Superyacht racing is getting more and more competitive, as St Barths Bucket proves
“We’re not trying to win the party,” Jonathan Kline says with a smile.
Kline is the captain of the 38m Perini Navi sloop P2 and this is his way of affirming that their participation in the St Barths Bucket is about winning. Some crews in the Caribbean’s biggest superyacht regatta do like to party, but on P2 the intent is serious. The boat was built for these regattas.
At his pre-race briefing, Kline outlines the reason why this regatta, of them all, has such a following. “We have done everything possible to prepare and be ready,” he says, “but don’t forget to look out of the boat. We are one of the most beautiful regattas in the world, on one of the most beautiful islands of the world. Enjoy it.”
It’s impossible to overstate the might of these big boats under sail, and how impressive and glorious they look carving through the deep azure of the Caribbean Sea. They are the epitome of ingenuity.
A pristine new Doyle carbon mainsail is hoisted and the headsail cracked out, and off we go to ping the line and and check out the wind at either end of the island ahead of a pursuit race lap of St Barths.
For racing, there is a crack crew of top sailors: former Olympic sailor and top match racer Peter Holmberg is at the wheel, Whitbread and Volvo sailor Paul Standbridge is the crew boss and the the team is decked out with professionals from the mastbuilding and sailmaking suppliers. What it means is that the boat is handled with precision, and because this crew has raced together for four regattas a year, on average, since the yacht was built seven years ago, there is an air of quiet familiarity.
Designer Philippe Briand is on board and as we start the chase. Periodically he glances behind at the yacht starting a few minutes after us: the 33m carbon composite Inoui. Smaller but lighter and quicker, Inoui is the other one of his designs at the St Barths Bucket, also built for racing.
She is another indication of how, even on the superyacht spectrum, yachts are increasingly being built to compete and perform the highest level.
Holmberg does a clever and impressive manoeuvre on the wind-up to the start, scorching on starboard past the committee boat and through a phalanx of spectator boats bunched around the inner distance mark before spinning the boat through a neat gybe and heading up to the line. Jud Smith from Doyle Sails counts the time down and P2 hits the line only a couple of seconds late and fully powered up. It’s an impressive start to our race.
Not everyone has such a neat start. One boat behind us is fighting to recover a headsail that has parted with the foil, and has to start with a staysail set. The 50m Wally Better Place is rolling away her headsail before the first corner of the course and turning back.
P2 begins the job of catching on slower boats, with a view discussed by Holmberg and the team beforehand of defending the stern chasers on the final marks. We haul past two big Swans, Cape Arrow and Freya, and as we bear away progressively round the south of the island, the big asymmetric is hoisted and unfurled perfectly and we begin reeling in yachts ahead.
It is fantastic to see is the speed and calm efficiency of the crew work on board. Apart from the obvious glamour of racing huge yachts prepared and polished to perfection, as these are, it is a real treat to witness the co-ordination and professionalism of top sailors at work at this scale. Decisions are made and conveyed with economic authority to the foredeck crew by Paul Standbridge. He patrols back and forth being absolutely specific about what is required, and in how many minutes it will be expected to happen.
There is little margin for error in superyacht racing. Our course downwind takes us close to one of the offlying islands. We are piling down under spinnaker to a lee shore. Two minutes to the gybe, Standbridge announces it, and adds: “but if we roll into it, be ready.” The gybe comes just in time (there is an exclusion zone around all land and islands) and we slot ourselves ahead of the lime green Inoui.
On our beat to the finish, the eyes of the afterguard are on keeping Inoui at bay. We cannot hold on to the new Baltic 108, Win Win, which sweeps past us on the final downwind leg, occasionally surfing on a wave.
Nor can we possibly keep at bay Visione, another Baltic Yachts racer from 2002, and the fastest at the Bucket this year. But it is enough to finish 3rd and claim a podium place.
Philippe Briand says he anticipates more new superyachts around the 32-38m, designed specifically for competing at superyacht regattas, and sees an inexorable trend towards lighter carbon composite builds. The standard of racing, the complexity of design and the skill of crews is all rising, as competition increases.
Superyacht owners may come in the first case for a party with an edge of rivalry only to feel the serious prickle of competition. This is what happened for the owner of P2, who got this boat to replace his previous Perini Navi, which he cruised on a four-year circumnavigation, because he got such a thrill from his first serious regatta. P2 is the least like a traditional Perini you could imagine, and for this reason.
Afterwards, Jonathan Kline puts me in the picture of what this kind of regular racing involves. “It’s amazing how much time is spent on preventative maintenance and safety,” he says. “The loads are huge. In the past, sheets have broken, crew have been injured.
“We pull the boat apart before and after every regatta: running rigging, winches, block, mast inspections. The challenges are getting the time and funding for deep tissue maintenance, putting together a skilled team and managing egos, and also setting reasonable goals based on the maintenance and training you’ve done.”
This year, for the first time, the St Barths Bucket is using a new rule that handicaps yachts using diverse factors including the intricacies of windage, centre of gravity, hydraulics, etc, and this more transparent system has been producing some very close finishes indeed.
“Gone are the days,” Kline comments, “of slow boats being allowed to win. This is serious competition and we can’t be asked to throttle back to 85%. And now with a new rule and a system for fair sailing, it is a new game.”