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Off Watch: For the Bird

The incredible journey of the 2019 Cruising Club of America’s Young Voyager Award-winner Guirec Soudee and his pet hen, Monique.

April 27, 2020
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Soudée and Monique
Soudée and Monique, aboard Yvinec: intrepid shipmates. Jean-Philippe Meriglier

St. Patrick’s Day 2020: It was time to write this monthly magazine column, a task that almost always gives me simple pleasure. On any other St. Paddy’s Day, a Guinness or three would have also been in my immediate future, a pub crawl here in my hometown of Newport, Rhode Island, always a very lively place on this very Irish holiday. But not this year. All the bars and restaurants were closed, and usually busy Broadway was a virtual ghost town, all shut down by the COVID-19 virus that had turned everything—Wall Street, the educational system, the entire sports world—upside down. I don’t often get writer’s block, but my mood was as gray as the afternoon’s leaden skies. I was desperately in need of some sort of inspiration, some kind of spark—anything, really.

And then I remembered the young French sailor, Guirec Soudée. More specifically, I thought of his steadfast sailing partner: his little red hen, Monique.

And I felt a little better.

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The 28-year-old Soudée had recently been in the sailing press after winning the prestigious Cruising Club of America’s Young Voyager Award for 2019, in recognition of his five-year, 45,000-nautical-mile voyage from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Technically, it was a solo trip, but not really, because Soudée had company: the chicken he’d picked up in the Canary Islands on his outward leg from France, ostensibly for the fresh eggs she’d provide. But you could say Monique got, well, promoted, pretty early in the expedition. Soudée’s children’s book about the adventure, The Hen Who Sailed Around the World: A True Story, makes it clear that the relationship between the two quickly evolved beyond the man/protein dynamic.

At 22, after working in Australia for a couple of years to earn the dough for the journey, Soudée had set out from his home in Brittany (his 38-foot steel cutter, Yvinec, was named after the rugged island where he grew up) to cross the Atlantic via the Canaries, where he picked up his “fowl-weather” friend. After a brief spin through the Caribbean, he was bound north for Greenland, where he purposely overwintered in the ice for 130 days. From there, at the now ripe old age of 24, he transited the Northwest Passage, becoming the youngest skipper to do so singlehanded. But he was just getting started.

A long, nonstop voyage south brought him (and her) around Cape Horn and on to Antarctica, which he reached in February 2018, too late in the season to do much real exploring. But by now, Soudée was a man on a mission, to close the circle on his loop around North and South America, and return home. He did so on three long, zigzagging transits of the Atlantic Ocean in tandem with the most favorable breeze: from Antarctica to South Africa; from there to Brazil and French Guyana via St. Helena; and onward to the Caribbean and the Azores before finally finishing where he began, on December 15, 2018.

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I spent a couple of hours perusing Soudée’s entertaining website while fussing around with this piece, and was struck, really, by the joy and wonder it conveyed. I’ve sailed around the Americas and can testify, it’s a pretty complicated mission. But Soudée made it all seem so pure, and possible. His quest could not have been more straightforward: He was a young man who’d grown up in a wild and pristine place, and appreciated the incredible beauty of it, and wanted more. A whole world’s worth. To see it, he needed a sailboat, and the skills to operate it. But he’d already acquired those nautical abilities, inspired by the legendary Breton long-distance sailors he’d grown up idolizing. And while it’s tempting to say the whole exercise was very “French,” it was actually much more than that. It was very human.

In the most fundamental way, Soudée had a dream, and in these troubled times, with the currency crashing and personal risks rising, what could be more real? Or more important? And what better dream is there for a sailor than setting off to a safe place on a sound vessel with the person or people you love?

Or, of course, with a bird. You can definitely go with the bird. As young and able Guirec Soudée has ably demonstrated, that works too.

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Herb McCormick is CW’s executive editor.

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