Big Boat Racing at Les Voiles de St. Barths

Five… four… three… two… one! The crack of the starting gun comes clearly over the radio, echoed a split second later by the real sound. Aboard Sojana, helmsman Poule Hoj-Jensen and Capt. Lionel Pean watch smaller boats take advantage of holes in the line to cross ahead of the 115-foot Farr-designed yacht.
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Five… four… three… two… one! The crack of the starting gun comes clearly over the radio, echoed a split second later by the real sound. Aboard Sojana, helmsman Poule Hoj-Jensen and Capt. Lionel Pean watch smaller boats take advantage of holes in the line to cross ahead of the 115-foot Farr-designed yacht. Hoj-Jensen is frustrated; Sojana has to sail conservatively to avoid the smaller, slower, but more agile boats, which include a handful of bareboat charter yachts. Helming a boat this size in a fleet of smaller boats is like driving an 18-wheeler on a racetrack with a dozen Mini Coopers. Usually, the yacht’s skipper will say, “Let them go,” in order to avoid a collision. He is, after all, driving a yacht that may have cost upwards of $40,000,000.

On this particular day, the race committee of the third edition of Les Voiles de St. Barths has again picked an excellent course, but there is barely enough wind to drive our giant ketch comfortably. This makes it hard to decide on tactics, which need to be thought out well in advance on a yacht this size. A simple sail change can take 40 minutes—and that’s if the crew works fast.

We thread our way upwind, passing smaller boats that scramble to windward, unwilling to fall in the shadow of Sojana’s enormous sails. This is racing like it should be: sunshine, fierce competition, a good crew and a well-respected owner. Peter Harrison, Sojana’s owner, enjoys his sailing and is said to be the “godfather” of this event, which is rapidly gaining popularity among big-boat owners who follow the Caribbean circuit. This starts with the RORC Caribbean 600, and is followed by the Heineken Regatta in St. Maarten in early March. Then comes the Rolex Regatta in St. Thomas, the BVI Spring Regatta, St. Barths and, finally, Antigua Sailing Week.

We are not well placed as we round the mark—Sojana doesn’t like winds under 12 knots. But as we head off on a shy reach and set our massive gennaker, the breeze picks up and we overhaul three rivals. Sojana is clearly faster with her new bowsprit, but she is still no match for yachts like the Reichel-Pugh 90 Rambler, which wins the day yet again. Sojana has done all three editions of this regatta, but she and her ilk struggle against these grand-prix competitors.

Racing is ever more active at this most exalted level of yachting. In the 1970s two of the last three remaining J-class yachts were sitting in mud berths in the River Hamble in England, while the third was in Italy. Thanks to a revival in the class, the original three yachts are refurbished and have been joined by several new J-class boats, all measuring around 130 feet overall. By 2014 there could be as many as 10 of these magnificent yachts lining up against each other. 

Slightly smaller than the J-class boats is the Dutch-built Firefly, the first of a newly built F class making its debut at St. Barth’s. Firefly does not have the deep underbody of the J class and is very fast and fun to sail.

There is no chance of encountering anything smaller in the Newport and St. Barth’s Bucket regattas; only large yachts can enter these pursuit-style events. Early Newport Bucket regattas had two, maybe three entries over 80 feet. Today it is not unusual to see 15 to 20 of these giants competing, although the number of regattas can still be counted on both hands. Not many of the regattas with 100ft-plus yachts competing put smaller boats on the same starting line, but Les Voiles does—which can mean a few more gray hairs for the owners and crew of these magnificent machines. 

When they see a J-class boat or a yacht like Sojana coming up from astern, most smaller boats try desperately to get to windward before they get blanketed. But they may only be sailing at 8 to 10 knots, and these big beasts may be closing at 15 knots or more. 

The big boats’ helmsmen must always be on high alert, for these large yachts don’t have the maneuverability of a 40- or 50-footer. Fortunately, collisions are rare, but there have been a few near-misses. When you consider that the paint job on one of these yachts can cost a quarter of a million dollars, you don’t want to be the small boat skipper who ruins it! 

Photos by Christophe Jouany/Les Voiles de Saint Barth (top two) and Roger Marshall (bottom)

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