Porto Cervo is one of the most spectacular venues in the world, and this year’s Rolex Maxi Yacht Cup was a feast for the eyes. Andi Robertson reports

Walk the hallowed docks of Sardinia’s Yacht Club Costa Smeralda during the Rolex Maxi Yacht Cup and it was impossible to get anywhere fast. The collection of maxi yachts this year was truly mesmerising, each meriting more than a passing glance. Correspondingly, the army of top professional sailors assembled was literally a who’s who of generations of America’s Cup, Ocean Race and Olympic sailing stars.

To leave the real world and immerse yourself in the Porto Cervo bubble is something special. Even the grizzled, white-haired pros who recall the formative years of the ‘Maxi Worlds’ and who come year in, year out, show no complacency. They love it and always will because it is the pinnacle event of maxi racing.

Post-pandemic, more than ever, there is a renewed appreciation for this spectacular event. Here there are no distractions beyond the wind blown rugged granite scenery, the turquoise waters and the rocky network of islands forming the La Maddalena archipelago.

The 32nd Rolex Maxi Yacht Cup was not the biggest ever, mustering 46 racing maxis in six classes, but it was almost certainly the most competitive event for many years, with quality in depth through each of the divisions.

The fleet was also more diverse than ever. For the first time since 2014 there were four J Class yachts competing under their own JCA handicap – an elegant step back in time contrasting sharply with the debuting foiler Flying Nikka, which raced in its own class, and the just launched powerful ClubSwan 80 My Song which lined up in the 13-boat maxi fleet.

Rambler off Isola delle Bisce lighthouse north of Porto Cervo. Photo: Luca Butto

A different league

“For sure after the pandemic there seems to be more people wanting to sail big boats than ever before and being able to afford to do so. And this regatta was in a different league to previous events in terms of quality,” noted the International Maxi Association’s secretary general Andrew McIrvine.

“One interesting development is now having absorbed the Wally class – which had a bunch of 80-footers and a bunch of 100-footers racing together – and getting them into performance, rather than size related classes, we have a good 13-boat maxi class. That is definitely better.

The foiling Flying Nikka raced in a class of its own

“And we have a more race orientated fleet, there used to be cruising maxis, and we have more professionals, whether or not you consider that a good thing. We are still very strict on the owner-driver rule, except in the Super Maxi fleet where in fact the two top owners are young and steer their boats anyway.”

In a typical September week at Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup there will be days of light winds and very often days lost to the Mistral. A fixed Thursday layday may seem like an anomaly but many owners – and their crews – start to feel their age mid week. This edition was no different, early starts made the best of the building Mistral on Friday, but Saturday proved unsailable.

Without question the standard of boat and sail handling gets higher every year. To see the J Class rivals tacking up ‘Bomb Alley’, as the rock-strewn passage north of Porto Cervo through the La Maddalena and Caprera archipelago is known, in 18 knots of breeze and flat water – seemingly within touching distance of the shore – is incredible.

Lord Irvine Laidlaw’s Highland Fling XI. Photo: Carlo Borlenghi

Running downwind America’s Cup rival helms Peter Holmberg and Ed Baird showed a precision in their boat placement akin to sailing a Laser, all while choreographing nearly 30 crew. Are there elements of brinksmanship or bravado? Maybe, but the truth is many of the afterguard crew will have raced on these waters dozens of times, and laying one corner when others can’t will reap a dividend of several boatlengths.

The Super Maxi division victory was the biggest win yet for a ‘young’ (at just turned 50) Swedish owner on his Swan 115 Shamanna.

He also owns the well known Spirit 100 Gaia and Gerdney, a classic Swedish Skerries 95ft cruiser. He races Shamanna with eight of his long time friends – among them a cardiac anaesthetist, a pal who was ‘The Bachelor’ on the Swedish reality show of the same name – and a posse of good pros managed by British former Volvo/Whitbread, America’s Cup ace Guy Barron.

The 82ft custom Wally Highland Fling XI. Photo: Luca Butto

Raising the standards

Barron has sought to keep raising the standards of the ‘amateurs’ so they are fully integrated and respected by the pros, rather than allowing a ‘them and us’ scenario develop. Barron sailed with the owner and his friends originally in Sweden and was able to impart his knowledge and involve them in a way which has become important on the big Swan. “We sat down and said let’s make sure your guys get trained up and are part of it. So between Shamanna and Gaia we share the same pros, the same group and we’re all used to sailing with each other.”

Barron reckons – after some counting – that he has now raced from Sardinia 34 times, the first time being at the 12 Metre Worlds in 1987. “It is one of the best venues in the world and I never ever tire of racing around through Bomb Alley. It is breathtaking. I remember I was on Boomerang and we had THE crash.

Close fleet action. Photo: Luca Butto

“We hit a rock going 9.5 knots, having just got full speed on we stopped dead. We pulled the engine off the mount, cracked every frame in the boat, blew the terminals off the top of the batteries, flattened the wheel, the pedestals, seized the mainsheet and the runner winch. I ended up in an ambulance with George Coumantaros the owner. He’d fallen over and inverted his cheek. I slid forward, hit the solid stainless reaching stanchion and very luckily did not break my leg. I sail past there and still hear the noises in my head. It is a truly wonderful place to sail!”

Mini maxi rivalry

The six boat Mini Maxi 1 division is the domain of what were previously the Maxi 72 class. Now only Jim Swartz’s Vesper and George Sakellaris hull sister Proteus are close to Maxi 72 trim, all of the other four boats have had extensive modifications. Ironically the top two overall were Vesper, with Gavin Brady as tactician, and Proteus.

The changes across the rest of the fleet have been various: Peter Dubens’ North Star is the first boat to now use stored power for running rigging and sails with seven fewer crew – which at the Maxi Worlds gives a four-point rating credit. Spirit of Jethou (23.5m), Cannonball (22.86m) and Bella Mente (22.55m) have all been lengthened and have deeper keels. Bella Mente has a taller rig, as has Cannonball which can also now carry 1,000kg of water ballast per side.

Despite their differences, this was a very competitive class of boats which were conceived as the last word in maxi racing and richly laden with talent.

Rolex Maxi Yacht Cup fleet racing in Sardinia’s La Maddalena Archipelago. Photo: Carlo Borlenghi

“We were fortunate to be consistent. We did not screw up,” smiled Gavin Brady after racing. “In fact the boat is arguably the same as when it won the World Championships five years ago (as Momo). It is cool, I think, for Vesper to win the World Championship with the same keel, the same mast, the same sails.

“Our sport needs to see some sustainability and it is a good message that if you have something that works and you just go and sail well you don’t need to change the mast and the keel. That is something special for Jim as he does not want to go down the ‘arms race’ route. He wants to go and race, and may the best team win.

“This fleet of seven boats have evolved. It’s clear the owners want to develop their boats in the way they want and not be told what to do by a box rule. You have Jethou at one end and North Star at the other and we all went round the top mark within 30 seconds of each other. It’s not the Maxi 72 box rule of old but it is working and we have happy owners.”

Crew on the rail of the iconic J Class Velsheda. Photo: Carlo Borlenghi

Water ballast, and how it is treated under rating systems, is one factor many grand prix teams are watching carefully, in readiness to adapt their boats. “The water ballast is the elephant in the room right now,” Brady explains.

“Everyone is trying to be secretive but we all know what is going on. Everyone has drawings to put water in everything from a TP52 to a maxi but we just don’t know what the rule is going to do. I think it is a good way, a clean way to make boats go faster. Salt water is in abundance and if we want to pump water into the boat to make it faster and more fun it is a lot more sustainable than carbon fibre and sails that will go to landfill.”

Lord Irvine Laidlaw bade farewell to his faithful Reichel Pugh 82ft custom Wally Highland Fling XI with a swansong win in the 13-boat maxi class. Cameron Appleton calls tactics alongside navigator Andrew Cape: “Porto Cervo is a unique place usually offering a real range of conditions, inshore racing and navigational type courses, and you have to be good at every part of it,” Appleton recalled.

“You get to know the tricks of the place and where the wind bends are but it is how you get there to use them that is the skill.”

With co-owner Niklas Zennström driving his first regatta on Svea, flying the flag for his native Sweden, the J Class title was never really in doubt, though the racing was always close.

Svea seems to have a speed edge and has a great crew marshalled by Bouwe Bekking. The J Class are looking towards a World Championship in Barcelona during the 37th America’s Cup with potentially seven or eight boats. Next to return to the fold will be Rainbow, bought by Kiwi owner Neville Crichton, who is refitting the boat in Palma to be ready for the later part of next season.

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