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A fastidious Frenchman and his return to the sea

Inch by inch, the long orange rudder moves toward the water. There’s no wind to speak of, which is rare in early March in the Antilles. But the slight ocean swell is enough to make this a delicate operation for the skipper perched on the stern.

Professional sailor Frederic Boursier is preparing a client and his yacht for a solo circumnavigation.

Lowering the blade using a pulley, he simultaneously has to guide it into the track that attaches it to the boat. It’s a three-handed job, but Stanley Paris, who’s a crisp 75 years of age, has to figure out a way to do it alone if he’s going to sail around the world single-handed and without stopping.

“The hoist point is not right,” says the man who watches from on deck. “We have to use a strap so we can put it anywhere on the arch.” That would be Frédéric Boursier, 47, the coach who’s working with Paris to prepare him — and his Lyman-Morse-built 63-footer, Kiwi Spirit — for the voyage. His client isn’t simply sailing around the world; he’s also shooting for a passage of 120 days, which would be a month faster than Dodge Morgan, who in 1986 became the first American to complete a solo non-stop circumnavigation. There’s a lot at stake, but there’s not a lot of time. So Boursier has to hustle to get it all covered.

Boursier — known to his peers as Fred — was hired for the job because his past allows him to peek into the future. He thinks one tack ahead, as sailors would say. It’s a necessary skill, to envision what would, what should and what could happen. Boursier, who hails from St. Nazaire, France, but makes his home in Warren, Maine, has been a professional sailor since graduating from high school, mucking around in everything from Lasers to superyachts. He also raced the single-handed Mini-Transat in 1995 and finished fifth, which puts him in rarefied company, not just for the sport, but also because he built his own boat. He didn’t have the cash to buy a decent used one.

Boursier doesn’t mind taking the long road, but his customers are always in a hurry. So working with him is like stepping into a time machine that accelerates them upward on the learning curve. But time travel, as it’s been imagined, would require insane speed. And that’s the polar opposite of Boursier’s M.O., which is deliberate, thorough and methodical.

On deck, he moves like an experienced sweeper covering the soccer pitch — not dashing about like a dervish, but anticipating the next play and positioning himself accordingly. He’s no friend of taking chances, so he’ll tether tools to his wrist before climbing the mast or jumping overboard to work on the bottom. And there’s no quit in the guy. A pop quiz challenged him to find the one word that goes before “mind,” “switch,” “plan” and “key” to form common expressions. He didn’t have the answer, so he put the question aside but not out of his mind.

Engraved in his psyche is the mindset of a single-handed sailor. It’s all about preparedness and self-sufficiency. “I draw from my own experience,” Boursier says. “And I look for the best sources in my research.” He’s a data guy, plain and simple.

DIVER DOWN: Boursier inspects Kiwi Spirit's keel bulb.

“When we work out a problem, he listens and says, ‘Oh no, we can’t do it that way. I’ve done the calculations,’ ” says Chris Biggart, a fellow captain and one of Boursier’s friends. On the outside chance that Boursier is half a degree separated from perfection — for example, while throwing darts — he’ll work on it until he gets it right, then kill you by scoring that last bull’s-eye.

“He picks up really fast,” says Biggart, who considers Boursier insightful and non-judgmental. “He’s very helpful, too. But you’d have to ask him.” If there’s any challenging side to him, Biggart jokes, it’s that “Fred will eat just about anything you put in front of him.”

Tacking for Down East

Boursier’s determination and penchant for the path less trodden showed up at the end of high school, when he decided to become a professional sailor while most of his buddies were heading to college. “There was no defined career path like there is today, but I wasn’t happy in school,” he says. Besides, every coastal town in France has public sailing schools, so that sport is as common as playing catch on this side of the pond.

“I guess I was lucky to be bold,” he says. His parents — teachers both — reluctantly approved of their son’s career choice. A teacher’s job is respected and protected in France, he explains. “It’s all my parents knew, so they would have preferred if I’d chosen a stable profession.”

Instead, he ended up in Martinique as a sailing instructor, then expanded into the charter business. He earned a captain’s license and networked his way aboard Mari Cha II, a 92-foot German Frers-designed sloop that he captained. In the summer of 1996, he pulled into Sag Harbor, N.Y., on Long Island, which proved to be a momentous stopover. He met Martha Page, 52, from Guilford Conn., who ran her own sailmaking and canvas business. She often fled to the Caribbean during the winter to sail and work.

When Boursier weighed anchor, the image of Page sailed with him. He went as far as Florida, where he oversaw a refit of the yacht. And he invited Page to visit. “Before they finished the job, I was back again as a crewmember,” she says.

They later visited the Camden, Maine, area, a place of interest for the day they would swallow the anchor. “When we did return, which was about a year later, we stayed for the summer, bought a house [in South Thomaston] and got married,” Page says. After two more years working on other boats, they returned to try life on terra firma for a while and work on their 1815 home, which needed fixing up. Instead of tending sheets, Boursier was tending a garden — fastidiously, no doubt.

He also took care of a couple’s power yacht, and the owners needed someone who could take care of their estate in Rockport, Maine. Boursier applied, and before he knew it he was managing “landlocked assets.” With a staff of seven during the summer, the gig was déjà vu all over again, except that the yacht in his charge now didn’t have a mast. It was different from sailing, but life in Maine suits him and Page, who now live in Warren. Page manages Atlantic Bakery on Main Street in Rockland. “Fred doesn’t look the part, but he’s in charge of quality control,” she quips.

Croissants aside, Boursier likes home base for other reasons, too. “There are not many people here, no big crowds,” he says. “You don’t have to wait in line, and you get to do what you want to do.”

He has assimilated well but does take some umbrage at the monochromatic view of success in America, which to his taste depends too much on the size of the paycheck, not on the quality of the work people do. “But the opportunities for entrepreneurs are better here because failure is not seen as absolute and eternal, as it is in France,” he says.

He tried his hand at importing sea salt, but says he didn’t have the wherewithal to grow the business big enough and fast enough to make it viable. Or maybe importing salt is not the right job for an old salt who needs to feel the wind in his hair and spray on his skin. With his wife’s tacit approval, he returned to the yachting scene to work with Paris, who hired him after a delivery trip on Kiwi Spirit. “Fred never had the quick answers, but he had the right answers,” Paris says. “I wish I had brought him on sooner, but after spending the money for the boat I didn’t see a coach’s salary.”

The old job in a new world

Upon returning to the job he was born to do, Boursier realized how much had changed in his absence. The industry had shrunk, but the yachts hadn’t. Au contraire. “The boats are much bigger and more complex now,” he says, “which means they spend more time at the dock for maintenance and repairs.”

He’s also noticed a change in the people, who often seem to do it for the money rather than the adventure. But there’s something else. “On large yachts you need dedicated specialists for hydraulic, electrical and mechanical systems,” he says. “Heck, on the big powerboats now there’s a ‘toy officer’ for tenders and water toys. Weird.” But it didn’t deter him.

He likes that captains are sailors, managers, administrators and psychologists all rolled into one. The biggest challenge, he says, is handling disputes between incompatible people on offshore trips. “If you clash with someone on land, you walk away,” he says. “At sea, it’s quite a different story.” And the highlight? “Friendship and sharing memorable moments, like surfing down a wave at 25 knots. That’s what you remember. And that’s why I do this job.”

Meanwhile, Paris has properly installed Kiwi Spirit’s emergency rudder and connected it to the quadrant. Boursier is now standing on the stern in flippers and dive mask, ready to go down 15 feet to inspect the keel bulb. He’s visibly comfortable, a jack-of-all-trades and a master of many. And that, by the way, is the answer to the quiz question. He came up with it moments before time expired because he wasn’t going to let it slide.

“I’d sail anywhere with this guy,” says his buddy Biggart. That’s because Fred, the fastidious Frenchman, has it all covered.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

June 2013 issue