Many of the 700-odd racers are first-timers, though, most of them drawn in by word-of-mouth reports of an event unlike any other. Sometimes, word runs in the family: fresh from the prizegiving podium, Sonia Zugel, a gifted horserider who represents Ireland in dressage and who happens also to be the sister of Eamonn Rohan, explains how she and her husband came to be here on a chartered racing yacht when they were not even sailors, let alone raced in St-Barth before: “For a while we had been joking that my husband should try a slightly slower sport [Christian Zugel is a serious amateur racing driver and, among other things, has competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Greaves Motorsport] and then, six weeks ago Eamonn suddenly said ‘Hey, why don’t we go to St-Barth?’. That was it: we found a great boat and here we are. It has been unbelievably good fun.” Behind her there’s a not-so sotto voce remark: “Before the end of tonight we have to get our names down for next year.” Mission accomplished. And it’s good thinking: with more than 60 yachts entered this year and word spreading fast, the event will soon reach saturation. François-Paul Tolède, the organiser, insists that it will be capped at 80 yachts because that’s all the pocket-sized port of Gustavia can take. That intimate scale is also a huge part of its appeal, and it means that it will become more and more like a club for those who come back.
For our group of St-Barth first-timers, Les Voiles is business. Our host, Peter Harrison, is the CEO of Richard Mille Europe and Middle East and a mad-keen sailor. His fast racer-cruiser, Jolt 2, is sailing as the de facto “house” representative and we—a small group of very lucky journalists—have been invited to help crew it. Given the presence of Peter’s professional skipper and some highly proficient guest sailors, our crewing consists mainly of acting as fast-moving ballast, sprinting from one rail to the other as the boat changes tack. It’s a great place to be, right in the thick of closequarters racing and, on the longer runs and reaches, catching the sun and spray, and beach-spotting as we circle the island. As it does with many owners, the regatta-hopping bug has taken a firm grip on Peter: different waters, different crews, the camaraderie, the social events, seeing increasingly familiar faces popping up in each place, all the while learning more and more about race tactics and how to get the most from the boat. The pleasure is obvious, as for the entire time we’re with him, a huge grin doesn’t leave his face.
Massachusetts-based property developer Donald Tofias is here with his gorgeous, traditionally styled yacht Wild Horses. It’s only the first event in his racing calendar—in only a week’s time he will be in Antigua for the Panerai Classic Yacht Challenge. In the summer he will also be racing in Nantucket and Maine. But it’s not just yacht owners who organise their travelling around regattas. Maxx Kenna plans almost all of his time off around sailing.
He’s crewing for Peter Harrison in St-Barth, having first done so at Les Voiles de St Tropez last autumn (the world’s other great end-ofseason yacht-fest and surely, in part, an inspiration for the St-Barth’s event—at least in its original, more intimate incarnation as La Nioulargue more than 30 years ago). He has raced for years at Cowes, in Ireland, and at Antigua Race Week. “It’s a fantastic way of getting to know different places, and with that unbeatable combination of racing and socialising, you get a very special impression of a place. It’s also the best possible break from work. If you’re lying on a beach, work will inevitably creep into your head but on a yacht, the moment the pre-start gun goes, you don’t think of anything but sailing.” Most of the opportunities and invitations come by word of mouth, Maxx says, and being fun and easy to get along with is almost as important as your racing skill. “You spend all day in confined quarters and everyone relies on each other a lot during the race. If you don’t know somebody well at the beginning of a regatta, you certainly will by the end of it. So it’s not a good place for prima donnas, even if they are great sailors.”