As yacht clubs go, The Foster and Partners-designed Monaco Yacht Club, opened in 2014, has plenty going for it. For sure it’s difficult to find the doors to both the ladies’ and gents’ – small wall buttons in a seemingly doorless corridor. But the ship-shaped tiers and decking-clad floors lend it an unashamedly nautical appeal.
I was there last month for the announcement of the club’s new sponsorship arrangement with Maserati, the Italian car brand.
It was like a meeting of Italian and Monegasque royalty with the chairman of Fiat, John Elkann and Princess Caroline’s son, Pierre Casiraghi, flanking the Italian sailor, Giovanni Soldini.
Soldini was the other reason for the get together since he was announcing his sailing plans for the coming year on his former Volvo 70, also sponsored by Maserati.
There must have been something like 80 journalists for the kind of press conference that in the UK would have struggled to attract a parish magazine.
In some ways it didn’t fit at all with what constitutes news. But in other ways - the ways of the brand - it was a perfect alignment.
While the current Volvo Ocean race is in the Chinese port of Sanya just now, preparing for its fourth leg, here was a comparative antique, the former Ericsson 3 that came fourth in the 2008/9 Volvo Race, moored up alongside the swishest new building in Monaco.
An inspection of the cramped interior didn’t take anything away from the feeling that this boat had had its day.
Gear was strewn around, a small sink was the only sign of running water and if you had an urge to use the heads, well forget it. I’m told there’s a bucket somewhere.
Yet Elkann and Casiraghi, neither of whom look the kind of men who want to be chained to an office, were flanking Soldini for a reason. Both have sailed in Soldini’s crew, happily swapping their coddled lifestyles for the hardships and discomforts of mucking in, hot bunking and sharing the watches in one of the toughest sailing experiences the sea can deliver.
Part of the attraction must be Soldini’s sense of fun and adventure, but another has to be the way this Italian skipper has created a beast of a speed machine out of the Juan Kouyoumdjian Volvo 70.
The team has stripped out the original electricity generator and the heating system, reducing the yacht’s former weight of 15 tons to 12 tons. The result is what Soldini calls a “record-shattering machine” that can top 40 kts. This kind of performance would leave the current Volvo 60 fleet floundering in its wake.
To prove his point, Soldini skippered the yacht over a record-breaking 47-day run on the old clipper route between New York and San Francisco in 2013. This year he has plans to compete in this month’s RORC Caribbean 600 race, to make an attempt on the San-Francisco-Shanghai clipper record in the summer and then to end the year competing in the Rolex Sydney-Hobart race.
While Soldini himself says he’d love to enter a Volvo race, he knows that would mean upping his sponsorship by a factor of ten and Maserati has no interest in aligning itself to the Volvo brand.
What better for an exclusive car badge, therefore, than to associate itself with a go-alone yacht and a go-alone principality? Not even the most exclusive of brands can live in a vacuum.
Maserati needs to compete with other brands such as Jaguar that has shown it is possible to make fine sports cars that are affordable to more modest pockets.
Taking its name on a sail to Shanghai will do Maserati no harm whatsoever in a country where the new rich crave the leading European brands.
And while Monaco itself enjoys the patronage of the super-rich, before the new club building arrived, Port Hercules was in need of a boost to offer the kind of facilities that superyacht owners demand.
The club has about 1600 members paying an annual membership fee of around €2,000 a year. But new members must be prepared to part with a €12,000 joining fee if they can find a couple of sponsors among the existing membership. The idea, though no-one says this, is to keep out the riff raff.
So how does it compare with the Royal Yacht Squadron on the Isle of Wight? Apart from similar levels of exclusivity it’s like comparing chalk and cheese.
The Monaco club is light, airy and modern while the RYS building looks like a youth hostel.
The British club has all the history, however, formed, as it was by a nucleus of Royal Navy captains who served under Admiral Nelson. The club tie is black as a permanent token of mourning and, beyond the ships of the Royal Navy, only its members are allowed to fly the White Ensign.
In terms of car associations the RYS, you feel, would be more Bentley than Maserati. But one thing each of these clubs has in common, is a strong appreciation of seamanship and fast yachts.
No, that Volvo 70 wouldn’t look out of place in Cowes. Forty knots is fast for a big multihull. For a monohull in the open sea, as Giovanni Soldini himself says, it’s “insane”.
Italian sailor, Giovanni Soldini
*Images supplied by Richard Donkin