Tour of the Yoles Rondes of Martinique: History of a unique event in the world

Like every year, the Tour de Martinique des Yoles Rondes will take place at the end of July / beginning of August. This will be the 37th edition of the event.

Tour de Martinique des Yoles Rondes - 2013 editionEach year, the Tour des Yoles de Martinique is the major event of summer holidays in Martinique. It takes place during a week, generally in late July and early August, and involves around 20 round skiffs competing against each other in order to win the winner's red jersey.

First of all, what is a yole?

Norwegian jolThe yole (skiff in English) is a light, narrow and elongated boat that is propelled like a rowing boat. The first skiffs appeared in Europe around the 17th century and were used in competitions between rowers. The French word “yole” comes from the Norwegian “jol” which means canoe (cf. photo opposite of a Norwegian “jol”).

Fishing skiffFirst, the gommier that arrived in Martinique in the early 1900s. It is a canoe made from a fabric sail and a wood, the gommier from which it adopted the name. The gommiers were used for fishing and races were organized between fishermen. The most famous gommiers were Miss Paulette of Vauclin, Yvette Bien Aimée of François, Nelly of Robert or even Dieu Madre of Anses d'Arlet.

These races already attracted many spectators.

But the gommier became rare in the forests of Martinique and unstable when it was necessary to support a large sails, it was necessary to turn to another solution. It was during this period that the skiff appeared around 1940 in the workshops of a naval carpenter Jean Lafontaine in François.

It often takes a long time to build a skiff. You have to have the time and the financial means to collect the construction costs. On a keel firmly fixed to a stern post are fixed frames, wooden planks of rounded shape.

They are caulked and masticated to ensure the watertightness of the boat. All work is done with an ax in the workshops of a marine carpenter.

Boats in preparation for a raceThe hull of a today's skiff with a length of between 8 and 9.30 meters on average must be strong enough to support a mast and the various upright woods. The wood used for the construction is the local pear tree except for the yard where it is bamboo. Finally, after manufacture, the painting is entrusted to a specialist painter.

However, you should know that the skiff is designed, thought out down to the smallest detail before even starting to cut the wood for its design. Everything (size, shape, cut, colors, financing) is defined upstream so as to make it a boat that will meet the expectations of the boss and the crew for whom it is intended.

First races

Old photo of a skiff raceAfter its conception in 1940, the skiff, which was faster and more stable at sea than the gommier, was adopted by fishermen. The latter challenge each other during verbal games "tiraj" to sell their fish as quickly as possible. The following Sunday, after mass, these fishermen met in their boat and competed in fierce regattas. The Békés did not hesitate to bet on a gig representing their neighborhood or their municipality.

Old photo of a skiff raceIn 1945, the races became regulated and regattas were organized between neighboring municipalities but it was not until the 1960s to see the beginnings of the Tour de la Martinique des Yoles Rondes as we know it today.

In 1966, four enthusiasts took on the challenge of touring the island aboard skiffs. The skiffs were called Étoile, Frisson, Odyssée et Mouette or Boeing according to the sources. The crew consisted of only 3 couriers! A coxswain and two trainers who on boats of 7 meters in length reach their goal during 4 stages each one contested during the weekend.
This tour of Martinique will take place again in 1967 and 1968 before stopping following the navigation difficulties encountered during the 1968 edition.

However, the races are popular and attract a large audience near the beaches and this is how an organization was born, the Société des Yoles et des Gommiers founded by François Emica then director of information at Radio France Outremer, Georges Brival, a passionate advertiser of skiffs and the owners of round skiffs including Henri Hayot, Théogene Marie-Louise, Viviès, Dachir Christophe and Alberic Ursulet in 1972.

In 1981, the gommiers separated from the skiffs and the association was renamed the Société des Yoles Rondes.
18 regattas are organized throughout the year, generally during patronal festivals but also during national holidays (July 14 or Armistice of November 11).

Georges Brival, former president of the Société des Yoles RondesThirteen years later, in 1985, Georges Brival (Photo opposite source: then president of the Société des Yoles Rondes de la Martinique relaunched the idea of organizing a tour of Martinique des Yoles Rondes. Municipalities will be the first to invest in the organization of the events and then local businesses will respond to the call to sponsor these skiffs.

Old photo of a skiff raceIt must be said that seeing his company name displayed on the sail of a boat during increasingly popular competitions was also a striking publicity for those competitions.

On Sunday August 11, 1985, 8 skiffs (Monoprix, Nissan, Valda, Locatel, Tac o tac, Raissa, Caresse Antilllaise and Ki sa ou pé di) set off on a course divided into 5 stages (Vauclin, Trinité, Saint Pierre, Fort-de-France and Sainte-Anne) from Le Vauclin with more than ten couriers per canoe. The skiff of the Marin Monoprix led by Désiré Lamon wins the event.

From 1989, the number of participating skiffs varied between 15 and 21 participants. To participate in the tour, it requires a certain budget (logistics costs, courier management, etc.)

In order to ensure the next generation, a new section has been created, the "Bébés Yoles" with the aim of training new generations to integrate and train in this unique sport in the world. This has already borne fruit with Laurent Mas, formerly Baby Yole's courier, leader of the winning skiff of the Tour in 2016, son of Joseph Mas who won the Tour 4 times (1986, 1993, 1995 and 1998).

The Tour des yoles today

Mutuelle Mare-Gaillard skiffThe skiffs themselves have constantly evolved to make them faster. They have been lengthened from 7 to 9 meters to contain more steeds (up to 14 steeds), the original cotton sails are replaced by nylon sails, a lighter material and allowing the use of much larger sails.

Ets Rosette / Orange skiffDespite everything, this marvelous spectacle at sea requires a great deal of skill:

  • Physical because you have to have enough strength to keep your wood upright or to constantly handle the paddle
  • Tactical because it is necessary to know according to the wind and the currents which size of wing will be the most adapted
  • Managerial because the captain must manage and command the twenty or so men who make up his team.

Yole UFR/Chanflor skiffLocal show, the Tour de la Martinique des Yoles Rondes has also become a major tourist asset and this local sport attracts beyond the borders of our island.

Today the Tour de la Martinique generally takes place over 8 races in an anti-clockwise course due to the surrounding sea currents. The first race, the prologue, is not taken into account in the time classification and can be seen as a warm-up lap before the competition. It does, however, allow the red jersey of the leader to be awarded to the winning team.

Green points classification jerseyThe different jerseys are:

  • The red jersey of the overall leader
  • The green jersey for the points classification
  • The blue jersey of the winner of the previous stage

Note that women are sometimes part of the crews. In fact, in 2011, a Nouvelles Frontières skiff was made up mostly of women and they performed well during the Tour des Yoles.

Félix Mérine with the blue jersey of stage winnerFélix Mérine is currently the record holder for the number of victories with 10 Tour de Martinique won. This year again the favorite “Mapipis” are numerous. So who will be the next winner?

History of the Tour de la Martinique des Yoles Rondes

Year Departure city List of winners
    Name of the round skiffs Municipality represented Crew boss
1985 Vauclin Monoprix Marin Désiré Lamon
1986 Marin Caresse Antillaise François Joseph Mas
1987 Vauclin Nissan François Charles Exilie
1988 Marin Martinique Chanflor Robert Frantz Ferjules
1989 Robert Nissan François Georges-Henry Lagier
1990 François Budget Robert Félix Mérine
1991 Robert Sisal Robert Frantz Ferjules
1992 Fort-de-France Ets. Rosette François Charles Exilie
1993 Fort-de-France Ho Hio Hen François Joseph Mas
1994 Robert Ets. Rosette François Georges-Henry Lagier
1995 Sainte-Anne Ho Hio Hen François Joseph Mas
1996 Schœlcher Ets. Rosette François Georges-Henry Lagier
1997 Trinité Ets. Rosette François Georges-Henry Lagier
1998 Diamant Ho Hio Hen François Joseph Mas
1999 Robert Ets. Rosette François Georges-Henry Lagier
2000 François Ets. Rosette – France Télécom François Georges-Henry Lagier
2001 Fort-de-France Géant – Canon Robert Félix Mérine
2002 Saint-Pierre Géant – Orange Robert Félix Mérine
2003 Fort-de-France Géant – Orange Robert Félix Mérine
2004 Schœlcher Ets. Rosette – France Télécom François Georges-Henry Lagier
2005 Diamant Ets. Rosette – France Télécom François Georges-Henry Lagier
2006 Robert U.F.R.-Géant Robert Félix Mérine
2007 Fort-de-France U.F.R. – Géant Robert Félix Mérine
2008 Trinité Mirsa – Dr Roots François Joseph Mas
2009 Vauclin Joseph Cottrell – Optical François Guy-Albert Romer
2010 Fort-de-France Joseph Cottrell – Leader Mat François Guy-Albert Romer
2011 U.F.R. – Chanflor U.F.R. – Chanflor Robert Félix Mérine
2012 Robert Brasserie Lorraine – ISUZU Marin Johan Jacqua
2013 Marin U.F.R. – Chanflor Robert Félix Mérine
2014 Fort-de-France Ets. Rosette – Orange François Jacques Amalir
2015 François U.F.R. – Chanflor Robert Félix Mérine
2016 Fort-de-France Zapetti – Appaloosa François Laurent Mas
2017 Fort-de-France Ets. Rosette – Orange François Jacques Amalir
2018 Schœlcher U.F.R. – Chanflor Robert Félix Mérine
2019 François Brasserie Lorraine – SARA énergies nouvelles Marin Diany Rémy
2022 Vauclin SARA énergies nouvelles – Autodistribution Marin Diany Rémy
The old photos were taken from the website