Circus on a sailboat: The family of acrobats swinging aboard 12-meter yacht

By Sheena McKenzie, CNNUpdated 28th March 2013
From the top of a 14-meter mast, Delphine Lechifflart expertly rolls down a length of white ribbon, her taut body pirouetting mid-air, before easing into the arms of her lover.
The two French acrobats continue to twirl and swoop, their flying silhouettes growing darker as the sun lowers in the sky behind them.
It's a sumptuous image that hushes the crowd who stand gathered, not under a circus big top, but on the banks of a jetty.
This, of course is no ordinary acrobatic show, but one performed entirely on a lurching 12-meter yacht in harbors across the world.
"They use the whole boat like it's one big gymnastics apparatus," said Dwight Jones, manager at Seattle's Elliott Bay Marina, which recently hosted the enchanting La Loupiote show.
A decade ago Australian Paul Larsen embarked on a mission to set a new world sailing speed record.
Australian Paul Larsen on fine-tuning his sailing machine that almost took his life.
Australian Paul Larsen loses control as he attempts to set a new world sailing speed record.
"You couldn't ask for a more dramatic stage -- people can watch from the shore or take their own dinghy and see it from the water."
A family affair
For acrobat couple Lechifflart, 42, and Franck Rabilier, 44, their distinctive yellow yacht is not simply a stage -- it's also the floating home they share with two daughters; Loeva, 13, and Ondja, five.
"The eldest has done some shows with us, playing a puppet, but the youngest is still too small," said Rabilier.
"We're home-schooling them and at the beginning of each year they go back to France to do their exams."
Since setting sail from Brittany in north west France in 2004, the free-spirited family has traveled from port to port across the globe, performing their remarkable show and surviving on donations alone.
"They just pass a hat around at the end," Jones explained. "People can't believe they're seeing this fantastic performance for free -- it really generates a sense of generosity."
Show time
From rolling down the top of the mast, to balancing on the boom, and tiptoeing along the railing, the agile acrobats leap across every inch of the boat in two very different 20-minute routines.
The first is a slapstick Laurel and Hardy-style comedy, featuring two bumbling sailors racing around the yacht to a lolloping piano soundtrack.
As the sun sets, the couple perform their second, more romantic show, in which two lovers tenderly cavort mid-air to rousing classical music.
"In the romantic show, there's an orange-pinkish light behind them while they're doing this beautiful ballet in the rigging," Jones said.
"They perform the whole thing without a safety net. It's like nothing you've ever seen before -- people were coming back day-after-day to see them."
Setting sail
The daring duo began taking circus lessons while university students in Paris, and in 1999 set up their own acrobatic company called La Loupiote -- meaning "small light" in old French.
They performed in theaters and on the streets, but had dreams of taking the show on the road -- or more accurately, the high seas.
"We both sailed with our parents when we were young," Lechifflart explained. "That was our dream -- to travel the world by boat."
In 2000 they bought a half-built yacht and spent the next four years getting it into seaworthy shape.
Once on the water, the pair spent a year experimenting and refining their unique aquatic-based act.
"The first time we tried it, I had a lot of bruises," Lechifflart said. "It's so much more complicated than working on land."
"You have to work with the weather, the wind, the waves -- the boat is constantly moving."
The family's nomadic lifestyle has taken them across Europe, America, and now New Zealand, where they'll be performing over the next month.
And after that, who knows? The carefree couple tend to sail the high-seas in whichever direction they wish, surviving on around $800 a month.
"They're not living high on the hog, as they say, but they're loving what they're doing," Jones said.
"Their perspective on life is different from people working nine to five -- they don't know where they're going the next day and you've got to respect that."
And so, like the circus wagons of old, the family of acrobats will point their "small light" towards the horizon in search of the next high-flying adventure.