Rainclouds appear heavy on the horizon, a 15-knot breeze sends a flurry of waves across our deck, and the penetrating sun bathes the ocean in a magisterial light. I’m in the Caribbean, just off the coast of St. Barts, waiting eagerly for the start of the seventh annual Les Voiles de St. Barth regatta. With the sounding of a horn, the race begins. Booms swing all around, mainsails fill with air, and hulls pitch over to 45 degrees. The crews on the water represent the very best in international sailing. From amateur captains to America’s Cup winners, the faces of the crews around grimace into the headwind as they begin the first day of a week-long regatta.
Founded in 2010 by Francois Tolede and Luc Poupon, Les Voiles de St. Barth aims to cater to an eclectic and exacting clientele. In the world of high-end yacht racing, it is understood that downtime is as important as the racing itself, and the mantra, ‘competition on the water, conviviality on the shore’, quickly came to the fore. A regatta that has seen a significant growth since its beginnings, Les Voiles de St. Barth now attracts patrons from every corner of the globe, along with high-end partners, too. So it’s only natural that a horological brand like Richard Mille would collaborate with such an event.
A keen sailor with a passion for pushing the boundaries of material and structural form, Richard Mille’s watches are as much at home in sailing as they are in the motorsports, tennis and polo circles with which the brand also partners. And this year saw Peter Harrison, CEO of Richard Mille EMEA, return for the sixth time to captain his own boat, TP52 Sorcha, in the CSA 0 class. “The coastal racing here in St. Barts is really exciting,” says Harrison. “When this started, there were already a few good regattas on the circuit, but this has really eclipsed all the others by some margin. Within eight years, it’s gone from a non-event to the Monaco Grand Prix of sailboat racing in the Caribbean.”
Ordinarily, Peter races in the TP52 Super Series, which is far more competitive. “This is quite a relaxed regatta for us. We’ve all come from the Formula One of sailing in the Super Series, and this is really a far more gentlemanly race. We have a great time here.”
Naturally, the synergies between sailing and watchmaking have walked hand-in-hand for many years. Yes, regattas like Les Voiles de St. Barth aren’t as widely publicised or as prestigious as the America’s Cup, for example, but we must remember that these are different races altogether. There are no hydrofoils in St. Barts; it’s purely keelboat racing. Nevertheless, for a brand like Richard Mille these events offer the perfect testing ground to explore new materials, as Harrison explains. “When we started this sponsorship, Luc Poupon said it would be great to have a sailing watch, so Richard went off and created one. But for me, the biggest change has been the use of a material called NTPT Carbon.
"Rainclouds appear heavy on the horizon, a 15-knot breeze sends a flurry of waves across our deck, and the penetrating sun bathes the ocean in a magisterial light..."
The sails on my boat use this NTPT Carbon mesh material, which makes them very light and very strong. We then used the NTPT Carbon with the Nadal watch we made, so there are direct relationships between sailing and watchmaking.” Richard Mille himself attests the same ethos: “My commitment to a field like sailing is all the more fervent because the domain encourages full expression of the Richard Mille philosophy. It’s an opportunity to combine extreme performance, cutting-edge technology and a strong artistic component, while respecting the hallowed traditions of a discipline. Thousands of hours of research and development are needed to bring a superyacht into being; the same is true of our watches.”
Over the course of the week, the 1100 sailors, comprising 70 crews in nine classes, raced upwards of six hours per day to lay claim to the win. For the crews of the Maxi class (yachts that are anything longer than 70ft, and therefore the quickest on the water), the prize for first place was an RM 60-01 Flyback Chronograph Regatta, which eventually went to George Sakellaris, the CEO and Founder of the renewable energy corporation Ameresco, in his boat Proteus.
Peter Harrison also took top place in his class for the first time in the regatta’s short history. It’s important to note, however, that an event like Les Voiles de St. Barth proffers a lot more than just sailboat racing. Each evening the crews could be seen embracing one another as they ambled through the antiquated streets of Gustavia, St. Barts’ capital. Indeed, there seems to be a camaraderie and friendliness between all crews once off the water, and this is one of the greatest sights to witness.
St. Barts as an island also epitomises the luxury of the Caribbean. Its quaint coastal roads flow through stunning scenery, where the pastel blue shade of the Caribbean Sea, combined with the radiant sun, make you feel as if you truly are on a desert island, albeit a luxury desert island. It’s a fantastic place to behold, and an even better one to host the regatta.
A regatta that combines the finest sailors, the most technologically-advanced yachts, and some of the most stunning scenery in the world, is not a spectacle to be missed. And with the partnership of Richard Mille, Les Voiles de St. Barth is only going in one direction, and that’s up.
This article originally appeared in the Gentleman’s Journal Yacht supplement. Subscribe here.