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Reportage from a Voiles Virgin!

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This year for the first time I attended the Voiles de St Tropez on the press boat for OnboardOnline. Arriving at the Voiles Village by the port on Tuesday the sense of expectation and energy were palpable.

With its infamous location and sailing prestige, synonymous with big names such as Rolex, Rothschild, BMW and Club 55, I expected nothing less. 50,000+ visitors per sailing day to a remote small town with a population of 6,000 has to be for something special. 

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I was ushered into the bustling tented press-office and was handed my pass and press pack and told to wait for my boat to be announced. There I was, my first expedition as member of the press, in a tent in St Tropez strewn with cameras, lenses, laptops and other technical equipment, wondering how many people there would be in each boat and if I should have worn a higher factor sunscreen.  

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I was intrigued (and a little nervous) to see what type of people I would meet and secretly hoped they wouldn’t judge my choice of equipment. This was not my usual type of event and there can be an element of snobbery in photography circles… it felt like the first day at school and I was the new girl.  

As I looked around there were all types of journalists and photographers, some with enormous zoom lenses with a ton of glass and metal and others with just a compact SLR camera for a simple overview of the event. There were all ages, some polished and manicured and others more outdoorsy with bum bags and huge pockets. I couldn’t resist shamelessly stereotyping trying to guess which publications the different characters represented. 

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I had elected in advance to go on the ‘traditional yacht course’ instead of the ‘modern yacht course’ – based on a sense of nostalgia and my own romantic vision of what the event would look like. I’d seen images over the years which created a wistful affection for times gone by, and I can’t deny I’ve been influenced by Pirates of the Caribbean which I’ve watched too many times! 

All this coloured my expectations, and the information in the press pack seemed to back this up: 

On water as on shore, the 4,000 crew members who gather in St Tropez every year in the coppery light of early Autumn, aboard more than 300 of the most beautiful modern and classic boats in the world, have transformed what was originally - 35 years ago - a friendly get-together  in The Place To Be. Faithful to its values they have managed to maintain the unique spirit of the Voiles de St Tropez… celebrating its 18th year in 2016 with the usual revelry…. 

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In an interview, Patrice de Colmort, founder of the event and also director of Club 55 (where the original finish line and party once were) says, 

By happy coincidence at the end of September 1981, a couple of Americans with a racing Swan were hanging around St Tropez after having competed in the Swan Cup in Porto Cervo.

One fine day while the owner was talking of his success in the races, the 12m Ikra sailed into port. Someone piped up “And Ikra, do you think you could beat her?”

“Why not? If Ikra accepts the challenge!” came the instant reply. 

I ran over to Jean Laurin, the skipper of Ikra, who accepted the challenge the next day. That’s how it all started, with a crazy challenge between a Swan 44 and a 12m!”

Needless to say, I love this story. 

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With all this floating in my mind, I walked to the press boat with just five other journalists and a French skipper, which put my ‘jostling’ concerns to rest. We left the port all fairly relaxed, with beautiful sunshine and just a few white fluffy clouds.

Exiting the harbour there was immediate visual impact from the boats that were literally swarming the Gulf de St Tropez. There were different sizes and styles and movement in all directions, gearing up for action and circling around one another in constant figures of eight awaiting news of the imminent start. Voices yelled from boat to boat, jesting between friends and warnings of planned tacks and jibes. 

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A couple of hours passed very quickly as we circled around the vessels, getting as close as we could, trying for decent angles while the clouds came and went providing interesting changes in light. Some crews waved or joked with us, while others were more serious and focused.

Our skipper would ask which boat we’d like to see next, but essentially we worked our way in systematic loops and zigzags further and further out into the gulf, which pleased everyone. 

As we got further out, a line of small sailing boats appeared on the horizon, positioned like ducks in a row across the mouth of the gulf. Partially silhouetted and not moving they resembled a city skyline, calm and ordered in contrast to the action we had travelled through. 

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At this point the wind was not picking up and we wondered if there would even be a race. I felt bad for the sailors after all the preparations they must have gone through only to be disappointed, but I started to understand why there’s so much soul and spirit surrounding the sport. It’s driven by passion and there’s never any guarantee, unlike most things in this age of insta-everything.

It also made sense of the nervous anticipation in the Voiles Village earlier on – despite all the investment and training and preparation, we are at the mercy of Mother Nature. 

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I noticed a few boats lowering their sails and a different atmosphere took over; a race was unlikely. Our skipper cracked open some wine for us all while sailing crews started to relax and sunbathe on their pristine decks. 

One boat put on a musical number of bagpipes, drums, guitars and tambourines with some hearty singing and dancing around the mast, winning the prize for team morale! 

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A couple more hours gone and a few hundred more images taken (though sadly not of racing), we agreed to head back inland - it would take us a while and we were on the outer edge of the regatta.

Turning around we were then very surprised (but as excited as children at Disneyland) to be in the close presence of a good sized whale!  - Cue all thoughts of heading back to port forgotten and another hour with something else entirely to wait on and photograph. It appeared to be sunbathing, unperturbed by the boats, and as it finally left us it gave a good tail flip to everyones delight. 

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Finally back to port I was happily exhausted from the sun and sea air and excited to edit my images. We said our goodbyes and my international family for the day dispersed. 

As I walked back through the Voiles Village at 4:30pm the vibe had changed - a band were setting up and I could already hear the happy sounds of beer-fuelled banter and general jolliness. Unfortunately I had to drive back to Antibes and couldn't partake, but now I know the list of social events is longer than the race-list, I’ll definitely be back next year for the bucking bronco, arm wrestling and infamous tug of war.

Though I’m particularly interested in the Thursday night Crew Fancy Dress Parade, judged by locals, shop keepers and captains also in fancy dress - now there’s a photo opportunity!

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*All images by Katie Jane Howson

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