The Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez could not have welcomed a more impressive fleet of classic boats then the more than one-hundred racing this week at what is an armada that showcases designers from the golden ages of yachting history: Among them, Herreshoff, Fife, Sparkman & Stephens, Rhodes, Mylne, and Alden.
The summer-like conditions that prevailed on the Gulf of St Tropez outside of the old port featured plenty of blue sky, an unseasonably hot sun, and light breeze.
Racing was schedule for 12 noon, and after an hour’s postponement, Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez race committee managed to find enough wind in the starting area to send the fleet on a short nine-nautical mile coastal race, once the easterly breeze filled in to about five knots. It was enough to get nine classes off the line in five starts – first the smaller gaff-rigged and Marconi classes and through to the 'grand époque' big boats with stunners such as the 167-foot (51m) overall Herreshoff schooner Elena, the 19-metre class (110 feet overall) Mariquita, the Fife-designed gaff cutter 115-footer Moonbeam IV, and the 23-metre class, Cambria.
Even given the nearly half mile starting line for the twelve big boats, Mariquita, Tuiga, and Moonbeam were in a group that proved intent on the favoured committee boat end. Alone towards the pin end was Cambria, which found more pressure on the northern side of the gulf. Elena was safely just behind the first starters, but her towering sail plan made the most of the challenging conditions and allowed her to quickly gain on the others.
Most boats, having left the gulf and cleared the Porte Seiche mark, found the breeze clocking towards the south which allowed a mix of running sails to be set: spinnakers, fishermen, topsails. Further along the coast, the wind went painfully light, and the fleet compressed around the leeward mark off the town of Issambres. From there it was a beat upwind until they could lay the mark of Porte Seiche and then ease sheets for a reach towards the finish in a slighter fresher breeze. They were the lucky ones – for several of the bigger boat classes, the course was shortened and a finish line set off Porte Seiche.
Given the weight differential with this range of classics, certain boats fared better in the light conditions: two-time Rolex Trophy winner (2008 and 2009) NY 40 Rowdy for one. Skipper Graham Walker knows his way around the race course here. This time around, Walker has turned the tiller over to his new co-owner Nick Barham.
An Englishman from Monaco, who has extensive experience racing in the competitive Sydney 38 one-design class, Barham is clearly thrilled to be competing in St Tropez, 'It was a very difficult start, very tight on the start line, but we managed to get some clean air. Got up to first mark and slipped away with the wind, fantastic…perfect conditions for us, and a wonderful sail. After the leeward mark, we hung up to windward until we had about twenty degrees off the mark we had to come inside. Then we picked up a whole new breeze coming down towards the finish. The crew performed superbly.'
Rowdy will again be a force to be reckoned at Les Voiles this week as the 1916 Herreshoff sloop is coming off a successful season, with wins at Antibes, Porto Rotondo and Monaco. The crew is pretty much the same as prior years with some family members having come on as well, though Barham said 'we’re not de-professionalizing it, but making it a little more social than before.'
The Rolex Trophy is a competition within the Tradition division for all boats over 16 metres on deck. The winning boat receives the Rolex Trophy and a Rolex timepiece. First awarded in 2006, this year over 50 boats are eligible for the Trophy. Defending winner from 2010 is Yves-Marie Morault’s 12-metre Ikra.
Racing continues tomorrow for both Traditional and Modern classes. First warning signal is 1100 for the Moderns, 1200 for Traditional.
Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez 2011 Event Programme:
Sunday, 25 September: Welcome for Modern yachts
Monday, 26 September: Welcome for Traditional yachts; Racing for Modern yachts
Tuesday, 27 September: Modern and Traditional yacht racing
Wednesday, 28 September: Modern and Traditional yacht racing
Thursday, 29 September: Challenge Day (match racing); Club 55 Cup between Mariquita and Altair; Centenary Trophy (yachts over 100 yrs + longer than 16 metres)
Friday, 30 September: Modern and Traditional yacht racing
Saturday, 1 October: Modern and Traditional yacht racing
Sunday, 2 October: 11am, Prizegiving Ceremony at La Citadelle
Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez website