"Even if the event is getting bigger and bigger, its soul remains the same..." No words better recap six seasons of Les Voiles de St. Barth than those spoken by Richard Mille whose namesake watch company is the regatta's Official Partner.
Certainly, the number of teams competing in Les Voiles de St. Barth has grown from 27 in 2010 (the inaugural year) to 70 in 2015, with 80 expected for the event's seventh edition on April 11-16. And thankfully, bigger has meant better in the sense that each year's four days of racing (over five days) off the fashionably remote French West Indies island of St. Barthelemy seems to trump the previous year.
The courses are constantly fine-tuned and made more challenging by an expert Race Committee; the transport of yachts and equipment proves consistently less complicated with the help of the regatta's concierge service; the nightly parties and lay-day events ashore grow more colorful and telling of the island's indulgent pleasures; and the sailors as a group become more eclectic and diverse, with individuals joining the fun as professionals, amateurs or a combination of both, and coming from not only the West Indies but also the balance of the Caribbean, the U.S., France, UK, and countries as far afield as Africa, Germany and Holland.
As for the soul of Les Voiles, it is in everything that gives off good vibes, including the tradition of naming a “Godfather” each year to watch over the event and curate its spirit as the most important regatta on the Caribbean yacht racing schedule. For 2016, the honor has been bestowed upon American Ken Read, considered one of the world's most accomplished and celebrated sailors. (He succeeds last year's Godfather Loïck Peyron, a Frenchman with an equally impeccable yacht racing pedigree.)
“It's an honor,” said Read about the designation, which he adds to more than 40 championship titles in the sport. “Anything to lend a hand to grow the event or the sport is important to me.”
As he did at last year's regatta, Read, who is President of North Sails, will skipper Netscape founder Jim Clark and his wife's (supermodel Kristy Hinze-Clark) radically designed speed machine, the 100-foot Comanche, in the races – with the Clarks aboard. But however fun it might be blasting through the fleet on the largest boat there, Read says there is “not a shred of doubt” in his mind that some of the best knock-out rounds for class wins and overall victory (the latter for the ultimate prize of a coveted Richard Mille watch) will come in divisions for boats in the 40- to 55-foot range.
“You have the well-established Maxi 72s coming, and just behind them in size there is this really hot, growing segment of the sport,” said Read. “In fact, the USA's current Yachtsman of the Year Steve Benjamin is coming with his fun new toy, the TP52 Spookie, so you know if you follow that talent, they will all be there. Spookie will have to work really hard, but it will be fun to watch.”
Benjamin agrees that his work will be cut out for him, citing as threats last year's class winnerVesper, the TP52 steered by American venture capitalist Jim Swartz (also a past Les Voiles de St. Barth Godfather) who will be assisted again by his long-time navigator, the New Zealander Gavin Brady; the TP52 Sorcha, last year's runner-up to Vesper, skippered by Great Britain's Peter Harrison,who is the European distributor for Richard Mille; and the TP52 Conviction, with Dutch steel industry magnate Austin van't Wout at the helm.
“We've had our hands full with some of these teams in the past, and we have great respect for all of them,” said Benjamin.
Other contenders that may fit into Spookie's rating band are Piet Vroon's Ker 51 Tonnerre 4, with Frank Gerber of The Netherlands skippering, and Jens Kellinghusen's German entrant Varuna VI, the new Ker 56 with Spanish navigator/Volvo Ocean Race veteran Guillermo Altadill and American main trimmer/speed coordinator Hartwell Jordan aboard. Boats in the 40-foot range to be considered in final class splits include the chartered Mills 39 Ramanessin and King 40 Corr's Light. Having won its classes here in 2014 and 2015, the Irish Ramanessin team, skippered by investment manager and race-car-driver-turned sailor Christian Zugel, is no stranger to this event. On the other hand, the Corr's Light team, led by St. Thomian skipper Peter Corr with offshore sailing notables David Sampson (Loki), Nathan Ellis (Caol Ila R, Wild Oats) and America's Cup veteran Mal Parker aboard, has added Les Voiles to its tour of Caribbean regattas for the first time.
“Last year was our team's first time at Les Voiles,” said Steve Benjamin, recounting that he skippered his previously owned Carkeek 40 (also named Spookie) to a third in class behind Vesperand Sorcha, “but as a crew I had done the regatta aboard Decision back in 2012. I knew it was a great regatta, and I really wanted to get back, so we were lucky enough to do that in 2015. Now my wife Heidi and I both just love St. Barth.” Heidi Benjamin regularly sails as part of Spookie's afterguard along with St. Thomas's Olympic Silver Medalist Peter Holmberg, who serves as tactician, and American Anderson Reggio, who serves as navigator.
copyright : Marco Oquendo
As his Yachtsman of the Year title implies, Benjamin knows a thing or two about good racing venues and calls the on-water experience at Les Voiles “incomparable” because of winds that are so reliable and courses that fascinate with a variety of wind angles, sea conditions and navigational challenges. “We really like the island race format, and St. Barth is the best for that, with some stronger conditions on the island's back side providing exhilarating planning conditions.”
Both Benjamin and Read agree that the onshore experience at Les Voiles also stands apart. “The ambience can't be touched,” said Benjamin, while Read, who has sailed on a maxi boat of one kind or another in every edition of Les Voiles de St. Barth, added, “It's not the daily grind of other regattas where you get up a six in the morning and you are working until eight at night. It's super competitive, don't get me wrong, but here, you can go diving at six in the morning, and by eight you can be enjoying the entertainment, the French restaurants, and the unique social side of things.”
Read paused, then laughed before making a final point: “Actually, from the moment you take your first rather intimidating plane ride into the airport at St. Jean (where a hillside requires a steep descent and the single airstrip is notoriously short, ending right at the beach), it tells you this experience is going to be something different. The Island just has a flavor unto itself.”
*Image credits: Jouany Christophe