Every September, there is another reason to stop and stare in St Tropez and that’s during the week that Les Voiles de St Tropez comes to town. The world-famous sailing regatta, now in its 19th year, is a pivotal part of the yachting calendar, along with the likes of Antigua and Cowes.
Unlike any other regatta, though, it presents a unique opportunity for classic boats and modern super-yachts to compete together in a week of racing – and for their 4,000 or so crew members to let their hair down in the after-hours festivities. This year’s event will see 300 boats take to the bay of St Tropez, their vast white sails set spectacularly against the backdrop of the village’s facades that take on a coppery glow in the Autumn light.
About half of the participants are classic boats, including some of the world’s most beautiful sailing yachts – and some of them more than 100 years old. Among these “old ladies” of yachting, ones to watch this year include Tuiga, the flagship of the Yacht Club of Monaco, Mariska, a member of the Société Nautique de Saint Tropez and Hispania, which was launched by the former King of Spain, Alfonso XIII, in 1909, and recently restored to her former glory.
These remarkable museum pieces provide a glimpse into an elegant past era of yachting and require crews who understand and respect each boat’s heritage and tradition as they race to win the prestigious Rolex trophy. They also need to compete with the best of breed today, which includes ultra-modern and high-tech one-off yachts known as Wallys, made by the Monacobased boat-builder, Luca Bassani. There are also the titans of 24 metres and above in the Maxi class, which routinely sees My Song (a Nauta 70) and Solleone (Swan 90) battle it out for the trophy.
“It’s the only major regatta where you see classic and modern racing together like this. St Tropez’s harbour is usually reserved for motor yachts, but for this week only each year, they all leave so that these magnificent sailing boats can take their place,” comments Maguelonne Turcat, the event’s spokesperson, who says the whole town becomes consumed by the regatta, with bars, restaurants and shops all playing a part in the festivities and hotels booked out far in advance.
Les Voiles began life in 1981 as ‘la Nioulargue’ – “a mad challenge”, as described by the event’s founder and owner of Club 55, Patrice de Colmont, between two yachts, Ikra, a 12m JI and Pride, a Swan 44. To save money on buying a marine map, they used a road map and in the blue area marked ‘Golf of St Tropez’, drew out the course starting at the Portalet tower – one of the town’s three remaining towers in its ancient ramparts - and finishing in front of Club 55 on Pampelonne beach. “We named it the Club 55 cup, then forgot all about it until the following September when the American owner of Pride turned up seeking revenge and various other boats wanted to join in the challenge,” says de Colmont.
After the second year’s event, it was decided that it couldn’t be a real regatta without Maxi yachts, so de Colmont initiated what he describes as the “biggest bluff in global yachting”. He faxed the Aga Khan, president of the Costa Smeralda Yacht Club, saying that the Yacht Club of Saint-Tropez - which didn’t exist – would like to open up its regatta to owners of Maxi yachts and could he organise a meeting. Within 24 hours, he was on a private plane to Sardinia. Soon after, the yacht crews arrived to an exuberant welcome – dinners, wild nights out, boules matches, beer and croissants at 8am – and the regatta became an official fixture on the yachting calendar.
“Now it has become a peak date in the calendar”, says Turcat. “It’s a chance to drink, be happy and enjoy the party atmosphere, but in a very respectful way. It’s a very different scene to the crowds and VIPS who flock to St Tropez in summer. During Les Voiles, almost everyone in town is associated with the regatta in some way. Everyone you meet in the street is wearing the uniform of their boat.”
Many others enjoy the spectacle from the surrounding hilltops. “Even if you can’t go on the water, you can see it from all the roads around. It’s very easy to get a good view,” Turcat adds.
The on-shore social side to Les Voiles has always been as energetic and colourful as the racing. The event’s organisers call it an “exceptional alchemy”, bringing together the love of sailing with the innate pleasure of partying.
The Thursday night fancy dress parade sees everyone take to the streets in costumes ranging from cavemen to Star Wars characters. There are parties every night, rugby, arm-wrestling and tug-of-war in the Place de Lices, plus the long-standing boules competition and a giant Savoyard fry-up.
Partying has always been a cornerstone of the regatta. De Colmont describes it as a chance for the people of St Tropez to let loose after a frenetic summer season, but in a way that’s authentic to them and based around a celebration of the water. “There is no commercial goal and every form of extravagance is welcome,” he says. That certainly sounds like St Tropez.
by ZOE DARE HALL
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