From 11 to 16 April 2016, Saint Barths will host the 7th edition of Les Voiles de St. Barth, an event which, since its creation in 2010, has quite simply become indispensable thanks to the unique sporting atmosphere and conviviality that colours activities both on the water and on shore.
It is also no coincidence that, each year, renowned sailors and prestigious boats flock here in increasing numbers to enjoy the extraordinary playing field offered up by the islands and the wealth of other ingredients that make the racing so magical.
The 2016 vintage is no exception to the rule, since sailing superstars such as Ken Read, patron of the event, Steve Benjamin, "Sailor of the Year 2015" in the USA, and Guillermo Altadill, second in the last Barcelona World Race, count among a total of 63 crews registered to date. Crews whose machines are each more impressive than the next, some of which, like the 100-foot Galateia and Comanche, are cut out for the greatest oceanic challenges, and not forgetting the Maxi 72s, the TP 52s and the VOR 65s, which are as technologically advanced as they are competitive.
This year Les Voiles de St. Barth will once again welcome an impressive fleet, combining racing thoroughbreds, extraordinary prototypes, flying machines and the latest new additions from classes such as that of the Wally.
This diversity is undoubtedly part of the richness of the event, which sees its lineup expanding with every new edition and a battle raging at every stage in every category. That of the Maxis is unquestionably the one that attracts the most attention, thanks to its exceptional machines.
First up we have Comanche, the longest sailboat ever built from carbon using the infusion technique, in the United States, which is a direct result of studies carried out on the IMOCA monohulls Macif and Banque Populaire, which were first and second in the Vendée Globe 2012. Owned by Texan Jim Clark and his wife Kristy Hinze-Clark, she stands out from her direct 100-foot rivals (Wild Oats and Perpetual Loyal to name but a few) through her maximum beam, her tall mast with extreme rake and her long boom overhanging the stern.
So beamy she can rock up to leeward, Comanche is designed to heel thanks to the positioning of the appendages. For this reason, she benefits from a high aspect ratio sail plan. Her cockpit has been designed around manual manoeuvres in a bid to save weight. She is the culmination of a fine collaboration with the VPLP firm, skipper Ken Read and the team comprising Tim Hacket, Casey Smith and Brandon Linton.
Put simply, she pushes back the limits of technology and has but one watchword: to break the greatest oceanic records. We saw evidence of this at last year's Les Voiles de St. Barth. She may have been handicapped over the short courses, but how magical it was to see her powering along as she hugged the island's coast!
Competition Machines Versus Racer-Cruisers
In contrast, one boat that might benefit from a more interesting rating is the 100-footer Galateia, the third and latest Wally Cento after Hamilton and Magic Carpet 3, reigning champion of the Giraglia Race. Developed according to a Reichel Pugh design and launched early last summer in Hythe, in the south of England, the latter is a very different animal than her two predecessors, the hull form having been modified as well as the position of her rig.
Other trademarks? She has just one rudder, whilst Magic Carpet 3sports two, and her style has also evolved slightly with a lot of teak and a reviewed and improved interior layout. Indeed, Galateia boasts all the modern fit-out details synonymous with the Wallys in her range, making her both comfortable and high performance and hence combining racing and cruising perfection.
However, it won't be all plain sailing as she'll be up against the Maxi 72s Proteus and Momo, the latter of which was launched in the spring of 2015.
Another competitor of distinction: La Bête (the beast). She is none other than the ex Rambler 90 owned by New Yorker George David, one of the race's key figures, who rightly took the competition by storm on this boat in Saint Barths back in 2012.
Suffice to say that her new owner Philip Rann and crew, led by Frenchman Yves Montanari, are feeling the pressure, though they know that they can count on the reliability of their Maxi launched in 2002. In fact, the latter has already proven that she is a force with which to be reckoned after notably securing victories in the Fastnet Race and the famous Sydney Hobart.
Maxis from 65 to 100 Feet: Long Live Diversity!
Slightly smaller but no less adept at starting a gunfight, the VOR 65s Team Brunel and 70 SFS certainly won't be outdone given that the former finished second in the last edition of the Volvo Ocean Race. Helmed by Dutch sailor Bouwe Bekking, who has racked up no fewer than seven participations in the round the world with stopovers between 1985 and 2015, she's clearly a steed that is well run in and has an efficient crew.
The second boat of this pairing is none other than one of four VOR 70 footers still in existence. Her track record includes a stunning performance to secure fifth in the Volvo Ocean Race in 2012. She features similar assets to that of SFS II, the ex Puma now owned by French legend Lionel Péan, third in that same Volvo Ocean Race…with a certain Ken Read at the helm, patron to Les Voiles de St. Barth and skipper of Comanche. She is powerful and sophisticated, equipped with a swing keel and built according to the most modern criteria using composite materials that guarantee a fantastic power-to-weight ratio.
It is no coincidence then that the winning skipper of the Whitbread in 1985 and the Solitaire du Figaro in 1983 has chosen to charter her for the occasion. Moreover, he intends to show just what she's capable of on the waters of Saint Barths. However, he's under no illusion.
The competition is cast-iron because in addition to the boats mentioned earlier, he'll also be up against the likes of Highland Fling XI, a Wally 82 launched in 2009 with some intriguing characteristics and remarkable elegance, as well as Windfall, an SW94 whose build was completed in 2012 by the prestigious South African yard, Southern Wind, according to a Reichel Pugh design.
The latter, skippered by Irish sailor Tim Goodbody, who represented his country at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 in the Finn category, chiefly distinguished herself back in December by finishing second in the RORC Transatlantic Race among the IRCs. In short, there are already some serious contenders in the Maxi class and it's sure to be a humdinger of a competition!
*Image credits: DR/Jouany Christophe/A. Sanchez