The Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez fleet that gathers each autumn comes as much for the competition as to soak up the atmosphere that over a hundred classic boats can easily provide. While some of the yachts and sailors are experiencing Les Voiles for the first time, many have raced here before and have been frequent participants over the past three decades of Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez (since 1999) or La Nioulargue before that.
It’s equally inspiring, whether you experience the fleet on the water – the Golfe de Saint Tropez chockablock with gaff schooners, Marconi cutters, sloops, ketches, and yawls for the race start – or ashore, where up to fifty yachts moor Med-style, stern-to the quay in the old port. At night, the yachts are lined up varnished caprail to caprail, with spreader and deck lights illuminating the wooden spars that tower above -- presenting an enchanting setting for those strolling the old port, and spilling out of the popular Hotel Sube’s and other adjoining restaurants and bars.
For all traditional classes, it was a trying day on the water with light and variable breeze. All classes started and then struggled to sail up the coast – the wind clocking to the south and up and down in velocity, causing the race committee to shorten the course.
One need not be a yachting historian, but just have an appreciative eye for beauty and design to notice the myriad details on the yachts on the quay: the exquisite and highly polished bronze hardware, efficient ropework, and perfect brightwork.
One of the most revered designers, whose boats grace St Tropez, is the Scotsman William Fife III (1857 – 1944), the third generation of a boatbuilding family. His first successful design was the Dragon class in the late 1800s, and by the turn of the century he had already designed the first of two America’s Cup challengers – Shamrock I and II – for the tea magnate, Sir Thomas Lipton. In the early 1900s, he turned his impeccable eye to metre boats, notably the 15m and 19m classes.
This year there is a bumper fleet of Fifes including: the 23 metre class, Cambria; the gaff schooner Altair; the gaff cutters Moonbeam III and IV; the 19 metre class Mariquita; the International 15 metre class Mariska, Tuiga, and The Lady Anne; Marconi cutter Hallowe’en, the gaff cutter Nan of Fife built in 1896. Given that there is only an estimated 50 or so of Fife’s designs still extant and racing, it’s impressive to consider this collection racing in St Tropez this week.
Some Fife-designed yachts exist today though some sort of divine serendipity – certainly that played a part in the 115-year old Nan of Fife’s survival.
Owner/skipper Philippe Menhinick has raced the 75-foot gaff cutter for the past ten years in St Tropez. Menhinick already owned a classic yacht and wasn’t really looking for one, he recalled, 'I found Nan on the web, I was just looking on the net for nice boats and I saw this funny boat with an aluminum wheel, but all details on deck, so I wanted to see the boat in reality, so I went to see her in Cap d’Agde. Finally I discovered the name Nan and remembered my grandfather had a boat called Nan. I discovered that it was my grandfather’s yacht, he owned it between 1949 and 1952 – I had no idea at all, it was destiny!
'My grandmother sold her engagement ring in 1951 to pay the expenses on the yacht, and in 1952 the boat was in really bad shape and my grandfather sold it to a Belgian guy from Ostend.' Forty-seven years later it was back in the family. Menhinick then spent 20 months restoring the yacht in a yard in Saint Malo, and finished in 2001, in time to race in the Americas Cup Jubilee in Cowes. Nan of Fife has been a regular at Les Voiles since then, as Menhinick said, 'It’s my destiny for ten years, I’ve been looking after my yacht.' Serendipity indeed – Nan of Fife won their class in yesterday’s racing at Les Voiles.
Another fine example of the Fife design is the International 15 Metre Class yachts. Fife designed eight of the 20 built, and of these three are racing this week (a fourth, the recently re-launched Hispania, withdrew shortly before the regatta started).
Mariska, owned by Christian Neils, who races along with his son, Axel, onboard. Neils bought the boat in late 2006 and it underwent a meticulous two-and-a-half year full restoration, with up to 40 people full-time on the project in La Ciotat, France. The boat had been customized, with five metres sawn off the aft end, and no existing mast.
The boat sails with a base crew of four, but for racing the numbers grow to 20 or so, many of them friends. For Axel Neil and his family, St Tropez is a special place. He said, 'We’ve been coming here for generations, it’s a family place for us. There are a lot of friends who we’ve known for decades and we’re very happy to invite them on the boat for a race at Les Voiles. We’re also sporting the colours of La Société Nautique de Saint-Tropez, so theoretically it’s our home base.'
This is Mariska’s second season and the boat and crew are busy enough just racing in the Mediterranean classic circuit, which they won overall in their division last year. This year, Mariska has won already in Antibes and in Monaco, which was noteworthy as they bested Tuiga, a sister-ship from the Yacht Club de Monaco. Axel Neil said, 'It’s been the main competition for the past two years. It’s the first time the four (15m class) boats were reunited again. Now we have St Tropez, so we’ll see how it goes, but we’re real happy to be here.
'It’s fantastic to see these boats racing together, they are the four left in the world out of the series of twenty. As they were named in Monaco, it is the 'belle classe' – they really were the noble racing boats, it’s fantastic to see them together again.'
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. The winner from 2010, Yves-Marie Morault on the 12-metre Ikra, is back to defend.
Tomorrow at Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez is the traditional Club 55 Cup, a match race this year between Mariquita and Altair with start at 12noon. Following that is the Centenary Trophy for yachts over 100 years old. Finally are the other Challenge Day match races set up between yachts, the list to be finalized tomorrow.
Racing continues Friday for both Traditional and Modern classes. First warning signal is 1100 for the Moderns, 1200 for Traditional. Event website