The art of Superyacht Racing
- Mon, 19 Oct 2009
If you were trying to convince a sceptic that racing superyachts has a future, sitting him down in front of the 11th running of the St Barths Bucket would have been a mistake, at least in terms of the sailing.
Thirty of the world's finest sailing yachts of 100ft or more turned up in the Caribbean primed for action, but a complete lack of wind over the lavish three-day event meant that all racing was abandoned. Nightmare!
What to do? . . . retire to your yacht for a cocktail party, invite your neighbours and friends, drop the hook off the nearest pristine beach, step ashore for more Ralph Lauren-sponsored partying and then sample the many and varied delights of St Barthélemy.
The lack of the essential ingredient, wind, proved annoying but not fatal for an event which arguably has more to do with the yachts, their owners and crew than the racing.
But when you see people like Tom Whidden, Gary Wiseman, Andy Beadsworth, Tom McLaughlin and a small army of senior North Sails personnel in town, to say nothing of Robbie Doyle from the opposition and a whole host of builders, you know you're at an event where people want to win - in a very gentlemanly way, of course.
They were all in St Barths to take part in an event, the origins of which lie in Nantucket. It was there in 1986 that the captains of a few significantly sized yachts (they weren't called superyachts then) got into a Mount Gay rum-fired ‘debate' during which they attempted to establish bragging rights for the performance of their commands.
To settle it they organised the first race, or Bucket, so christened because the prize was a battered vessel that looks like a bucket and for which they still race today. The story goes that it was a spittoon, but that's apocryphal and the latest Bucket was presented in 2003, found in an antiques shop in France.
Superyacht racing on the American side of the Atlantic has generically become known as Bucketting and one of the splendid things about it is that, unlike almost every other regatta I've attended, yachts pile on weight instead of shedding it. Docks are loaded with goodies to go aboard. Cellars
are brim full and caviar is in such abundance it's probably declared on the rating certificate.
The other crucial ingredient that makes Buckets successful is attitude. The organisers' mantra is: Sail Safely First, Then Fast, Win the Party! "There are 7,500 fingers and thumbs in this fleet and we want it to stay that way," warned Hank Halsted as he briefed skippers.
The way the racing works supports this policy. Pursuit-style racing deems that yachts, beginning with the slowest, cross the start line at intervals, with the aim of a mass finish rather than a mass start. Primarily it's designed to avoid accidents. Anyone displaying unseemly grand-prix style aggression is not invited back and protests are frowned upon unless accompanied by a case of vintage champagne.
My first invitation was from Chris Gongriep, Dutch property developer, millionaire and owner of Windrose, a modern schooner which in her short career since 2002 has raced across the Atlantic three times and covered a staggering 60,000 miles. She regularly turns up at Antigua Classics to try to beat the J Class yachts Velsheda, Ranger and Shamrock V and she is quite capable of doing so.
Aboard are regular hands including Gerry Dijkstra, her designer, as tactician. Dijkstra pores over a battered laptop and peers at me through thick lenses. The wind omens are not at all good. We idle away the postponement period looking at a slide show of Gerry's fantastic cruise to Spitsbergen aboard his new 53ft Bestevaer. In the almost 90° heat of St Barths it's odd looking at shots of glaciers and polar bears.
A happy ship
Talking to each other through clipped-on throat mikes are Richard ‘Bicky' Bicknell and Dave Swete who have been flown in from North Sails New Zealand. They are managing the vast foredeck. Nick Haley is Windrose's British skipper, who quietly eases the great schooner out of her berth.
Cees Rem, who built the yacht in his days with Holland Jachtbouw and knows her backwards, has returned to a crew whose camaraderie makes for a happy ship and whose stature is of basketball player proportions. And they are a very well-oiled machine. Everything happens without a voice being raised.
We don't even start before the abandon signal is sounded, so we retire to Shell beach for a swim where the crew rig up a nasty looking bit of kit resembling a marine bungy jump without the bungy for recreation.
Chris Gongriep is disappointed I haven't had the sort of blast I experienced in Antigua a few years back and he regales me with his love for flat bottoms, the Dutch lee-boarded botters which he races along Holland's waterways. There is also a hint that he's keen to build another yacht . . . could it be a J?
Day two. Ghost. The antithesis of the aluminium Windrose. Ghost is all carbon, a silver-hulled minimalist whisp of a thing. She's 122ft overall, weighs 120 tons and has a 44-ton bulb hanging from a 7 ton keel blade. That's a ballast ratio of about 50 per cent. This is a machine. Everything is silver grey right down to the rope sheathing and deck caulking which apparently has to come up after this regatta because its gone sticky. They're right - weather railers have to unstick their backsides when we tack.
Ghost is a magnificent-looking yacht inside and out. Designed by Luca Brenta, whose ground-breaking Wallygator and Wally B for Luca Bassani put them on the modernist map, she is comfortable and supremely easy to sail.
At the Bucket she's a boat to be seen aboard. Her owners, New York art specialists Arne and Millie Glimcher have invited, among others, Tom Whidden, eight times America's Cup sailer (five with Dennis Conner) and the CEO and president of North Marine Group, plus another North Sails veteran Tom ‘Tomac' McLaughlin.
McLaughlin spends the day with a box of electronic tricks around his neck which controls the mainsheet and a bunch of other sail shape-inducing hydraulics.
We also have Chuck Brown from Southern Spars and Arne's son Paul, a mathematical neuro-biologist and accomplished cruising yachtsman punching numbers into his own onboard laptop. Quite a brains trust.
Running the yacht is Simon Lacey, another capable Brit who for a couple of seasons ran the foredeck on the J Class Velsheda, then skippered her.
View of the keel
As I slip below to change into my silver-grey sailing uniform, engineer Tom Weiss flips open a bulkhead flatscreen. The picture shows a grey blob. It is Ghost's keel from a camera positioned on the bottom of the yacht. Weiss tells me they often watch barracuda lying in wait for prey, hiding behind the fin. Today the camera is used to check there are no ‘attachments'. Ghost's fin is fitted with a trim tab which accounts for 20 per cent of the keel chord and can be moved to 8° off the centreline. The crew are still determining how useful this is.
Arne Glimcher wants to win, but calls for safety and then states ‘this is a democratic yacht'. This is demonstrated later when, with Ghost crawling along at about 0.005 of a knot, he calls for a show of hands to make the decision on a sail change. I think he has his tongue in his cheek. Arne particularly wants to put one on Harry Macklowe's Unfurled, the 112ft Frers sloop which, understandably, he slaughtered on the water at the Rolex Maxi regatta in Sardinia but got beaten every time on handicap.
The race starts under leaden skies and in a ridiculously fluky wind. But we get away only to spend the next four hours covering about six miles. "So this is why they want to televise yacht racing," quips the foredeck. It's a fair point but even the wits run out of steam.
Tension, if you could call it that, mounts as Macklowe's stern creeps into view. Arne's gimlet eyes are trained upon it. But just as we get within striking distance, the committee calls it a day as the first boat is still 300m from the line. It's 1700 and just for good measure it's been chucking it down.
On the way home Arne shows me Ghost's astounding interior. It is grey, simple, beautifully done. Arne founded the Pace art gallery empire in New York and you can see how Ghost could double for a Madison Avenue apartment. It's all very ‘must have' and the truly vast centreline skylight and ingenious glass companionway door, which can be turned opaque at the flick of a switch, are head-turning features.
Schooner, sloop and ketch
Day three. I achieve my aim of a schooner, sloop and ketch by shipping aboard Peter Harrison's Sojana at the invitation of charterer Dayton Carr, president of the Venture Capital Fund of America.
Carr and his fellow charterers are gagging for a day's sailing and at last there appears to be breeze. Andy Beadsworth, who skippered Harrison's GBR effort at the last America's Cup and is currently trying to keep a Star campaign afloat, is at the wheel and there are plenty of familiar faces. Andrew Dove, the Caribbean's Mr North Sails, Chris Stimson, Cowes-based designer, and expert rigger Tim Haynes are all aboard.
Peter Harrison resides below showing a promotional film he has made for Sailablity, the RYA charity for disabled sailors, hoping no doubt that some of the financial types aboard might catch a glimpse.
Meanwhile, skipper Marc Fitzgerald keeps to the schedule, weighs anchor (too much draught for the Gustavia quayside) and we head for the start. And guess what? The wind drops, sucked up into another lump of cloud glowering at St Barths from little more than 1,000ft. We're meant to be sailing round the island but the committee sensibly opts for a reach/reach course, not Sojana's favoured option as she loves moderate upwind and dead downwind conditions.
With our American charterers champing at the bit for action there was something vaguely concerning about Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries booming out of the speakers but hey, this is a friendly regatta.
I ask Andy Beadsworth what brings him to Sojana and he simply invites me to look around him. Do you need special skills for superyacht racing? "Experience is the thing you most need just before you get it," smiles Andy followed by, "If you think you know what you're doing there must be something wrong." He wasn't quite within earshot of Dayton Carr.
Well, we started but certainly didn't finish and once more Shell beach beckoned. By now guests were swapping private plane schedules, offering lifts back to Boston in ‘the jet' and revving up for the office.
The rotten weather left a big hole in this Bucket but spirits remained undampened and talk was of the next Bucket and the extraordinary programme shaping up for the winter season in Antigua and the Mediterranean in 2007.
Where to see the world's largest sailing yachts in action
21-23 July, The Newport Bucket, Newport RI, USA
Evolved from the demise of the original Nantucket Bucket in 2001. It's a two-day event with up to 20 yachts over 80ft taking part. The racing takes place off Castle Hill at the entrance to Narragansett Bay.11-14 October, The
11-14 October Superyacht Cup, Palma
10th running of the event, run by Elvstrom Superyacht Sailmakers and hosted by Marina Port de Mallorca. It should attract between 15 and 20 yachts.
13-16 December, The Superyacht Cup, Antigua
This is a new event based on the Palma programme. With many sailing yachts already in Nelson's Dockyard and Falmouth Harbour, Antigua, for the Antigua Charter Yacht Meeting, demand for a regatta was high.
April, St Barthélemy, Caribbean. 12th St Barths Bucket
Annual running of what has become the best attended superyacht regatta in the world
16-19 June, The Superyacht Cup, Palma
For 2007 the Superyacht Cup, Palma will take place in June instead of its normal time in October. This three-day event will run between the America's Cup Louis Vuitton Challenger Series and the America's Cup match itself. An estimated 70 yachts over 30m will enter.
The last day of the regatta will be for the New Zealand Millennium Cup, which moves to Europe for this year only.