For the second year in a row the elegant gaff-rigged cutter Avel has won the Rolex Trophy at Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez. Owned by the sisters, Alessandra and Allegra Gucci, the Charles Nicholson design overcame stiff competition to top her class and, at the same time, hold off a valiant challenge by Tara Getty’s Marconi yawl, Skylark, to retain the title she secured last year. For racing so well, for their seamanship, dedication and passion, the enthusiastic crew of Avel deserved every plaudit offered by their peers at the prize-giving ceremony held at Saint-Tropez’s historic Citadelle overlooking the town’s Vieux Port.
It has been a superb week of competition among the 114 yachts of the Tradition Division, conducted in the unique spirit typical of Les Voiles. A fact that was acknowledged and echoed in the speeches by Andre Beaufils, President of the Société Nautique de Saint Tropez (SNST), the town’s mayor Jean-Pierre Tuveri, and Philippe Schaeffer, Director General of Rolex France, who awarded the trophy and Rolex timepiece to the Guccis. On each of the four days of racing the wind has cooperated, arriving on cue at the point of departure for the Tradition classes. The Race Committee under the calm stewardship of Georges Korhel was able to give the Tradition fleet, including the 55 yachts eligible for the Rolex Trophy, a set of enjoyable coastal courses each measuring between 14 and 17 nautical miles
For Alessandra and Allegra Gucci their second triumph in the Rolex Trophy is a welcome surprise, and a fitting tribute to their crew and its efforts: “It is a pleasure to win again, just fantastic. We are very happy. Last year’s regatta was more tricky, but this year we had nice wind and perfect weather. Avel was very fast and the crew was excellent.” For the sisters every element of their win is important; from the performance of Avel, to the spirit of their tightly knit crew. The attention to every detail is evident in the immaculate white outfits worn by the crew: “We like the traditional look. The white gets a little dirty when we are sailing, but it’s important to look right when racing a yacht like Avel.”
Respecting and protecting the customs of the past is a common theme among the owners and crew at Les Voiles, as the Guccis explain: “We must always look after the tradition, taking care of the boats. Most important though is the spirit, to have all these wonderful boats together, to race at the limit, but also to have fun afterwards. It’s a good feeling especially at the prize-giving when there are cheers for everyone.”
This philosophy is integral to the success of Avel whose skipper, Chris Austin, is adamant that the yacht is at her best when the owners are onboard: “Allegra is a vital, athletic component in the bow team, and Alessandra plays an important part too tailing the mainsheet.” Perhaps the increase in performance is Avel’s way of appreciating two owners, who display reassuring and understandable pride.
Les Voiles is widely regarded as one of the most extraordinary events in the sailing world. The setting and the 300-boat fleet, that combines modern with vintage, create a unique atmosphere carefully guarded by the SNST. It is no easy place to win, according to Austin: “I’ve been coming here for 17 years and it is very difficult and very competitive. We are constantly optimizing how we sail, always learning and trying to limit mistakes. We found ourselves in a very tough group this year competing against some very good race boats: Bonafide, for example, was built for the Paris Olympics in 1908.”
Proving the competitiveness, heading in to the final day, there was a four-way tie in the contest for the Rolex Trophy, which is awarded to the best performing yacht over 16 metres in length on deck in the Tradition division. The Lady Anne, Avel, Skylark and Marigold were all tied on 5 points apiece. The Lady Anne appeared to hold a narrow advantage by virtue of more first places in her scoreline; a third class win would have secured her the Rolex Trophy. For the other contenders it was just a question of doing their best and then seeing what fortune befell their opponents.
Marigold and The Lady Anne fell by the wayside both finishing third in their respective races; another mark of just how competitive the racing has been. Certainly no disgrace given they still topped their classes. For The Lady Anne marking her centenary this year, her class win was very special. Designed by William Fife and built for George Coats of Glasgow in 1912, she is one of the last four remaining yachts built to the International15-Metre Rule. Together Tuiga, Hispania and Mariska and The Lady Anne provided a perfect example of the importance of tradition within the assembled classics.
Andy Longarela, the skipper of Hispania, confessed of his yacht: “She is the most noble boat I’ve ever sailed. She provides very deep sensations, completely different to a modern boat. It is important that [the crew] understand the boat and its traditions. You must learn how she works, and appreciate her age. You need to respect her.”
As the oldest yacht in Rolex Trophy fleet, Marigold’s crew and owner Glenn Allan may also hold their heads high having contributed to a worthy contest. Marigold was built in 1892 to a design by Charles E. Nicholson. A gaff-rigged racing cutter, like many of the yachts present at Les Voiles, Marigold has been the subject of a sympathetic restoration. Below deck she retains true Victorian styling reflecting the faithful, passionate enthusiasm of her owner. “It’s very important that the boat is as close to her original state as possible. That’s the point of restoration,” emphasized Allan.
In keeping with her racing pedigree, Skylark ran Avel close, also winning her final race to top her group with an identical scoreline. Designed by Sparkman & Stephens in 1937, Skylark is a great example of Olin Stephens impeccable eye, and established an enviable competitive record that lasted into the early 1950s. Last year’s Les Voiles marked the debut of Skylark in Mediterranean waters following an extensive renovation. This year she has been a force to be reckoned with. In the end it was by the finest of margins that she lost out to Avel, when the results of each day’s racing were compared by the SNST.
The crew of Avel were ecstatic with their win, but gracious to their competitors. “It was very tough to succeed in our group and therefore the Rolex Trophy,” acknowledges Austin, who like the Gucci sisters credits exemplary crew work to their success. “It was very difficult keeping Avel in clear air given the massive diversity of the fleet. We are fortunate to have a solid core of crew, racing with 13 to 15 people. We are authentic in having no winches, so when the wind gets up, it gets quite exciting and you need good crew.”
Almost perfect wind and water appear to have played their part too: “The flatter conditions this year were favourable to Avel. Being a clipper bow we tend to pitch or hobbyhorse in chop and swell. Wind wise it was perfect too, with some nice force 3s.”
Avel, whose name is a Breton word for wind, was commissioned by Frenchman Rene Calame to a design by Nicholson, and built in 1896. This exquisite craft, with striking lines and graceful overhangs, looked set to end her days languishing in a mudbank until she was bought in the early1990s by her current owners and restored over a four year period. Like so many involved in classic yacht racing, Austin feels very privileged to be associated with a yacht such as Avel: “She is very special. I have been with her since the (Gucci) family has had her. I like the connection with the past.”
There is little to choose between any of the boats competing in the Rolex Trophy. All possess poise and elegance afloat; each has a particular attribute that their owner and crew will advocate is the subtle decider, beauty being in the eye of the beholder; and, each represents a remarkable endorsement of tradition and the past. They are raced in spite of their age and value, and because of the passion and dedication of their owners and crews, a special breed of sailor.
Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez marks the closing of the Mediterranean yacht-racing season, in a joyful, happy manner, graciously summed up by the Gucci sisters: “Les Voiles is one of the best. We are always a little bit sad because it is the end of the season, but it is a very nice place to end it and we absolutely look forward to the next year.”