The build up to the Voiles de SaintTropez cannot be exaggerated. It’s the last event of the classic calendar and and the end of the summer, so there’s quite often an emotional attachment to this regatta for a lot of sailors.
For us on Shenandoah the intention was to bring the boat to the south of France to showcase her on the circuit because, after a 22-year tenure, the owners are looking for the next custodian to take on the reigns of this majestic old lady.
As is customarybefore SaintTropez, we participated in the Regates Royales in Cannes, with a couple of days training preceding that. It’s been a while since Shenandoah has graced the racecourse, so we spent a week removing all the charter toys, extra anchor, books and many spares that we habitually carry on board for the ‘what if’ scenarios during the summer charter season.
Unfortunately, we had to take the Steinway piano racing asthe thought of removing it…. well, enough said!
As well as removing weight we also brought some sails out of deep storage and trained the crew to be able to push the boat to a competitive level against similar boats in her class. Shenandoah was never intended as a race boat, but rather as a global cruising yacht. Nevertheless she turns heads when doing either. When we were given the green light to do the regattas the crew were delighted and, for me, it was the first time I’d had the opportunity to dig out the spinnaker and put together a race team.
Gathering a team for Shenandoah is a real delight as the people you get to choose from are very enthusiastic to be part of the program. We ended up racing with a roster of; 6 permanent crew, 6 seasonal and an additional 12 race crew. To be honest we were sailing with the bare minimum required to effectively race this boat. 3 masts, 10 upwind sails with 1000sq/m and 3 downwind sails taking the square meterage above 2000 should not be taken lightly and requires a lot of hands.
For us Cannes was seen as a sort of training regatta and due to the combination of windward/leeward courses and the light airs, the conditions were not ideal for the boat, but they were perfect to galvanise the team and get the manoeuvres smooth and speedy.
We arrived in Saint Tropez on the Sunday, and it was my first time with Shenandoah in the port. As can be expected, parking a boat for the first time in any port focusses the mind, but with 200 or so onlookers it means you can’t afford to make a mistake! Fortunately, with over ten years of practice it’s kind of like a marriage, so I have a good feel for how Shenandoah reacts and when not to push her!
With us safely stern-to and the crew soaking up the atmosphere of SaintTropez it felt fitting to pop up to the Sube, have a beer and admire all the beautiful classics parked up in such a spectacular setting. The Voiles is about the sailing but the aprèssail is also an important part of what gives this regatta such a unique identity amongst the competitors. It’s part of the allure of this event. Yes, the sailors are here for the love of the classics and the universal love of sailing, but the social scene amongst these folk is infectious, and, like any drug, it keeps you coming back for more.
With racing due to commence on the Tuesday the crew managed to unwind a bit before the customary Mistral came through. This time it was at the start of the regatta and caused the first day of racing to be abandoned. Rightfully so with 50 plus knots howling through the rigs of the yachts in the port it was quite a cacophony of sounds.
Day two we were poised to head out and eventually did so but no sooner were the fenders stowed we had another unfortunate call to abandon. Oh well, all the big boats were out so why not go for a blast!! So we did! It was a great way to get things going, and with all the big schooners reaching up and down the bay, it made for a day not lost.
Day 3 brought the Gstaad centenary cup which is separate to the Rolex,but a great event nonetheless. Conditions were excellent and the race course first-rate for a quick pursuit out and back into the bay. The leeward mark rounding was the highlight of the race. Watching the breeze freshen to the point that those still flying their spinnakers were broaching and rounding up ahead of us was a great spectacle. Fortunately, it’s something we never have to contend with on Shenandoah due to the sheer weight of the keel she behaves very well in gusty conditions. So, it was a handbreak turn around the leeward mark and a blast upwind to the finish which put us mid-fleet, respectable considering the boat that won could fit inside the main saloon of Shenandoah, twice!
With the Gstaad behind us, we only had 2 qualifying races for the Rolex cup. For the first race, the forecast was light winds and it was looking like a bit of a struggle for us. The course was a long beat out of the bay followed by a run back home, not ideal schooner conditions. With only 4 knots of wind speed all the schooners still managed to line up close enough to make for a competitive getaway. We set off toward the pin end maintaining clear air and managed to keep away from the other yachts. We beat up along the coastline past Basse Rabiou and then La Moutte before making a shot for the windward mark. After the tack it wasn’t looking good and we were facing another 2 tacks to get up on to the lay line but as we progressed out the forecast was coming true and the wind slowly veered, lifting us wonderfully up and over the lay line. By the time we were within 500m of the mark we started cracking sheets and preparing for a gybe set! Everything was working out nicely. Mark rounded, gybe set complete we powered up and heading back home with a breeze filling in from astern. We had good company all the way back to the finish with Belle Aventure keeping us on our toes all the way to the gun! So not such a bad race after all. Arriving safely back into the port a few of us headed to the rose and oyster ritual in the market to chew the fat on the day’s events. It was then we realised we’d managed to finish second. My initial reaction was ‘yeah right!’ but then when I read the official results, I had to believe it. Viveka has won on corrected time by 24:10 which was understandable considering her superb race team and the immaculate way she’s operated but, hey, we were the fastest ‘big schooner’ in light airs. We were all a little blown away but more importantly we could all see the potential for a podium finish especially considering the forecast for the final day!!
After a good night’s rest, I awoke to take the owners dog out for the morning stroll. It was a fairly crisp autumnal morning, the 1st of October, and I was daydreaming a little with the ‘what if!’ I was thinking to myself that we could win but something would have to go wrong on Viveka because she’s simple in another league to us. Second is very respectable though, I said to myself!
We were the last boat to leave the port that morning and Jim our after guard / navigator came running up the passerelle to tell me that the race it due to start earlier today and that we only had 45 mins until our start! Well that definitely concentrated the attention and we were heading out within 5 mins topping up all the gaff sails before we even left the harbour! The crew were focused and back-to-back the sails went up and up and up. We were going to make it but it would be a close call, and closer than we would have liked that’s for sure.
The start was downwind but with around 20-25 knots blowing in the starting area there was a little hesitation whether or not to use the kite. After the start it was La Seche A l’Huile to port and then on to a mark off SaintAygulf before returning back to SaintTropez for the finish. A great course for a big schooner!
We started as far as we could downwind toward the pin end because we could see those ahead struggling to make La Seche without gybing. This did mean that as soon the starting gun went, we got rolled by Naema, however she’d made the right choice to hoist the spinnaker and her gollywobbler. With Ashanti and Puritan behind us and the wind looking light ahead we made the call for the kite and up it went with us narrowly avoiding the wind shadow of Ashanti who was catching us!
Now with the kite up and the wind fading from 20 down to 12 knots it was a real effort to balance the boat speed with keeping the kite flying and heading up thereby avoiding two gybes before La Seche! The leg was quite stressful for me, especially the last 500m or so watching our course on the layline only half a boat length below the 5m contour line! With Shenandoah’s draft at 4.8m it was going to be close but we had to make it, even if that meant shooting the shallow spot! As we came abeam of La Seche it was quite some relief as the boat speed was down to 6 knots and we were almost running by the lee, but we’d made it past, and now the reading on the depth sounder was thankfully increasing again.
The focus was now on Viveka who was only 500m or so ahead of us but closer to the shoreline! Certainly, if we could keep her from growing her lead, we could be well in with a chance, but just as I was thinking about that, a breeze line crept in from the shore and she was carried away with it. There was nothing we could do. We helplessly watched her sail away and, unfortunately, we were just outside the wind line which seemed to take an eternity to reach us. By the time it did she must have doubled the ground between us but, now we had the wind, we were back up to sailing over 10 knots and things were looking up. Then, as Viveka approached Issambres the wind started to veer and she sailed into a big shadow, slowing almost to a standstill and visually sat upright.
By this time we had other things on our radar. The fleet ahead were now heading back toward us, close hauled and on Starboard. With us sailing downwind on port and the kite up; the breeze now around 20 knots true, we had the delicate challenge to try sew our way through the oncoming traffic all of whom were more manoeuvrable and all with the right of way!
It must have been a little daunting to see Shenandoah carving her way through but in true spirit of gentlemanly classic racing (or perhaps sheer fear) we managed to safely find a path through. As soon as we were clear we could see the next breeze line filling in from the port quarter and the following call was to drop the kite. Just in time as well, because as the kite was folding under the shadow of the foresail the breeze was now up to 25 knots and building. Phew! With the spinnaker safely in her bag and stowed midships, we were now getting headed into the leeward mark. The wind had come around more to the West and we were on a beam reach, Shenandoah in her element. Viveka was still to windward of us struggling with the gusty conditions sailing lower to try and drop their kite so we headed up and passed astern of them, giving them a great wind shadow to assist with getting their kite down.
With the entire set of fore and aft sails hoisted on board we were pushing 14 knots coming up to the mark and watching Naema overpowered ahead gybing around the mark. The return leg back into the bay of Saint Tropez was going to be a little closer on the breeze so we readied the fore and main topsails for drop and hold because the conditions were growing livelier by the minute! Just as we approach the mark and flicked a 180 the topsails came down in record time and we started the next challenge to claw back the lead from Naema who was around 700m ahead of us. Lucas, my chief officer said to me ‘Are we going to catch her?’. ‘We’ll give it our best shot!’ I replied.
So far, we could not have asked for better conditions. We’d sailed downwind without making a gybe and then gybed from reach to reach at the leeward mark!! As we sailed closer into the bay we could also see Elena being taken down to leeward with strong gusts now pulsating down the bay of SaintTropez. She was trucking along and an impressive sight to see, but we could still see her so we knew that we’d probably beat her on corrected time.
We were now watching down the race track and seeing the story unfolding. The wind was still building and being offshore it was very gusty. Naema by this time were heeled right over and being pushed down to leeward of us. Our cap rail was almost constantly in the water and the jib trimmers looked like white water rafters from time to time! We needed to get the jib top down before it was to late so with 15 sailors on the foredeck and a quick bear away it was down in a flash and lashed to the bowsprit. Back up we came on to course and heading on starboard up to lLa Seche.
A slight round up at the mark and then the final furlong to the finish, but we were still overpowered with the mizzen topsail set on the windward side. The foredeck team came back, Bryan shot up the mizzen ratlines and down she came with an assisting hand over the mizzen peak halyard so as not to get the topsail snagged or jammed on any running gear aloft. It came down much easier than expected but there was no time to think about our luck because we were getting closer to Naema and Shenandoah was now galloping at full charge to the finish.
Now we were down to 6 sails and still overpowered but we were using it to our advantage. We kept the mizzen sail over-trimmed to drive us to windward and the sheet team on the hydraulic winches of the Main, Fore and outer jib were in control of the yachts heal angle. Each time the caprail dipped under water and turned the middeck into an aquarium, the guys in great synchronisation eased the sheets preventing the heal from becoming dangerous. At the same time, I was on the helm pushing the boat as hard as I could to windward taking advantage of every inch, of each gust, pinching her up not only to depower the boat but also to keep us up on the lay line to the finish. From the helming position at the stern of Shenandoah I could see all the crew fully focused on the task ahead. We were pushing the boat to the absolute limit and she was responding with total grace. She was in her element and so was I, watching each wave breaking over the windward bow throwing up a spray that lashed down the deck, bellowing over the cockpit and turning into a white mist over the aft deck. It was just amazing; the wind, the view, the taste of the saltwater spray and the taste of victory all mixed in the air. Watching the crew was magical, they were clearly all in harmony saying ‘come on, is that all you’ve got?? We can take more!!’ We can do this!
The leg was short but we had reeled in Naema, who by now had to make a tack to cross the finish line. We had managed to keep Shenandoah on the lay line and blasted across the finish 15 m from the pin end to take the victory and the 2022 Rolex Trophy.
We had sailed a race with only one gybe and no tacks. It was quite simply our day, and as the gun sounded when we crossed the finish the atmosphere was euphoric. Never in our wildest dreams did we believe we could win a regatta like this with Shenandoah, but we’d done it, and each and every crew member was on a real high for days following this historic victory.