Light winds made for a frustrating day on the racecourse yesterday at Les Voiles de St Tropez 6/10/06

After Wednesday’s mistral which kept the Les Voiles fleet in port, yesterday the wind had dropped significantly with 4-6 knots providing a different sort of challenge for the fleet.

The day’s racing highlight was the 3rd annual Trophée Mer & Bateaux de la Grande Classe, as well as the Challenge Jean Laurain, in which individual yachts challenge another yacht, of similar length or design, to a race.

The yachts all sailed out onto the bay of Saint-Tropez, just off the city front and milled around as the informal starting sequence of yachts and challenges was worked out on the water. The breeze was predominantly light and proved frustrating for almost all of the competitors.

At the starting gun for the big boat class, Mariquita was in a good position at the pin end, with Velsheda midway down the start line, but with better speed. About 100 metres back were Shamrock V, Moonbeam IV, and Cambria. Behind these yachts were Lulworth, Eleonora, and Altair, which suffered from being furthest from the hint of a breeze.

The yachts in front took off slowly, clawing their way out of the bay around the buoy at La Rabiou, past La Moutte and out towards La Nioulargue. For those in the back, the breeze never did really materialise and while the forerunners eked out some mileage in the right direction, the others suffered. By 1500 Lulworth, Eleornora, Altair, and Moonbeam dropped out of the race, and while Mariette had some success in a little breeze she found along the coast, she eventually conceded as well.

First around La Nioulargue was Mariquita, the 1911 Fife-built gaff cutter, holding her own against the big J-class sloops, Cambria, Velsheda, and Shamrock V. Mariquita made the most of her gigantic sail plan, at one point flying a huge balloner and full main, wing in wing – pole end to boom end measuring over 100 feet. At the finish, Mariquita held off the big sloops, which also give her time on handicap this ensuring her victory today.

The Challenge Jean Laurain was based on the race that was the precursor to La Nioulargue, 25 years ago. At that time, Jean Laurain was the skipper of the 12 metre Ikra, and proposed a race to American Dick Jason, the skipper of the Swan 44, Pride. The course was simple: from a start at the Tour du Portalet around La Nioulargue, and finishing off Club 55 at Pampelonne beach. The first challenge was in September 1981 and with the involvement of Patrice de Colmont, this was the real beginning of La Nioulargue.

Over two dozen challenges were made between boats today, but these were friendly bets, the loser buying lunch, dinner, or drinks for the winning crew – such is the spirit that pervades on the Thursday of Les Voiles. There is one match each year that is the ‘official’ challenge, to mark the origins of the race. Yesterday’s contest between the 19.50 metre Mylne-designed cutter Blue Peter, and Lucia, an 18.50 metre John Alden-designed yawl was won by Blue Peter again – they will be awarded the Club 55 Cup, and will be back to defend the challenge next year.

New this year, the Trophée Rolex will be awarded to the ‘Tradition’ division sailing yacht of more than 16 metres, which has the lowest score for the regatta (not including Thursday’s racing). There are 52 boats eligible for the Trophée Rolex, and the winner will also receive a steel Rolex Submariner timepiece.

Today the entire 280-boat Les Voiles fleet – Moderns, Classics, and Spirit of Tradition – return to fleet racing for Friday and Saturday. The prizegiving ceremony will take place on Sunday 8 October, from 1100 at the Citadelle.