A Sailboat Race With a French Flair

Sailboat racing has plenty of tough challenges, but owners say that finding crews for this regatta isn’t one of them.

Les Voiles de St. Barth Richard Mille, which was set to begin on Sunday in St. Barthélemy in the Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles, will offer about 40 competing boats a boutique, high-end regatta in a tropical French collectivity. The event, which began in 2010 with fewer than 30 boats, enjoys an international gravity that draws many teams back each year.

Experienced racers say the regatta’s magic stems from its distinctly French ambience, upscale atmosphere, thoughtful organization and the reliable trade winds over courses that wend past rocks, reefs and satellite islands.

But first, there’s the inbound flight.

“It’s got to be experienced to be believed,” said Tony Rey, a professional sailor and regatta veteran, of the 15-minute hop to St. Barth from nearby St. Maarten. “You feel like you’re on a dive bomber,” he said, as the plane approaches the runway, which is book ended by a steep hill (with a road and traffic) on one side and the beach on the other.

Once the doors open, however, the experience softens.

“You hop out, and you’re in paradise,” Rey said. “It is warm, it is sunny and it is fragrant.”

It’s also France, just surrounded by the Caribbean.

“It’s a little jewel,” said Jean-Pierre Dick, who was scheduled to skipper Notre Méditerranée — Ville de Nice, his JP 54, in this year’s regatta. “It’s a very interesting race in a sort of paradise; that’s what makes it a great regatta,” he said, noting St. Barth’s luxury shops. “There’s just one little problem: It isn’t cheap.”

“An espresso is going to be 6 euros,” or about $6.50, said Jim Madden, a regatta veteran planning to helm Stark Raving Mad IX, his Carkeek 47, this year.

While many sailors said that St. Barth was notably expensive, they also said that part of the regatta’s successful formula involved creating opportunities for owners and sailors to relax and have fun.

“It’s a festive environment. It’s very French in that sense,” Rey said. “It’s really playful, and it’s a really cool way to do an event.”

This includes Wednesday night’s crew party for more than 1,000 people and Thursday’s rest day.

While some teams use that day to practice, Rey said most crews explored the island or enjoyed a relaxed afternoon of activities and games at one of its beach resorts. The regatta co-founder François Tolède said these games included a treasure hunt for bottles of Barons de Rothschild Champagne in the Baie de St. Jean on the island’s northern shore.

“It kind of reminds you that, no matter what, we’re going to have fun this week,” Rey said.

But having fun hunting for bottles of Champagne near shore doesn’t mean that things don’t get fiercely competitive on the water during racing.

“We don’t take anything for granted,” Madden said, noting that all of his yacht’s equipment and sails will be in near-perfect or new condition for the regatta. “We’re going out with all weapons that we can find.”

While weather patterns can vary, Les Voiles de St. Barth has gained a reputation for delivering reliable racing. “It’s ideal wind strength,” Dick said. He added that the winds were usually 15 to 20 knots for the regatta and that rain was rare.

“It is awesome; I’ve struggled to find anything better,” said Chris Jackson, boat captain of Pata Negra, a Marc Lombard 46, and a previous regatta-class winner.

Better still, St. Barth’s geography, and that of its surrounding waters, allows the organizers to create challenging racecourses that use many natural turning marks, including satellite islands, rocks and reefs.

Luc Poupon, the regatta’s co-founder and race director, said in an interview last year that he and the other organizers met each morning to review the day’s weather forecast and select which of the 28 courses to use that day. He added that the regatta ran multiple courses each day to best match the sailing characteristics of the competing yachts.

Sailors said they noticed and appreciated this kind of consideration, which they said extended across the event.

The organization does “a great job with the class splits,” said Jackson, referring to how the organizers break the fleet into individual classes of yachts with similar sailing characteristics. He and Madden noted that this had a positive effect on the quality of the racing, especially given the technical nature of the courses.

“The courses are fantastic,” Madden said. “You’re going next to rocks, over rocks, by reefs.”

Rey said that some high-level navigators survey and swim critical areas before racing. One example, he said, are the small islands with outlying rocks called the Groupers, to St. Barth’s west-northwest, which are commonly employed as turning marks.

“I have snorkeled the area to create a mental picture of the rock formations — not an unpleasant experience — and interestingly observed a 20,000-kilogram segment (about 44,000 pounds) of a lead keel that was left behind by a racing superyacht that cut the corner a little too closely,” said Campbell Field, who has navigated in this event multiple times.

Still, cutting this corner can pay dividends.

“Because it’s a buttonhook turn back towards the finish, there’s an advantage to getting as close to it as possible, but there’s a ledge there,” Rey said, noting that careful navigation is required.

Rey described the regatta’s typical weather conditions as exciting, but he added that conditions can get sporty.

“You’re out in the open water, where there’s really big waves, which is a challenge upwind, and then the surfing downwind is memorable,” he said, describing moments of “hair-on-fire” sailing.

Madden said that sailing past the island’s southeast flank was usually an experience. “It can be really, really rough with very confusing seas,” he said. “You’re going to be bounced around; it’s going to be probably 20 minutes of just ‘hang onto your seats.’”

But this, Rey said, was balanced by the regatta organizers’ appreciation of what owners were seeking.

“There is an easy schedule of races, where they will sail usually one to two races a day,” he said, adding that the organizers also put as much effort into the activities on shore as they do the racing. “They get you in early enough to be able to enjoy the party and the camaraderie.”

These festivities include prize-giving ceremonies and live music at the main race village, parties and a race village bar. Tolède, the co-founder, said that crews especially appreciated seeing photos and videos from the day’s racing displayed on the village’s large screen.

“They certainly know how to lay on the après sail,” Jackson said of the organizers.

Dick described the regatta’s atmosphere as like a holiday, and he and others said the island’s upscale nature also enhanced the experience.

“Even if you’re not one of the rich and famous, you certainly feel like you get to touch their lifestyle for a week,” Rey said, adding that this was part of the event’s magic. “You sort of get a little bit of that fragrance on you when you’re walking around.”

While many yachts competing here are modern carbon-fiber racing machines whose A-list crews stay in chef-catered villas, this isn’t universal. “There’s a place for everyone,” Rey said, referring to teams that charter boats, which they race and sleep aboard. “Are they welcome here? Absolutely.”

This attitude, in addition to the regatta’s race conditions, makes the event a sought-after experience for international sailors.

“It’s a little bit like crème de la crème,” Dick said. Receiving an invitation to be a crew member here is a privilege, he added.

“Do it once, you are sure to want to do it again,” Jackson said. “It’s a very special regatta.”

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