St Barths is the epicentre of superyacht racing during the Caribbean season. Holly Overton follows the fleet across the Atlantic to discover how this once unremarkable island became a sailor’s Shangri-La
Down the start line on the leeward shore of St Barths, five black sails flutter as the boats beneath them make their final approach. The horn blares as their bows kiss the line and a symphony of whirs and clunks thrum in the air. A wind shift bunches the fleet at the pin before they race at speed towards the shore, tacking off in sequence about 10 metres from the rocks of Les Petits Saints.
Beyond the line is the Port of Gustavia with its corrugated red roofs peeping through a dip in the hillside. During the race season, this natural harbour springs to life and the esplanade becomes a forest of towering carbon masts and class flags as the world’s racing elite gather on the shores of this unique island.
St Barths is one of the smaller Antillean islands, but its geography and a near-guaranteed 15 to 20 knots of breeze bring some of the world’s finest sailing talent to its shores. “It’s champagne sailing,” says Terry Hutchinson, tactician on Bella Mente and veteran of the island’s Les Voiles de St Barth Richard Mille regatta.
Despite its international prestige, St Barths is a relative newcomer to the world of racing if you compare it to the half-a-century-old Antigua Sailing Week or Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez. In the early days, this island of abundance was nothing more than a drop of verdant green in the eastern Caribbean Sea. It proved of no interest to early colonists in search of new continents rich with gold and other treasures and became an unsought outpost that bounced from the French to the Swedes and back to France again.
It was sailing, though, that shifted the island’s fortune. In 1957, American investment banker David Rockefeller was sailing with his wife when he spied a cliff-top plot overlooking the bay of Colombier and fell in love with its flat water and crescent of blonde sand. He purchased 27 hectares of land for a few thousand dollars and built what would become the island’s first holiday residence – which, to this day, is only accessible by boat.
Rockefeller kick-started a domino effect that roared through the American elite. At that juncture, the French island could have followed the path of its neighbouring islands that built runways, dredged deep cruise ports and lined the water’s edge with all-inclusive hotels. But, remaining true to the spirit of the Caribbean, the island shunned mass tourism in favour of a more bohemian, but elite vibe. The result: provincial France, but with coconuts and better wind.
Unlike the seasonal mistral that blows through the Mediterranean, sailing here is powered by the trade winds that barrel in from the east. “It is very reliable in terms of breeze, which means no cancelled days,” says Peter Harrison, CEO of Richard Mille, title sponsor of Les Voiles de St Barth. “In Saint-Tropez, you could get two cancelled days out of five because of no wind, or too much wind. We’ve had only one cancelled day of this regatta so far."
Les Voiles de St Barth Richard Mille is the island’s newest regatta, but it has become a key fixture on the racing calendar. With just 11 races sailed, the event is in its adolescence, but you wouldn’t know it looking at the calibre of yachts and yachters that pull into port each spring. Historically, racing on the island was an informal affair arranged over a bottle of dark rum. A number of local regattas were organised throughout the 1970s by island native Loulou Magras – a founding father of racing on the island. Races were often arranged with posters slapped to yacht club noticeboards and chandleries throughout the Leeward chain – and with success. More than 140 local cruisers and traditional wooden Carriacou sloops would swarm the island’s port in its heyday.
International sailors might have arrived at St Barths on the Route de Rosé, an informal transatlantic rally in the 1990s that set off from Saint-Tropez. Each competing yacht was loaded with a dozen cases of pale French rosé, which was to be consumed at a post-race party (it wasn’t uncommon for a few bottles to go “missing” on the trip across). Nowadays, yachts making the migration from the Med to the Caribbean sign on for other races, such as the newer ARC or RORC Transatlantic.
It was the St Barths Bucket that put the island on the racing map. In its early days it was less a regatta and more a meeting of friends for a sail and a rum punch. There was no prize money, only bragging rights and a bucket of champagne. The first Bucket was sailed in 1995 with a fleet of just four yachts: Nelson Doubleday’s 38-metre Palmer Johnson Mandalay, 40-metre Sparkman & Stephens Sariyah, 33-metre Ron Holland-designed Gleam and 38.4-metre Ortona Navi Parlay.
The turning point came during the year of the famous “Le Mans” start. With the fleet at anchor in Colombier, a crew member was required to drink a daiquiri, hightail it to the boat and sail it off its mooring to start the race.
This was the first and last time the Le Mans start was attempted, for obvious reasons. Local authorities caught wind of the annual gathering and suggested that the regatta be formalised. This was the dawn of the modern Bucket. Nowadays things are more civilised with Superyacht Racing Rules, where a minimum distance of 40 metres must be kept, and a pursuit race format, where each yacht is assigned its own start time.
Second only to the island’s legendary New Year’s Eve fireworks display, it is now a pinnacle of the superyacht season. “You’ve got double, maybe triple the number of superyachts you see at other venues, and with boats this big it can be pretty exciting,” says event director Peter Craig.
Off the water, its unbuttoned spirit lives on with enthusiastic “Bucketeers” turning the island into an open-air carnival of yacht hops and fancy dress parties. A new award was also established, the Golden Pineapple, which is given to the boat with the best party spirit.
Les Voiles de St Barth Richard Mille, by comparison, is the new kid on the block. The regatta was the brainchild of two friends, François Tolède and Luc Poupon, inspired by the Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez. “We wanted to bring a little bit of that Mediterranean magic to the Caribbean,” said Tolède. The idea was to make Les Voiles de St Barth the Grand Prix of sailing, attracting its biggest names to the petite island, and with them, thoroughbred racing machines.
“Owners want these Formula One types of regattas with great sailing and a great atmosphere,” says Tolède, but there isn’t a whole lot of opportunity. There aren’t many regattas of this calibre, and a ban on bareboat competitors means the racing is kept at the highest standard.
Les Voiles de St Barth Richard Mille made its debut on the racing calendar in 2010 as a finale to the Caribbean regatta season. In the early days, it was a small turnout with a fleet of 28 boats and some 300 sailors including some serious racers such as Loïck Peyron and Ken Read. The biggest boat competing was Sir Peter Harrison’s 35-metre Sojana; the smallest, a Feeling 30 named Baladin. Fast forward 10 years and the regatta welcomes 70 boats and 1,000 sailors to St Barths, including Hap Fauth and his newly extended JV 74 Bella Mente, George David and his former winner Rambler 88 and Wendy Schmidt, co-founder of 11th Hour Racing, and her new Botin Deep Blue. “It had a certain amount of appeal from the get-go but the level of competition has gone up in the last six years,” says Richard Mille’s Harrison.
Despite lending his name to the event, Mille prefers a racetrack to a regatta racecourse. So it is Harrison that steers the brand towards the sea as skipper of TP52 Jolt 3. “The amazing appeal for me is you get to race with Olympians and against helmsmen that might have won the America’s Cup,” says Harrison. “It’s not like you can go out, buy a Formula One car and say ‘I’m going this weekend to Silverstone to race against Lewis Hamilton, but in terms of sailing, you can almost effectively do that.”
Les Voiles de St Barth Richard Mille runs over five days with a lay day to allow sailors to enjoy the island. But the competition never truly ceases: a tug of war is usually first up at Nikki Beach followed by a treasure hunt that sees sailors dive for bottles of Barons de Rothschild Champagne.
Clear heads are required, however, to conquer these notoriously tricky waters. “With the start just off the port and the courses set around the islands the tactician and navigators have to be on their game to get a good start and sail the shortest course, all difficult with changing wind angles and so sail changes and choices are key,” says Brad Butterworth, Team New Zealand America’s Cup skipper and tactician on Rambler 88.
At Les Voiles de St Barth, organisers can set 28 different courses without laying a mark thanks to the island’s natural geography. The courses harness the rocks and islets to create a host of tactically challenging legs. “This is something we cannot export,” says Tolède.
“When you race around the island and you are sailing around rocks and in and out of bays, there is a lot of compression,” explains Hutchinson. Tack too early and you could lose several boat lengths on your opponent; tack too late and you could cause some thousand euros’ worth of damage. Ahead of the regatta, teams will go and dive or “recon” the rocks, as Hutchinson puts it.
Throw in an Atlantic swell, and the role of an experienced navigator and tactician becomes essential. On a windy day, as the yachts round the headland at Colombier, they are exposed to the full force of the Atlantic. “[The waves] create huge opportunities: two good waves can gain you 100 metres,” says Vesper tactician Gavin Brady.
The natural challenges are a welcome change. “We spend a lot of time racing these boats upwind and downwind around buoys, so to be able to do these coastal races where the conditions are changing constantly around the rocks and bays makes it a really special venue,” says Tom Burnham, head coach of Bella Mente Racing.
Even when conditions get challenging, it is hard to have a bad day’s sailing here. This is partly because the regatta spirit stretches beyond the waves. Back in the race village watching hugs and handshakes, it’s clear that St Barths’ regattas are about friends who return each year to compete against one another. And this makes this emerald dot in the Leeward Islands a sailing nirvana.
First published in the September 2022 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.SHOP NOW