________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 22 . . . . June 22, 2007


Mike Birch, Riding with the Wind.

James Gray (Director & Cinematographer). Written by Valérie Lavoie. Isabelle de Blois, Richard Lavoie, Inc. & Jacques Turgeon, NFB (Producers).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2006.
49 min., 30 sec., DVD.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Lois Brymer.

**** /4


Mike Birch is a sailor and one of the world’s best. For years, he has raced sailboats across the North Atlantic. It’s his job and it’s his passion, a passion surpassed by an intense desire to live life to its fullest and that goes a long way back.

Mike Birch was born in Vancouver back in 1931. After leaving university he worked all kinds of jobs. He became a rough-neck, a gold miner and even a cowboy. Then one day he packed a bag, boarded a cargo ship and left Vancouver to see the world. Later Mike Birch settled in England and began to deliver yachts to make a living. As he gained experience, he started racing.

In 1976, Birch competed in his first trans-Atlantic race and placed second. Two years later, he raced in the first edition of the Route des Rhum, and, after three weeks alone at sea, Mike surprised everyone when he surpassed the leader and won by only 98 seconds, and, like it or not, a legend was born.


In a film that captures the essence and passion of  “One of the world’s greatest sailors” and pays tribute to “an intriguing man whose experience is as deep as the sea,” the renowned Mike Birch shuns off the accolades and makes it quite clear from the outset that “this legend thing…it’s not for me.” True to his word, the respected, admired and skilled multi-hull ocean racer and leading figure in the evolution of off-shore sailing comes across as a humble, modest, laid-back and very private romantic who has lived and continues to live his dream.

     Driven by wind, sail and the call of the sea, Mike Birch has never backed down from a challenge especially where horses and boats are concerned. His nickname, “sea cowboy,” is fitting and Mike Birch, Riding with the Wind artfully portrays this image. From the film’s opening scene of Birch cranking a winch as he and his boat are being pelted with rain and tossed around by gale force winds and rolling seas, you, the viewer, are right there in the cockpit, along for the thrilling, heart-beating and even scary “ride” (not unlike a bucking bronco) with “le cow-boy des mers” as the French call him. Likewise, the background music reinforces the cowboy theme with the strains of either a lone electric guitar or a harmonica and the sounds of horses being herded back to the corral. As the winds die down and calmer seas prevail, you can see horses’ heads superimposed on the luffing sails or a horse galloping along beside the boat.

     Mike Birch’s story is told both by a narrator and by Birch himself. The film can be viewed either in French, with English subtitles, or in English, with English subtitles, when Birch is speaking French. As he reminisces about his past, Birch, a youthful-looking 75-year-old, is an engaging story-teller. Wearing a white t-shirt underneath a blue, button-down-collared long-sleeved cotton shirt (unbuttoned at the wrists) with his glasses hanging on a cord around his neck and sitting at a kitchen table at his home in Quebec, Mike Birch comes across as the “genuine article.” His demeanor and appearance ooze confidence and experience. Born in Vancouver, he talks about his school days, and, although he didn’t finish university, he says that he could have “done alright” but “I was never very interested in it,” explaining that he just preferred doing things where he was using his hands. A man of few words, Birch’s hands figure prominently in the film as he gestures with them continually as he speaks.           

     A narrator tells us about his early rodeo cowboy days as we watch black and white film clips of him bronco-riding, calf-roping and steer-wrangling in Canada’s “Wild West.” In one scene, there is a fabulous shot of a horse coming right up to the camera; you can see right into its eyes and up its nostrils.

     Birch’s first contact with life at sea began in 1959 when he signed on as a deck-hand on a tramp steamer bound for Africa. Browning photographs that are starting to curl at the edges show the layout of the cargo ship and the motley crew (Scots, Somalis, Chinese, Irish, Welsh and English) below decks playing cards and drinking beer (as evidenced by the empty quart bottles on the galley table). Birch gave up that life to deliver yachts and soon discovered the competition scene. He never looked backed after his 1976 second place finish (24 days, 20 hours and 39 minutes) in the OSTAR Trans-Atlantic single-handed race in the 31-foot Third Turtle, the smallest trimaran in the competition. Two years later, in 1978, aboard his trimaran, Olympus Photo, he crossed the finish line in first place in the inaugural Route du Rhum race between Saint Malo, France and Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe (3510 miles) with a time of 23 days, six hours, 58 minutes and 35 seconds, just 98 seconds ahead of his closest rival, Michel Malinovsky. He came third in the same race in 1982. His many “great ocean” races after that are all listed at the end of the film and include his successful participation in all six editions of the Transat Québec to Saint Malo race in which he finished 5th  (1984), 6th (1988), 4th (1992), 5th (1996), and 2nd (2000 and 2004 - a remarkable feat at ages 69 and 73 respectively).

     As well as racing, Birch was always close to the construction of the boats he sailed. He says he wanted to “understand them.” He designed and built boats with such naval architects as Walter Greene and Réjean Desgagnés, and the film takes time to show those dry-dock collaborations.

     There are photos and film footage of his wife France Birch, and you can look through a slide viewer at his children, Robert and Sarah, when they were young. But other than that, Birch does not reveal much about his personal life.

     The camera work is superb. One minute there is an aerial shot of Birch at the helm. Next, there are side shots of the boat and then shots either bow-on or from the stern. Nothing is static, and the camera succeeds in portraying what it’s like to be in a 4000-mile race with only you against time and the elements. When it’s rough, there are moments when you actually feel sea sick! The scenes of turbulence and chaos are quite a contrast to Birch’s stable, reserved and calm manner.              

     As the credits roll at the end of the film, Mike Birch rows off into the sunset in a yellow one-man 16-foot Gloucester rowing skiff. He comments that he used to spend all of his time preparing for races and sailing. Now, he says, he spends most of his time at home between Quebec, France and the United States - “I move around a lot” but “I’d still rather be sailing.”

     Mike Birch, Riding with the Wind is a film that definitely gets the adrenalin going and will appeal to anyone with an adventuresome spirit. While the documentary entertains, it also inspires and conveys the message that with focus, determination, hard work and even being in the right place at the right time, you can achieve your goals.

Highly Recommended.

Lois Brymer is the National Chair, The Children’s Literature Roundtables of Canada Information Book Award Committee, a West Vancouver Memorial Library volunteer and a fairly recent (November 2005) graduate of the University of British Columbia’s Master of Arts in Children’s Literature Program.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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