After a chance encounter with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston – a meeting which developed into a lifetime friendship - Bernard Gallay became a solo racer who competed in two Vendée Globe races.
A long time, internationally known and respected yacht broker Gallay cut his teeth on the solo round the world race and since then has never lost his respect and passion for the pinnacle solo event. With his pal and mentor Robin, Gallay recently sailed to Les Sables d’Olonne from Falmouth on the legendary 32 footer Suhali, the venerable tiny teak yacht on which Knox Johnston first sailed around the world 50 years ago on the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race.
"Even though Robin is twenty years older than me we have remained close. He was a witness at my wedding," smiles Bernard Gallay. He has enjoyed a long history with the British solo yachting pioneer who really started it all. At first it was knowledge of rugby rather than sailing that cemented their relationship which quickly developed on a Transatlantic passage to the UK. "At the time, I knew nothing about sailing which was much much less professional than today," says Gallay. "Robin needed someone to come back from the United States with him. It was as simple as that. He had just finished a race with a French crew and he had no one to help him on the way back. A rugby friend introduced me to him. And as soon as I got talking to Robin, I realized that sailing would be my future. "
Burgess as an example
Gallay, who is part Swiss and was the first Swiss skipper to compete on the Vendée Globe when he raced the second Vendée Globe in 1992-1993, an experience which he repeated on the 2000-2001 edition. He was not officially ranked on the first attempt because he stopped twice. But he still completed the circle on his Vuarnet. Next time he completes the race in eighth place Voilà.fr. And he enjoys it.
"Unfortunately, I missed out on preparation time and resources for these races, both times finding my sponsors very late. But I don’t have any regrets. The first time, when the soloist is usually aligned too much to living a life like on shore, was hard. We do not have many opportunities to live alone and isolated like on a Vendée Globe. When you are there, doing it alone for the first time it's a little hard. But quickly, we get used to it, being alone, it becomes the norm and there is an excitement in all that. Overcoming the blues is extremely instructive. And even if it is a race, it's still an adventure, " he notes.
Bernard Gallay has built a life which has allowed him to compete in a whole galaxy of sailing events from the Vendée Globe to the Solitaire du Figaro, from the America's Cup to the Mini-Transat. He got right into it after his 1992 race. Nigel Burgess, who disappeared at sea shortly after the departure of the Vendée Globe, carved a path which was followed by sailors including Bernard Gallay, moving into selling boats, trading on their reputations gained on the race courses of the world.
"Nigel showed me the way. He set up a yacht brokerage company which is still flourishing today. I thought the idea was not bad. It would allow me to not necessarily depend on a sponsor and I would not need to spend all those winters looking. Several races escaped me because I lacked sponsors. That was very frustrating. I wanted a business which gives satisfaction and which allowed me to build for a future. "
A lot of water has flowed past his bows, metaphorically and literally, since the 1992 race. And rugby has remained a constant too. "In both sports adversity brings respect. In sailing, a bad gust of wind deals us a harsh reality. In rugby, when one is tackled hard, one realizes that one you need to deal with the rough and the smooth equally well. You need to learn to cope with either. Respect and humility for the elements never leaves you,” explains the businessman.
His knowledge of racing boats found him gravitate to smaller boats. He sought to finish up with the class where many start, the Mini-Transat. "I enjoyed doing it so much in 2005 ! I wanted do this race properly in 2009 and I even had a boat built with Sam Manuard". But as time and the business grew ("in 2007 we sold the biggest boat we ever sold, then a second one"), so he gave up the idea.
But ask Bernard Gallay the right question and he will still jump at a chance. "Three or four years ago, with Robin (Knox-Johnston), we signed up for the Transatlantic Race from Newport," he says, adding, "I've only done a very few cruises in my life and they are not so much fun because I may be too stressed to take care of everyone. And there is not the same freedom as solo.”
And when he watches today's skippers preparing for the Vendée Globe 2020, he appreciates their work and their outlook. "I believe that the spirit remains the same. Ssailors have adapted to new design and technologies, to the world modern sponsorship and all the high level of constant. And it is up to the solo racer how they adapt to it.”