A new regatta for classic yachts, the Richard Mille Cup, aims to recreate the famous era of the British ‘Big Class’. Dan Houston joins the Richard Mille Cup


For two weeks in mid-June it looked as if those evocative black and white photographs taken by Beken of Cowes had come alive and the past was racing again. But this time the scene was in glorious colour, as the Richard Mille Cup brought a magnificent collection of classic yachts to the English south coast.

It was just like the days when King George V sailed his beloved Britannia: young, 20-strong crews hauling ropes on swept teak decks; towering spreads of washed-out buff sails; varnished spars glinting in the sun; and polished brass binnacles and ship’s bells.

Some things on these classic leviathans simply haven’t changed: the bronze oxidising to a deep venerable brown green, the teak weathering to a pleasant pale grey. The hulls often painted a broken white, with a cove line of gold leaf applied along their length accentuating the gorgeous sheer. The deep keels and heavy displacement that keep an easy motion at sea, a little like the suspension on an old American car. And a gathering of them together is still an arresting sight.

It all began in Falmouth on 10 June, where a small but glamorous fleet assembled of 11 yachts ranging in size from the 41ft 6in (12.5m) gaff cutter Cynthia, built in 1910 and recently restored by Peter Lucas in Devon, to the 185ft (56m) LOA three-masted schooners Adix and Atlantic, built in 1984 and 2010 respectively. After three days of competition in Falmouth Bay, the fleet raced the 65-mile passage to Dartmouth and then overnight, east again, to Cowes for three days of racing including a race round the Isle of Wight, before a final 100-mile offshore pursuit race to Le Havre.

a rare sight of a trio of Fifes (from left) Mariquita, Moonbeam IV and The Lady Anne – all upwind in close proximity under full canvas. Photo: Paul Wyeth

A majestic sight

We have occasionally seen yachts like these racing along UK shores. There are several UK classic boat events, from local regattas for the working boats of Falmouth (which still trawl for oysters under sail), to the old gaffers’ events and classic regattas at Cowes, the Hamble and Suffolk Yacht Harbour. The annual Thames Sailing Barge Match is another impressive sight.

But it’s rare to see classic yachts of this size racing on week-long events, and thrilling to know the organisers are seeking to establish a permanent yearly regatta which replicates the classic British and northern French regattas of the turn of the last century.

Back then, the yachting season for what was known as the ‘Big Class’ would typically begin at Harwich and then move majestically around the British Isles, hosted by the various royal yacht clubs of the day. Le Havre was included and there were events at Cork and in the Clyde. The schedule meant owners could be on the west coast of Scotland by the time the grouse shooting season began on ‘The Glorious Twelfth’ in August.

Crews back then were usually fishermen who’d been taken on for the season, and they could earn good money. In the winter they would all return to fishing, often even the captain.

Leather covers protect the precious wooden blocks. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty

For this modern version, the crews were vying for the Richard Mille Cup, a splendiferous metre-high silver trophy made by London jeweller Garrard. This is a modern take on the 100 Guinea Cup, which the same company made in 1851, and which went on to be known as the America’s Cup. The America’s Cup, by the way, is small by comparison, a mere 67cm (27in) tall.

Richard Mille is the man behind the luxury watch brand that supports various motor racing events. Six years ago he bought Moonbeam IV, a 95ft (29m) William Fife design described by The Field magazine when she was launched in 1920 as ‘the most beautiful yacht in the world’. In 2000, she was restored in Burma, and has since had another major restoration under Mille’s ownership, including returning her interior to Fife’s original design.

Moonbeam is unusually rigged. She is a Marconi gaff cutter, with her gaff topsail going up a track on her topmast. She reflects the new technology that wire rigging was bringing to yachts, which enabled the introduction of the much taller masts. These were called Marconi rigs after the new-fangled radio masts that were cropping up at the time.

Mille brought Moonbeam IV back to Brest, to join two other large gaff cutters designed by Fife: his 68ft (20.07m) 1903 design Moonbeam III, and the 95ft 4in (29m) 1911 Mariquita. The three boat owners formed ‘Team Fife’ with the aim to bring Big Class racing back on a northern circuit. Their first serious outing was at the Fife Regatta in the Clyde in 2022, and the success of that led to the creation of the Richard Mille Cup.

Witnessing a sight such as this off Cowes is a treat to be savoured and on the third day of racing there I was lucky enough to join Atlantic, anchored in Cowes Roads.

Driving upwind on The Lady Anne, with the small army of crew needed to race these yachts ‘weight up’. Hang on tight, though – there are no guardrails! Photo: Paul Wyeth

A niche industry

Atlantic is a replica of the schooner of the same name designed by William Gardner and built in 1903 at Shooters Island in New York. She was owned by Wilson Marshall and captained by the legendary Scots skipper Charlie Barr. In 1905 she and nine other yachts competed for The Kaiser’s Cup, a supposedly $5,000 gold ewer trophy for the fastest yacht to sail between Sandy Hook Lightship off New York to a line drawn across the Western Approaches between Lizard Point and Ushant.

Atlantic set a record of 12 days, 4 hours, 1 minute, 19 seconds, which was to remain unbeaten for another 92 years. (As an aside, Charlie Barr reputedly locked Marshall in his cabin during the race after accusing Barr of dangerously setting too much sail. And the gold cup turned out to be gold-plated lead.)

Crew attach a block and tackle to a working sheet on the aft deck of Moonbeam IV. Photo: Paul Wyeth

The Atlantic of today was built in steel in the Netherlands for serial classic boat restorer Ed Kastelein and was being chartered by Mille for the event. Like several others, she’d sailed north from her usual Mediterranean base. Kastelein, a native of Rotterdam, was pleased to be in the tidal waters of the Solent. He has restored several yachts and in 2000 built the 136ft (41.5m) Eleonora, a replica of the great Herreshoff big class yacht Westward. He is a major player in the revival that has created a niche industry in classic yacht construction, restoration, management and crewing.

Atlantic might be a fast boat but her deep 16ft (5m) draught keeps her out of shallow water and any of the tidal advantages it offers racers in the Solent. Our race takes us from the Squadron line out to the Western Solent, where the smaller boats can edge ahead by creeping inshore. But it’s a fabulous sight, a reel of living history as these yachts grace waters where so many of them were designed and built.

The Lady Anne on a sparkling beat off Cowes. Photo: Paul Wyeth

Two of the legendary 15-M rule class designed by Fife at Fairlie, on the Clyde, are racing at the Richard Mille Cup: the 75ft 2in (23m) The Lady Anne, built in 1912, is trying to beat the 74ft (22.5m) Tuiga, a design from 1909. Tuiga was an early restoration, carried out in 1993 on the Hamble by Fairlie Yachts just as big classic yachts were becoming valued once more. She has been owned since then by the Yacht Club de Monaco and takes part in classic events in the Mediterranean and overseas. The Lady Anne is sailed by a professional crew, and she goes on to win the Cup by a fair margin.

It’s intoxicating to sail with and talk to crews and owners who know these boats so well, and this new event already looks and feels fully formed. Richard Mille’s involvement in the restoration of his own yacht shows a passion and investment that will hopefully bring more boats next year.

The circuit does not have to be the same every year. In fact organisers are keen to change it every time to keep it interesting for the sailors and foster love for these incredible boats in new places.

Three special classic yachts

Photo: Paul Wyeth

The Lady Anne (1912)

One of Fife’s most beautiful 15-Metres, The Lady Anne was built in 1912 and restored to racing condition in the UK in 1999 by Jaime Botin, then chairman of Santander Bank.

The way she is set up has been controversial to some in the Mediterranean circuit because her spars, topmast and bowsprit were reinforced with carbon fibre. She was sadly barred for a few years. The carbon topmast was removed in 2011 but she still has carbon in her mast, gaff and boom – a big safety factor, says captain Paul Goss. When you witness her outpointing Bermudan-rigged boats, you will rub your eyes in disbelief.

The feeling of her long tiller in your hand, as I’ve been lucky enough to experience, is sensational. She comes alive in a breeze, a characteristic common to Fife designs, and when you go ashore after an experience like that you feel as if you have grown in stature.

She was the overall winner of this inaugural Richard Mille Cup.

Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty

Mariquita (1911)

This is the only example of the short-lived pre-World War I 19-M class, which saw four boats racing in the three seasons before 1914. Mariquita, built in 1911, was raced on handicap in the 1920s and also cruised before being laid up during World War II in a mud berth on the East Coast. She was lived on and cared for as a houseboat for more than 40 years before being rediscovered by William Collier and later acquired by him and restored at Fairlie Yachts on the Hamble in 2001.

When she was relaunched by her owners Peter Livanos and Ernst Klaus in 2004, classic yacht aficionados were spellbound; she could well be the most photographed classic yacht of all time.
Mariquita was a regular at Mediterranean regattas then laid up for a few years in Lymington before being sold at auction for €3,357,000 to French architect Benoît Couturier in 2020. Couturier joined forces with Richard Mille to form a big class classic yacht racing group based in Brest.

Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty

Moonbeam IV (1920)

Although designed in 1914, the build of Moonbeam was delayed until 1920 because of World War I. She was the fourth yacht of that name built for lawyer and Royal Yacht Squadron member Charles Plumptre Johnson.

Moonbeam won the King’s Cup in her first season, and again in 1923. Johnson sold her in 1926, and her rig was converted by Fife to the Marconi style with a topsail in runners above her gaff mainsail.

From 1950 she was owned for many years by Prince Rainier of Monaco. In 1995 she was rediscovered by John and Françoise Murray, who took her to Burma for restoration when she had 90% of her original teak planking replaced. She now belongs to watchmaker and event creator Richard Mille, who restored her again with new deck beams and a faithful interior as close to the Fife original as the 21st Century permits. Together with Moonbeam III and Mariquita, she forms the so-called Team Fife, which sails out of Brest.

If you enjoyed this….

Yachting World is the world’s leading magazine for bluewater cruisers and offshore sailors. Every month we have inspirational adventures and practical features to help you realise your sailing dreams.
Build your knowledge with a subscription delivered to your door. See our latest offers and save at least 30% off the cover price.