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Maxi yacht racing fires up tomorrow at Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez

by James Boyd / International Maxi Association 5 Oct 13:06 PDT 6-9 October 2020
Roberto Lacorte's all-conquering Mills-Vismara 62 Super Nikka is now Jean-Philippe Blanpain's Leaps & Bounds, racing here in IR2 © International Maxi Association / Studio Borlenghi

This week sees maxi yachts, both classic and modern, descend upon the Cote d'Azur for the second week of the new format Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez. For the first time this year, the event has been divided in two, lengthening it to a fortnight.

This transformation was made by organisers, the Société Nautique de Saint-Tropez (SNST), prior to the onset of the pandemic and in retrospect, in the current crisis has proved fortuitous: There are fewer yachts in Saint-Tropez at any one time and fewer people out on the streets. Instead of the usual festival, the atmosphere is more subdued with everyone, including the public, obliged to wear masks, both on the streets and out on the water.

While the first week was for the smaller boats, the second is for maxis. More 20 maxis are due to compete, ranging from the magnificent schooners in the GTR class, to the three IRC classes, where the longest are Stefano Raspadori's Solaris 111 Cefea and Christophe Schoeller's Andre Hoek-designed modern classic Eugenia VII in IR1 and the shortest are the 60 footers in IR 2 and 3. With expertise provided by their Technical Office, the International Maxi Association (IMA) has been assisting the SNST in determining the splits between these classes, with IR 1 featuring the longest and fastest yachts and IR 3 the shortest and slowest.

Among the 60 footer racing in IR 2 is IMA President Benoît de Froidmont and his Wally 60 Wallyño. In 2019, they concluded a successful season on these waters winning the IMA's Mediterranean Maxi Inshore Challenge.

De Froidmont returns this week for what, thanks to the pandemic, will be his first event since last season's triumph: "I am very, very happy that the Société Nautique de Saint-Tropez has gone to the utmost to make this event happen," he said. "We were all very worried that what happened in Porto Cervo [when the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup had to cancelled with three days to spare due to a COVID-19 outbreak] would happen here. The organisers have worked closely with the local authorities to ensure this race can take place, so I thank them warmly.

"It will be a strange event because there will be fewer English, Italian and international competitors. Those who have made it are happy to be here and to compete, but we miss the rest of the fleet."

De Froidmont is delighted to be back sailing, not just because of the long absence but because it will provide him with an opportunity to test his extensively modified Wallyño. This has included renewal of the decking, paint, hydraulics, boom and electrics.

Supported by Rolex, the International Maxi Association is sanctioned by World Sailing to represent the interests of maxi yacht owners around the globe and to improve the quality of their racing. Thus the IMA has supplied support including sponsoring top international race officer Ariane Mainemare as their representative and to assist the Société Nautique de Saint-Tropez's race team this week.

While last year the maxi classes had their own race area off the Baie de Pampelonne, this year they will sail one coastal race on each of the four days (Tuesday 6th to Friday 9th) starting and finishing from fixed lines immediately off Saint-Tropez, regardless of the wind direction and with the race committee sending each class around a pre-written course. This set-up allows for the prospect of reaching and downwind starts. "With less boats on the start line, it shouldn't be a problem as the line is quite long. It will be very nice to have the maxis racing in the Golfe de Saint-Tropez especially when there is wind," says Mainemare.

As to the forecast, the first two days are set to be brisk offshore westerlies, creating excellent flat water conditions before the wind turns light on Thursday and fills in from the east on Friday.

Also hoping to make her mark in IR2 is Peter Duben's Spectre. Due to difficulties quarantining for crew returning to the UK, the British entry is sailing shorthanded with four professionals, Dubens helming, plus assorted guests. Thus Nick Rogers, the Olympic 470 silver medallist, who is tactician, will also be navigator and mainsheet trimmer, while the pitman will also trim and the bowman, will also handle the mid-bow and pit assist.

Rogers has acclimatised to Saint-Tropez, having raced on a Swan 50 here last week. Compared to a 'normal' Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez he observes: "This event is usually the social swan song for the season and here we are - our first event of year! Obviously the turn-out is dramatically down and for a social event, it won't be very social, but all credit to the organisers, who have been brave enough to run the event and are doing a really good job."

Aside from the mandatory mask-wearing, Rogers observes that there is COVID-19 on-site testing, which he believes is the way through the pandemic for events such as this.

Leading the charge around the race course in IR1 will be the Farr 100 Leopard, chartered once again to Dutch internet entrepreneur Joost Schuijff. Back as race skipper is Chris Sherlock, the boat's long-term skipper under original owner Mike Slade.

Leopard will compete with most of her usual veteran race crew, including Paul Standbridge, Hugh Agnew, Tom McWilliam, Mark Thomas and Luke Molloy, although Sherlock acknowledges it will be a very different regatta. "We live in a bubble between Leopard and our villa behind Cogolin. Our chef is the only person to leave that bubble to get food." From just passing Saint-Tropez, it is very evidently different: "There are only 12 boats at anchor outside when normally there are 100s. It is a totally different feel."

As to their prospects - under the IRC rating rule, Leopard is the highest rated yacht competing so should be first around the race course, but Sherlock states their goal is to win on corrected time. "We changed our sail plan away from triangular sails and we now use Doyle's cable-less technology that has made a big change and brought our rating down. On the water we'll be the quickest but we are optimised for IRC and have come to win IRC."

Racing for the maxis at Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez starts tomorrow with a first warning signal at 1100 CEST.

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