Paradise found: the story of St-Barth's regatta

Words by
Sandra Lane

21st March 2015

The glitzy international regatta circuit attracts devout sailors and action-loving jetsetters alike, but at Les Voiles de St-Barth a new breed of yachting culture is blossoming

You know this is not just any regatta when they send someone out to meet you with two bottles of Taittinger as you cross the finish line,” says champion Irish sailor Eamonn Rohan, happily recalling the afternoon’s final race. You also know that it’s no ordinary regatta when the scent of blossoming frangipani along the quayside mingles with the unmistakably French smell of freshly baked baguettes. You’re reminded of it again, when a six-hour, rosé-drenched lunch on the regatta’s Day Off culminates in dancing on the tables. And again, when racing crews leave the unwanted ballast of extra sails on the dock, knowing that they will be in exactly the same place when they come back off the water several hours later. 

And you definitely know that it is not just any regatta when you wake in the morning—the perfectly sunny, exactly-breezy-enough morning—and, without even lifting your head from the pillow, you look across the lawn of your villa, beyond the palm trees, to a picture of blue: blue sky, blue sea, so many shades of blue that trying to describe them brings on a The Devil Wears Prada moment: it’s “not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean.”

No, it’s actually all of those, and every other tone between palest aquamarine and deep, almost-midnight indigo. For a touch of contrast that makes the blues look their very best, the art director of this whole scenario has painted in a few pretty white wisps of cloud. And then, for good measure, has dotted the hills with the sloping red roofs of traditional island-style villas, not too many, just enough to confirm the taming of this rocky island’s raw beauty. This is St-Barth (St Barts if you’re American and St-Barthélemy if you’re being precise), a speck in the Caribbean that, for most, registers as a laid-back and deluxe playground for the mega-rich and their mega-yachts, a St Tropez West for winter sun, complete with a branch of Nikki Beach (the scene of that dancing on tables) copy-pasted from the Plage de Pampelonne.

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A glimpse of St-Barth’s pristine beaches and cerulean waters

A glimpse of St-Barth’s pristine beaches and cerulean waters

The St-Barth of the gossip magazines is too fabulously look-at me, perhaps, for some tastes. But, make no mistake, the laid-back vibe is far more in evidence than the luxe here, and more so this week than ever, with the high-season glitterati gone and the island given over to the shorts-and-boat-shoes vibe of Les Voiles de St-Barth. Founded by three island-based friends—the result of one of those “why don’t we…?” conversations that quickly gels into something much more—this end-of-season regatta is only in its fourth year, yet has already become a must for many. For Richard Mille, the watchmaker who has sponsored the event since the beginning, the vibe is perfect: his timepieces, with their dazzling mechanical complexity and space-age, proto-industrial materials, represent a similarly modern and relaxed notion of haute horlogerie. One of the highly-coveted, limited-edition machines awaits the regatta’s overall winner.

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In the thick of the race

In the thick of the race

Taittinger and tabletop dancing aside, much of Les Voiles de St-Barth’s appeal lies in its unusually inclusive style. It embraces large and small yachts, state-of-the-art and classic, as well as passionate yacht owners and keen amateurs addicted to organising their holidays around the chance to charter a racing yacht, serious world-class sailors and those who just love the buzz. Out on the water, the courses are hugely enjoyable for fun-racers yet technically demanding enough to keep former America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race sailors happy and tactically on their toes. Back on land, the social events and camaraderie are more than equal to the racing—to which add the ineffable chic of this little corner of France (St Tropez meets Île-de-Ré in the tropics, and it remains an administrative départment of the mother country), the world-class restaurants and very welcoming locals (they seem the antithesis of their Parisian cousins but it’s hardly surprising, given where they live). 

Already, the regatta has its stalwarts: Jim Swartz, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and famously competitive yachtsman who owns the super-fast TP52 Vesper, and Patrick Demarchelier, the celebrated photographer (who has a house on the island and a gorgeous 53-foot Swan boat called Puffy), have both been here since the beginning; for them it’s a non-negotiable date on the calendar. For others, such as America’s Cup veteran Cam Lewis and his crew mates on the American-owned Paradox, it’s the almost inevitable outcome of success the previous year, the prize for classwinners being a week’s stay in a villa on the island. The same prizes are offered this year, an ingenious way of ensuring returns. Not that anyone needs much persuasion.

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The final prize being awarded on the last day of racing

The final prize being awarded on the last day of racing

Many of the 700-odd racers are first-timers, though, most of them drawn in by word-of-mouth reports of an event unlike any other. Sometimes, word runs in the family: fresh from the prizegiving podium, Sonia Zugel, a gifted horserider who represents Ireland in dressage and who happens also to be the sister of Eamonn Rohan, explains how she and her husband came to be here on a chartered racing yacht when they were not even sailors, let alone raced in St-Barth before: “For a while we had been joking that my husband should try a slightly slower sport [Christian Zugel is a serious amateur racing driver and, among other things, has competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Greaves Motorsport] and then, six weeks ago Eamonn suddenly said ‘Hey, why don’t we go to St-Barth?’. That was it: we found a great boat and here we are. It has been unbelievably good fun.” Behind her there’s a not-so sotto voce remark: “Before the end of tonight we have to get our names down for next year.” Mission accomplished. And it’s good thinking: with more than 60 yachts entered this year and word spreading fast, the event will soon reach saturation. François-Paul Tolède, the organiser, insists that it will be capped at 80 yachts because that’s all the pocket-sized port of Gustavia can take. That intimate scale is also a huge part of its appeal, and it means that it will become more and more like a club for those who come back.

For our group of St-Barth first-timers, Les Voiles is business. Our host, Peter Harrison, is the CEO of Richard Mille Europe and Middle East and a mad-keen sailor. His fast racer-cruiser, Jolt 2, is sailing as the de facto “house” representative and we—a small group of very lucky journalists—have been invited to help crew it. Given the presence of Peter’s professional skipper and some highly proficient guest sailors, our crewing consists mainly of acting as fast-moving ballast, sprinting from one rail to the other as the boat changes tack. It’s a great place to be, right in the thick of closequarters racing and, on the longer runs and reaches, catching the sun and spray, and beach-spotting as we circle the island. As it does with many owners, the regatta-hopping bug has taken a firm grip on Peter: different waters, different crews, the camaraderie, the social events, seeing increasingly familiar faces popping up in each place, all the while learning more and more about race tactics and how to get the most from the boat. The pleasure is obvious, as for the entire time we’re with him, a huge grin doesn’t leave his face. 

Massachusetts-based property developer Donald Tofias is here with his gorgeous, traditionally styled yacht Wild Horses. It’s only the first event in his racing calendar—in only a week’s time he will be in Antigua for the Panerai Classic Yacht Challenge. In the summer he will also be racing in Nantucket and Maine. But it’s not just yacht owners who organise their travelling around regattas. Maxx Kenna plans almost all of his time off around sailing.

He’s crewing for Peter Harrison in St-Barth, having first done so at Les Voiles de St Tropez last autumn (the world’s other great end-ofseason yacht-fest and surely, in part, an inspiration for the St-Barth’s event—at least in its original, more intimate incarnation as La Nioulargue more than 30 years ago). He has raced for years at Cowes, in Ireland, and at Antigua Race Week. “It’s a fantastic way of getting to know different places, and with that unbeatable combination of racing and socialising, you get a very special impression of a place. It’s also the best possible break from work. If you’re lying on a beach, work will inevitably creep into your head but on a yacht, the moment the pre-start gun goes, you don’t think of anything but sailing.” Most of the opportunities and invitations come by word of mouth, Maxx says, and being fun and easy to get along with is almost as important as your racing skill. “You spend all day in confined quarters and everyone relies on each other a lot during the race. If you don’t know somebody well at the beginning of a regatta, you certainly will by the end of it. So it’s not a good place for prima donnas, even if they are great sailors.”

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The stunning bay at St-Barth, now a laidback jet-set mainstay...

The stunning bay at St-Barth, now a laidback jet-set mainstay...

So, for a man who has sailed in such exotic locales as New Zealand and Thailand, and amid the glamour of St Tropez, how does this week in St-Barth measure up? “It’s a lot more chilled than St Tropez. Here, everyone is more or less the same, all that counts is the size of your smile.” I’d go along with that. The party at Nikki Beach was absurdly good fun, unlike in St Tropez, nobody gave a hoot about how they and others looked—there was no posing, no mental calculating of cost-of-designer-outfit. Not much in the way of designer outfits for that matter, just simple, sailing chic.

“This is just as much fun as Antigua but in a totally different way. There it’s rum and street food, here there’s just so much style,” Maxx says. That style runs from Gustavia’s grandly named Quai Général de Gaulle to its cobbled streets, gingerbread architecture and ritzy boutiques. It floats on the breeze that wafts through the Latin American-accented Bonito restaurant perched on a hill overlooking Gustavia harbour and rustles the palm trees surrounding the barefoot-deluxe and deeply private Hotel Christopher at Pointe Milou. It’s a very different St-Barth from the Beyoncé-on-the-beach and Abramovich-on-the-giant-yacht captured by the long-haul, long-lensed paparazzi. And it’s all the better for that. The locals say that Les Voiles de St-Barth takes it back to the way it was a decade ago. My Texan neighbour on the little puddle-hopper plane that flew us back to what we call reality put it this way: “No, we don’t sail but we come here during the regatta because we love the vibe. The island is already gorgeous and those yachts just make it more beautiful.