Mike Birch, inaugural winner of Route du Rhum, dies at 90

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SAINT-MALO, France — Canadian skipper Mike Birch, who won the Route du Rhum solo trans-Atlantic race by 98 seconds, has died, the event’s organizers said Wednesday. He was 90.

Birch entered the legend of offshore sailing back in 1978 when he claimed the inaugural edition of the Rhum by an astonishingly small margin after 23 days at sea. In his 12-meter Olympus Photo trimaran, Birch pipped Frenchman Michel Malinovsky’s bigger, more powerful monohull to the line.

Race organizers said he died “peacefully” during Tuesday night at his home in northwest France.

“Anyone who has ever raced or dreamed of multihull ocean racing remembers the image of Mike Birch,” race organizers said. “That of his Olympus Photo first, fighting against the trade winds in the Canal des Saintes to snatch victory from a monohull twice its size in the first edition of the Route du Rhum-Guadeloupe.”

The next edition of the Route du Rhum will set sail on Nov. 6 from the French port city of Saint-Malo to the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.

Before embracing boat racing, Birch had experienced a variety of jobs including being a gold digger and a cowboy.

“A character from a novel,” said Frenchman Thomas Coville, who sailed with Birch 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.”

Birch was 44 when he competed in his first transatlantic race, the OSTAR between Plymouth, England, and Newport, Rhode Island. He took part in seven editions of the Rhum.

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