Back in the early 1980s, a competition was borne in a bar between two amiable sailors. On a fall day in 1981, skipper Jean Laurain had stopped in St Tropez after extended cruising in the Mediterranean. There, Laurain met an American, Dick Jayson who was cruising on his Swan 44. After talking about the merits of their boats, soon a race, and a bet, was on. The stakes were simple: the loser would buy dinner for the winner at the legendary Club 55, a bar and restaurant on Pampelonne Beach in Saint-Tropez.
That race was the roots of what became La Nioulargue and now Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez, a celebration of friendly competition. So midway through the week of racing, today is the Challenge Day, wherein one boat challenges another, or several to their own race.
This year there were 14 challenges, with the center stage today a battle of the giant Fifes for the Club 55 Cup: the 40 metre cutter-rigged Cambria versus Mariquita, the 38 metre gaff cutter. The course was 15 nautical miles from the start off St Tropez around the Nioulargue mark, then to the finish line off Pampelonne beach. The other challengers agreed to courses – of varying lengths depending on conditions – between themselves. Today’s breeze of eight knots at the start, built to 15 knots during the day, before dropping off again towards the end of racing.
In a rematch, and replay of last year, it was Cambria who beat Mariquita. Another of the challenges between slightly smaller, but no less important boats that, in their own way, embody the spirit of the regatta, was one between the Sparkman & Stephens yawls, the 16.3 metre Stormy Weather (1934) and the 17 metre Argyll (1948), and the 15 metre sloop, White Wings (1948) designed by John Alden. All were, and still are, well-built, ocean racing yachts, with pedigrees to prove it.
Stormy Weather, helmed by designers Rod & Olin Stephens, won the New York – Bergen TransAtlantic Race and the Fastnet Race the year after she was launched, and the Newport Bermuda Race a year later in 1936. Still in winning form in 2001, she came first in class at the America’s Cup Jubilee in Cowes. Stormy Weather has been owned by Christopher Spray, from the UK, for the past nine years. Spray saw the boat at the America’s Cup Jubilee and inquired with his broker who told him, “Well yes, but she’s never going to be for sale.” Fate intervened and a few weeks later the broker called to tell him it was indeed for sale. Onboard is a collection of friends, one or two professional sailors, and family including Spray’s wife, son and daughter.
Spray said, “Stormy Weather’s got a great racing history and we just do our best to maintain her reputation, which is what we going to try to do today against the Alden boat (White Wings). They’re a very tough, very professional, very competitive crew. Even today when it’s supposed to be fun I’m sure they’re going to be hard to beat.” This fall Spray will sail Stormy Weather, with his son in the crew, to the Caribbean for the winter and to compete in classic regattas there.
White Wings, a John Alden-designed cutter, was originally built for a family in Toronto, and was the flagship of the Royal Toronto YC. Mike Sparks wanted a very good-looking boat, and fell in love with White Wings walking down the jetty in Corsica. He said, “ I thought the lines were beautiful and bought it within a few weeks.”
Spark has owned her for three years, and raced this past season in Imperia, Corsica, Antibes, Cannes, Saint-Tropez. He used to race one-designs in the UK and said, “After a disastrous World Championship, where it’s so cold in July in the Solent, we decided to come down here for some good weather…food, and wine.” The S&S designed Argyll, was very recently acquired by the Welsh comedian and actor, Griff Ryhs-Jones. Ryhs-Jones has another classic boat (the Philip Rhodes-designed sloop, Undina) which he divides his attention – and sail inventory – on, but it is Argyll that has really caught his eye. Rhys-Jones said, “It’s a very authentic boat. There was a little sequence of boats, Argyll, Dorade, Stormy Weather and they’re all yawls".
“With her last two owners, Arygll’s been fantastically pampered. The yacht survey said basically there is nothing wrong with this boat, and for a wooden boat, that’s an extraordinary thing! I like to start with new, rather than start with an old wreck, like we did with Undina, and then spend a lot of money doing it up.” The 60-year old boat has indeed, over the past ten years, undergone a meticulous refit to the double-planked mahogany hull and teak decks, as well as the interior and exterior joinery, and spars, much of the work done by MB Yachts in Dorchester, UK. Standing onboard the boat with its’ varnished mahogany trim glinting in the sun, Rhys-Jones allows, “Perhaps a bit too pampered to go racing.”
As one of the last challenges to go off, the trio enjoyed half a dozen lead changes on their 14 nautical mile course out to the Nioulargue buoy, across to a mark off St. Raphael, and to the finish off the Tour du Portalet in Saint-Tropez. By race end, White Wings perservered, and led Stormy Weather and Argyll across the finish line. For the three classic yachts it was all part of an ongoing personal, and fun, competition. Tomorrow they’ll be back with the pack as regular fleet racing continues.