to be the oldest person to cross the Atlantic alone.

It was not to be. One of the last entries in his digital log, dated January 18, read: “After a long thought I continue this adventure that I think will be exceptional. Rating my water to the max since I’m getting carried away. All is well, very good morale.” The log, relayed by satellite to his support team in France, led by Manon, was full of desperate optimism. “Rest assured,” he wrote, “I’m not in danger. Now on my way to the Azores towards the port of Ponta Delga da . . . despite the current difficulties of strong gusts and wind force, this is getting easier, with the wind pushing me into the archipelago . . . once in place and well rested, I will go again to complete my challenge . . . I’m not giving up at all.”

That was Savin in essence. He never gave up. On January 14, a week before his death, he celebrated his 75th birthday aboard his 8m-long boat, the aptly named Audacieux (Audacious), with a mid-ocean glass of champagne and some foie gras. For entertainment on the 7,000km trip he took with him a mandolin and a pair of drumsticks, using upturned pans as drums and singing the French version of Santy Anno, the sea shanty.

His plan had been to “laugh at old age”, but his water desalination kit eventually stopped working and his GPS and communications array ceased to function. Before he vanished, Savin activated two electronic distress beacons. After that, nothing more was heard from him. On January 21, exactly three weeks after he set off from Sagres, on the southernmost tip of Portugal, his overturned boat was found by the local coastguard drifting south of the Azores.

Was this how he would have wished to go or did he, at the end, feel cheated by the ocean? For the French, what mattered was that one of their own had once again written his name into the annals of the sea. Jean-Jacques Savin had joined Éric Tabarly, Florence Arthaud, Bernard Moitessier, Clarice Crémer and Jean Le Cam, along with dozens of others from centuries past, as among the most famous French sailors of all time.

Jean-Jacques Savin, adventurer and sailor, was born on January 14, 1947. He was reported lost at sea on January 21, 2022, aged 75