Mike Birch took part in his final Route du Rhum in 2002 when he was 71, finishing ninth

Paris (AFP) - Mike Birch who won the first edition of the solo trans-Atlantic sailing race the Route du Rhum by just 98 seconds has died aged 90 at his home in Brittany, north-west France, his widow told AFP on Wednesday.

“He has been fading these past few months,” France Birch, who was married to him for 40 years, told AFP.

“He died peacefully in his sleep last night.”

The Canadian, then 47, won the iconic race – which takes place every four years – in 1978, his 12 metre trimaran (Olympus) edging French sailor Michel Malinovsky, in a much more powerful vessel, after 23 days of a hard-fought duel.

“He was an extraordinary man,” his niece, Aline Simard told AFP.

“He was a very wise and simple man. He retained this simplicity right to the end.”

A cowboy originally, and more adept at competing in rodeos, he became equally passionate about sailing.

He competed in every Route du Rhum till he was 71 – he was ninth in his final outing in 2002 – finishing third in 1982 and fourth in both 1986 and 1990.

The father of two admitted to L’Equipe prior to the 2014 race that his first job had been as a gold prospector.

“Not for long, though. It was an interesting job even if I did not make much money out of it!”

He shared his time up till last year between his house in Brittany and a chalet in Quebec, with his Jack Russell, Lucie.

However, due to declining health his wife brought him back to France in 2021.

“Before that despite his age he continued to sail (in a boat named Dolly the nickname of his mother),” said his wife

Mike Birch was met by French sports minister Jean-Pierre Soisson after winning the first Route du Rhum by just 98 seconds in 1978

His death came shortly before the start of the next Route du Rhum, which sets sail on November 6 from Saint Malo to Pointe-a-Pitre in Guadeloupe.

“He entered the race into legend,” tweeted the organisers.