Classic Yachts of the Côte d'Azur - Treasures of Provence
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Classic Yachts of the Côte d’Azur

As high summer passes, one of the world’s most beguiling annual migrations begins, as the classic yacht fleet of the Mediterranean sails westwards from port to port, regatta to regatta. Whatever else we think about the wealthy, we can certainly thank them for making possible the preservation of these wonderful yachts.

Mediterranean classic yacht racing is a very ‘English’ recreation which brings together hundreds of magnificent yachts and thousands of spectators, crew members, and sailing enthusiasts every year.

Yachtspotters strolling the quayside at Beaulieu or Antibes may easily become blasé about super yachts — after all, any super rich layabout with a big enough bank balance may buy or build a splendid new motor yacht. Certainly they are impressive enough, en masse, but the classic yachts are different, because they are rare, and they have the power to sweep us back, in our imagination, to a bygone age of glittering style.

Simply walking past a Dorade or Shamrock V or Lady Anne moored at one of the great regatta harbours, like Saint-Tropez, may produce a feeling of awe akin to the sensation produced when one walks through an ancient temple in Bali, or sits in the bleachers at the Theâtre Antique at Orange.

What, then, is a classic yacht? For the purposes of racing, they are defined in many ways, by reference to their age; their construction — usually but not always wooden;  the materials used in their sails and rigging; and the handicap rating derived by measurement.

But aside from the boring facts and figures that determine their rating, these yachts are loved for their beauty and their history. They are functional works of art in everyday use. A classic yacht was, by definition, designed by a classic marine architect, perhaps by William Fife of Scotland. All his boats may be distinguished by the carved dragon on their bow.

Other classics were designed by Olin Stephens from the US, who still attends regattas today in his nineties; or by Herreshoff, or Nicholson, or one of a handful of other creative geniuses.

Generally, these yachts are old, sometimes more than a hundred years old, but they are in glowing museum condition, having been restored again and again over the years to scrupulously maintain links back to the wonderful craftsmen that built them and the talented dreamers that designed them.

In extreme cases, they may have been restored from a few shreds of a rotten hulk, using traditional materials and traditional crafts to exactly reproduce a hull, accommodation and rig of the Edwardian period.

The restoration of these yachts is a fanatically precise process, only able to be carried out in a tiny number of boatyards, mostly to be found in Italy. Here, the traditional joinery and other construction skills are celebrated and kept alive; here are the plans and photos and the historical references that enable the process to be rooted in meticulous research.

I won’t embarrass him by mentioning his name here, but the skipper of one of these yachts thrilled me a year or so ago by showing me his albums of ‘before and after’ images during the two-year rebuild of the masterpiece in his stewardship. Every ‘before’ picture was covered with obsessive notes and measurements so that the finished product’s authenticity would be assured.

Without a doubt, the enormously involved 2001-2006 ‘like for like’ restoration of Lulworth, a pitifully derelict 50-metre gaff cutter, was the yacht construction project of the century. Once one of the ‘big five’ racing yachts of the twenties, she is now arguably the most magnificent racing yacht in the world. The full story of the yacht and her reprieve is told in a magnificent and insanely expensive book.

I said classic yachts are generally old, but modern day classics are under construction right now. Some are uncompromisingly modern, like the Wally yachts from Monaco, designed with arrogant disregard for any consideration other than extreme elegance, performance and quality.

Others are built in the  ‘spirit of tradition’ — carbon fibre masterpieces that evoke the flavour of a traditional boat in an ultra-modern package.

Classic yachts may be gigantic, like Lulworth. Some of the biggest are called ‘J-class boats’ at over 50 metres, and they,  like the 12 metre classes (typically 20 metres long) once raced for the America’s Cup. There are even tiny inlaid one-design day-sailers such as Dragons, which race in the Olympics. Incredibly, several of the regular visitors to the regattas, such as Adix or Adela, are far, far too big to fit into the harbours and they may be seen anchored offshore.

The season of races begins in Italy and concludes in Spain, though some of the yachts continue on to the West Indies for the winter.

St Tropez is the best regatta for the tourist to visit, as it brings together about 300 of the most immaculate yachts in the world. Even if you can’t go out on a boat to participate in the racing, as we did once, simply walking along the hundreds of metres of beautiful harbour quayside is extraordinary and uplifting.

You will experience a living, moving celebration of wood and design. You will never see snowier teak, shinier bronze, more lovingly varnished mahogany, creamier sailcloth, and more perfectly maintained machines in everyday practical use. And you will hear many Australian and New Zealand accents among the crews.

In October 2005, we were privileged to race on the magnificent Thelma, a 65’ gaff cutter built in triple-skinned kauri to an amazingly innovative monocoque design by Arch Logan in New Zealand in 1898. Despite her enormous heavy sails and spars, she is not equipped with a single winch or labour-saving device, and we all returned to the dock each day exhausted, with burning hands and considerable respect for the sailors of old! Classic yacht racing may be an international sport, but Logan yachts are protected by New Zealand heritage laws as cultural icons, and may not be permanently removed from the country!

So this year, make a point of visiting one of the great regattas. As I said above, we recommend Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez. Hundreds of yachts will be moored stern-to along the quay, adjacent to wonderful restaurants and bars (and some splendid clothes shops). You may even be able to get a sail, if you have the experience and manage to chat up a friendly crew member, or you might go out on a chartered powerboat and follow one of the races. Trust me, the experience will be unforgettable!

Further reading:

Franco Pace’s book, William Fife at Amazon