Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez is sailing’s greatest spectacle. Dan Houston examines its enduring appeal
While for many of us October sees our thoughts turn to bringing boats ashore or preparing them to overwinter, in Saint-Tropez some 2,500 sailors are enjoying a 10-day international regatta in T-shirt weather.
2023 saw Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez celebrate its 25th anniversary, though its history stretches back further, stemming as it does from the Nioulargue, which began in 1983. Over 40 years the event has established a precedence as being the first and finest regatta of its kind in the Mediterranean, with the Société Nautique de Saint-Tropez (SNST), managing to create a world class sailing spectacle from its modest clubhouse in this former fishing port. The south of France town usually hosts a population of just 3,600, its numbers swelling to almost double that for 10 days during the regatta.
And the little harbour is full of yachts – 250 of them from large classic schooners to dayboats. With a mix of maxi, modern and classic yachts the roads off the small port are a jostling jamboree of designs from the latest launches to the gaff-rigged gentlemen’s yachts of the late 19th century.
Unsurprisingly, the event is a photographer’s paradise. The late summer light is just beginning to suffuse slightly at either end of the day, while the Golfe de Saint-Tropez often enjoys a slight swell which gives a boat a ‘bone in her teeth’ or even a proper bow wave with lots of spray. It was the iconic photographs from those early runnings, published around the world, which drew yachtsmen of all waters to sail here.
Some years have seen a spinnaker-exploding Mistral come barrelling down from the pine-covered Maures mountains, but this October instead saw small breezes usually begin to establish in the late morning which created enough wind to race. Only Tuesday brought significant wind this year, peaking at 24 knots – with all fleets racing that day it proved enough to send a steady stream of sails to the North Sails tent behind the quay for repairs. The service team working through the night said they had 17 to mend. “We’re hoping to be done by 3, maybe 4am,” one of them told me.
Big boat opener
The fleet of 40 Maxis opened the racing on Sunday 1 October, in a nod back to the days of the Nioulargue which traditionally saw the modern Maxis race first. The first start was delayed until 1300 when the light easterlies got up enough puff to move the Maxi yachts. Peter Harrison’s Maxi 72 Cannonball won, followed by Wendy Schmidt’s Deep Blue. Schmidt is wife of former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt and founder of the 11th Hour project which backed the winners of this year’s Ocean Race, and though a relative latecomer to yacht racing, she owns and helms her 2020 Botin 85.
Cannonball’s win proved an auspicious start to the week and the team went on to win the Byblos Trophy for class overall, followed by Peter Dubens’ North Star. The A class Maxi fleet included Sir Peter Ogden’s Jethou, the new Swan 80 My Song, and five of the sleek Luca Bassani-designed Wallys (nine competed in the Maxi fleets in total).
The Maxis race over windward-leeward courses, and now use robotic marks. The biggest challenge is how to split the classes for the disparate yachts that want to take part. Andrew McIrvine, International Maxi Association secretary general explained: “It is tricky getting boats out sailing which sometimes perform very differently. We’ve tried various formulas to define the cruisers and racer-cruisers, but nothing has proven conclusive. Therefore, we’re adhering to the more universal IRC rule.
“Length is no longer a factor, as we have 72ft boats which are faster than the 100-footers. As a result, we’ve created a second trophy within the Maxi As, with a group dedicated to 72-footers. We’re delighted to be racing in the Gulf of Saint-Tropez and the bay of Pampelonne. With the use of geostationary mark positioning here, we have great flexibility with our course setting.”
Without doubt it is the classics which draw the biggest crowds, and the sight of so many beautiful wooden boats tied stern-to the quay is truly jaw-dropping. In fact it’s a bit of sport to get a petit coffee at the Café Sénéquier – which has been on the corner of Quai Jean Jaurès and rue Victor Laugier since 1930 – and watch people’s reaction as they come down onto the quay, seeing the likes of The Lady Anne, Tuiga, Mariska, Halloween, Belle Aventure, Puritan and Aschanti IV, their swept teak decks, gleaming brass work and uniformed crews.
These are the boats which created the razzmatazz of the original Nioulargue. Some are restored just so they can be here. Like Tara Getty’s rebuilt Baruna, an inboard yawl from Sparkman and Stephens in 1938. In port she is moored alongside the ‘tender’ Bluebird, which was also launched in 1938, at Goole in England. Built for the water speed ace Sir Malcolm Campbell to go treasure hunting in the Eastern Pacific Cocos Islands, Bluebird was requisitioned for the war effort and took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk. Campbell never made it to Cocos and died after the war in 1948.
Battle of the S&S yawls
There will be a full story on Baruna’s seven-and-a-half year restoration in a forthcoming YW issue. At 72ft (21.75m) she’s the third largest yawl in a group of 12 in Saint-Tropez, racing for the Rolex Trophy this year. And she’s racing with no fewer than six other S&S designed yawls: Comet 52ft (16.2m), Manitou 62ft (18.8m), Skylark 53ft 5in (16.3m), Stiren 48ft 8in (14.85m), Stormy Weather 53ft 11in (16.4m) and Varuna 60ft (18.3m).
Each has their own remarkable history. Manitou, built in 1937, was one of the first things President John F Kennedy signed for when he entered the White House in January 1961. Known as the floating White House – because she carried enough comms kit to keep him in touch with Washington and even the Kremlin – Manitou famously has a proper bath under flap-up hatches; rumour has it Marilyn Monroe was a regular visitor.
However, it was the 1939 Varuna, owned by Jens Kellinghusen, which took the Rolex this year, followed by William Woodward Fisher on Comet, and Christopher Spray on Stormy Weather.
“We get very excited with forecasts above 15 knots as this is when Stormy Weather really enters the design window that Olin Stephens envisaged,” Spray, who has been coming since 2002, tells me. “We have been working hard to improve our performance in light winds and while we may never truly compete with some of the lighter S&S boats in these airs we have been keeping up better.
“This year we were blessed with the best sunshine I can ever remember and this produced just enough afternoon breeze to give us four good races.
“The Rolex Cup united the yawls, mostly from Olin’s pen, and it is fascinating to observe their different strengths at close quarters. Varuna and Comet accelerate very well off the start line and out of the tacks, for example. Stormy Weather is very strong on a reach at the top of the wind range, as in the last race on Saturday. Our challenge day was against Baruna, Blitzen, and Manitou. All boats were raced hard and on this occasion we prevailed by a small margin.
“Les Voiles really dominates the town for this wonderful week at the end of the season and the outstanding setting in port really lends itself to partying and socialising. As the sun sets the colours become more and more exaggerated, and the beauty of the town and magnificent boats come into ever sharper focus!” says Spray.
Small and Dainty
Les Voiles is not all about the big boats, however, and both the classics and modern fleets have boats crewed by just two or three people. There is always a quay for a few special small classic boats tucked in a corner of the harbour. Here I found the 33ft Josephine, a 1959 wooden International One Design, drawn and built by Bjarne Aas at his yard at Frederikstad, in Norway.
Josephine has been owned for the last four years by Jérôme Stevens and is crewed by Andrea Malatigue and two Britons, Will Ward and Morgan Peach, both under 25. A lot of her mahogany planking is original and in a recent restoration around 40% of her oak frames were sistered or replaced with iroko.
Stevens was hoping to do better than last year, when the Mistral didn’t suit Josephine: “Josephine sails beautifully, though she doesn’t like heavy wind or seas – and I am very careful to protect her from any harm, perhaps too much! But she does wonderfully in light to medium winds. She is such a dream to sail, light on the helm, well balanced, fast to accelerate on a light gust. She is also very comfortable with room for each crew.
“It was also a dream to sail with a young, passionate and eager crew: we had a great time discussing tactics on the water, and successes and mistakes at the bar. During the week, we gave the boat abundant praise and encouragement; I really consider her like one of my children.” They ended the regatta 4th in class.
Across from Josephine, Dainty is the smallest boat in the fleet at 26ft 5in (8m). Solent Sunbeam No.1 is a regular here and this is her 17th visit. Owner-skipper Peter Nicholson brings and returns her on a truck from Itchenor. As Dainty is engineless, it’s a common sight to see him or one of his crew paddling her on and off her mooring, usually sat astride her bows. She’s 100 years old this year and so joined the well-established centenarians race (won by the 1897 Fife design Jap, helmed by Harold Cudmore).
Dainty was crewed by Owain Parker and Georgie Eggleton (who more usually sails a Mini Transat 6.50) with Christine Graves. So why make the annual trek to Saint-Tropez? “This has undoubtedly got to be the best collection of classic yachts being sailed anywhere in the world,” says Eggleton.
Racing is well organised, with each fleet starting at half hourly intervals in a buoyed exclusion zone off the harbour mole just in front of Saint-Tropez. Then classes follow their own courses, designed to prevent accidents where large, hard-to-manoeuvre vessels are also racing. Most racing is done under IRC but the classics race under the CIM (Comité International De Méditerranée) system, which rewards originality to their design.
One-design racing at Les Voiles is unusual, but this year undoubtedly the most popular small class was the Tofinou 9.5s, of which I counted seven. They race like a bunch, nodding over the trippy swell like goslings with their black sails and woodwork-featured decks. Meanwhile French sailing legend Bruno Troublé, now 78 and a popular figure on the quays here, was at the helm of one of three P Class yachts – the 55ft (16.8m) 1910 Herreshoff Corinthian.
But among the classics it is the breadth of disparate designs across a wide age range in each division that really attracts people to this event. In the smaller gaff cutters class there is not a boat younger than 1913, and several are from the 19th century. The oldest is a Cardiff pilot cutter called Madcap from 1878. Even in the other classes there is the odd boat going back to the 1960s and ’70s, but most are older. All are unique, and hand crafted.
An English veteran of the event is The Who guitarist and songwriter Peter Townshend who has the 62ft (19m) canoe-sterned 1938 Nicholas Potter design Serenade. Serenade’s captain is Charlotte Franquet, a Frenchwoman who races the boat even when Townshend can’t sail. It’s the end of a busy season for Serenade: “We have done Antibes, Porquerolles, Imperia and Cannes as well as being here,” Franquet tells me. Serenade opened her week with a win, but finished 5th overall, just one place ahead of German Frers on his Recluta. Class victory went to Charles Dunstone’s Blitzen.
Well-known yachtsman Richard Matthews has also been bringing his 1898 Fife design, the 48ft (14.6m) Kismet to St Tropez for a decade now. Kismet had been a houseboat at West Mersea for 50 years before Matthews bought and had her restored in 2007.
“What’s great about sailing down here is that we have plenty of boat-for-boat competition,” Matthews says. “We have built a good friendship with the crew of Viola, and whoever crosses the line first waits for the other and fires a cannon for them. They thumped us today – we got a great start and creamed everybody but she got away from us on the second beat.”
A great treat at this year’s regatta was a reprisal of the duel between the two boats that started it all. It was a challenge laid down to a boat-on-boat race between the 1964 Boyd 12-Metre Ikra and the 1973 Swan 44 Pride in 1981, which ended in a famously great lunch at Club 55 on the beach in Pampelonne. Other boats were inspired to join, and the rest is history. Restaurateur Patrice de Colmont, now 76, ran the first two unofficial events as the Club 55 Cup. Then in 1983 the Maxis joined in – a tremendous coup, as France had no regattas like it at the time – and de Colmont named the event the Nioulargue, after the offshore buoy that the first races rounded. The regatta which became Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez had been born.
Ikra has been a regular at the event ever since, but Pride has been in Venice for the last 20 years and only just been bought back by Gillian Graves, granddaughter of Dick Jayson – Pride’s owner at the time of the 1981 challenge. Graves and her husband Will had been updating Pride’s deck hardware and rigging in Italy, and the yacht only just made it to Saint-Tropez.
But the effort was worth it, and the emotions of the crews of these historic boats was tangible after this year’s Club 55 race, which ended at the restaurant, just as it had all those years ago. “It’s amazing to be here and having Pride back in the family,” Will Graves tells me. “Gillian’s grandfather was given a medal by the city, because this event put sailing in Saint-Tropez on the map, which gave the town a huge boost.”
Apparently the lunch at Club 55 was fantastic, as it had been 42 years earlier. As for the results? Ikra won, once again – no surprise, and in no way lessening the Pride crew’s sense of pride in the occasion.
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