In 1964, it began as the St. Francis Perpetual Trophy Regatta hosting just nine boats, and now, 51 years later, the Rolex Big Boat Series is one of the most prestigious regattas on the West Coast. Over the next four days, 90 world-class teams will sail a mix of buoy and stadium-style races on the ever-challenging waters of San Francisco Bay.
“In 2005, Rolex became the regatta’s title sponsor, launching the series to a new level,” said Event Co-Chair Susan Ruhne. “It has gone through many evolutions, but the Rolex Big Boat Series is an important part of our maritime heritage, helping St. Francis Yacht Club to secure its position as one of the world’s greatest yacht clubs.”
In the sense that the Rolex Big Boat Series is one of the few remaining four-day events in the region for boats of its kind (it once stretched over five weekdays, with one day reserved as a lay day), it is something special and of great significance for its loyal following, which plans long and prepares intensely for the competition. Ruhne pointed to the many one-design classes that have strong showings every year, including the Express 37s, which count this as their 25th year to return. (There are a total of five one-design classes, with the largest, at 27 boats, being the J/105 class, which is using the event as their North American Championship.) This year, a newly added class for PHRF sport boats has attracted a strong 10-boat turnout, while ORR, HPR, and Multihull Divisions are once again showcasing perhaps the most fascinating of the “bigger” big boats. Count one Kialoa III, the largest vessel here at 78 feet, as a standout; in the ‘80s, it won more major ocean races than any other maxi yacht in the world.
Specially engraved Rolex timepieces will go to winners of the regatta’s coveted perpetual trophies: the St. Francis (awarded in ORR A class), the City of San Francisco (ORR B), the Keefe-Kilborn (HPR), the Richard Rheem (J/111), the Atlantic (J/120) and the Commodore’s Cup (J/105).
Going for his third watch here will be Don Payan (Hillsborough, Calif.), skippering a new boat this year: the Kernan 44 Volpe, in the HPR Class. Payan won his class at the regatta last year on his MC38 Whiplash, and before that in 2010 and 2011, on his J/120 Dayenu.
“Campaigning a boat in high-level events like the Rolex Big Boat Series takes lots of preparation and someone who knows how to empower a great team without micromanaging,” said Payan, a Hillsborough, Calif. Sailor and co-founder of Rigel Pharmaceuticals, Inc. “What it takes to build a successful company is not all that different from what it takes to build a successful racing program: focus, leadership and an excellent team dynamic. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished both on and off the water.”
The St. Francis Yacht Club was founded in 1927 and has been host to many of the most prestigious national and international championships in sailing. With over 40 regattas on its calendar annually, the club is widely regarded as having one of the top racing and race management programs in the country. In 1964, the St. Francis Yacht Club’s Big Boat Series was established to take place annually on San Francisco Bay. In 2005, Rolex Watch U.S.A. became the regatta’s title sponsor (after three years as presenting sponsor), and since, the Rolex Big Boat Series has established itself as one of the most important sailing events in the U.S.