Tabarly was born in Nantes on 24 July 1931 to a family of yachting tradition. Still a baby, his parents took him for sailing excursions of their cutter Annie. In 1938, Tabarly's father purchased the gaff-rigged cutter Pen Duick.
Tabarly enlisted in the Navy as a volunteer in 1953 and joined the French Aeronavale. He served at Saint-Mandrier airbase, before transferring to French airbases in Morocco. After earning his pilot licence and the rank of Second Maître de deuxième classe in December 1954, he fought in the First Indochina War, appointed to Tan Son Nhut Air Base.
In August 1956, Tabarly started refitting Pen Duick in his spare time. She was in a state of disrepair since the Second World War, during which she had been decommissioned for fear of being requisitionned, and her wooden hull had rotten. Tabarly endeavoured to rebuild her using polyester resin. The conversion was completed, Pen Duick was launched in April 1958.
In September 1957, he was appointed to Lann-Bihoué airbase, near Lorient.
In 1958, Tabarly entered the École Navale; he was promoted to Aspirant the next year, and Enseigne de Vaisseau de deuxieme Classe in 1959. On 16 November 1960, Tabarly embarked on the school cruiser Jeanne d'Arc, for the ritual circumnavigation that is part of the practical teaching at the École Navale. Jeanne d'Arc returned to Brest on 8 June 1961 and the same month, Tabarly was appointed to the Minesweeper Castor with the rank of Enseigne de Vaisseau de Premiere Classe. He was later given command of the landing craft EDIC 9092.
In 1962, Tabarly raced in the Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race on Pen Duick. Determined to win the next edition set for two years later, Tabarly started building the Margilic V, and in autumn 1963, the Pen Duick II. He ran in the 1964 edition and won, with a time of twenty-seven days and three hours. This achievement earned Tabarly instant fame and the rank of Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur.
In 1965, he earned his Commandos Marine certification. The same year, he transformed Pen Duick II into a wishbone schooner. The next year, Pen Duick II was shortened to match the regulations of the Cruising Club of America, and Tabarly single-handedly sailed her to New York. He achieved a 5th position in the Bermuda Race, and raced in the Bermuda-Copenhaguen race, but had to abandon dur to a ruptured rudder. In October 1966, he was promoted to Lieutenant de Vaisseau.
The Ministry of Defence then detached Tabarly to the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, allowing him to concentrate on his racing career. In 1967, Tabarly won the Channel Race, Round Gotland Race, and Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race on Pen Duick III.
In 1968, Tabarly raced Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Race again, on Pen Duick IV, a brand-new trimaran. The new Pen Duick was damaged by Hurricane Brenda on 11 June, and never finished the race. The year after, he won the San Francisco-Tokyo race.
Tabarly returned to naval service in February 1971 and appointed to the Technical Inspection for Physical Education and Sports. The same year, he won the Falmouth-Gibraltar and the Middle Sea Race, and the next, the Transpac.
In 1973, he sailed in the first edition of the Whitbread. Tabarly was promoted to Lieutenant Commander in 1976. In 1980, Tabarly sailed Paul Ricard for a transatlantic race, beating Charlie Barr's transatlantic record. In June, he joined the Académie de Marine. Tabarly was promoted to Capitaine de Corvette in 1982.
Tabarly retired from active service in July 1985. He was promoted to Capitaine de Fregate of the naval reserves in August 1988. In 1994, he raced the Whitbread again. In 1997, Tabarly won the Fastnet Race on Aquitaine Innovations.
In May 1998, celebrations were held in Bénodet for the centenary of Pen Duick. In June, she sailed to Scotland, but while in transit in the Irish Sea, the night of 12 to 13 June, a spar threw Tabarly overboard. His body was recovered by the trawler An Yvidig on 20 July.
- OSTAR (Portsmouth-Newport) : 1964 on Pen Duick II and 1976 on Pen Duick IV
- Morgan Cup : 1967 on Pen Duick III
- Round Gotland Race : 1967 (on Pen Duick III
- Channel Race : 1967 on Pen Duick III
- Fastnet Race : 1967 on Pen Duick III and 1997 on Aquitaine Innovations
- Plymouth-La Rochelle : 1967 on Pen Duick III
- Sydney-Hobart : 1967 on Pen Duick III (and second in handicap time)
- Transpac San Francisco-Tokyo (Transpacific) : 1969 on Pen Duick V (with an 11 day lead over the runner-up)
- Falmouth-Gibraltar : 1971 on Pen Duick III
- Los-Angeles-Tahiti : 1972 on Pen Duick III
- 1st leg of the Volvo Ocean Race "Le Cap-Sydney" : 1973 on Pen Duick III
- Bermuda-England : 1974 on Pen Duick VI
- Triangle Atlantique : 1975 on Pen Duick VI
- 2nd of the Transat en double Lorient-Bermuda-Lorient : 1979 (with Marc Pajot) on Paul Ricard
- Transatlantic sailing record from West to East (New York-Cape Lizard), on the multihull Paul Ricard in 1980 in 10 days 5 hours 14 minutes and 20 seconds (previous record was in 1905 held by Charlie Barr on a 50-crewman schooner)
- 3rd of the Transat en solitaire : 1984 on Paul Ricard
- 2nd of the Transat Le Point-Europe 1 Lorient-Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon-Lorient: 1987 on Côte d'or
- Transat en double Le Havre-Carthagène (with Yves Parlier) : 1997 on Aquitaine Innovations