Big boat racing has become a favorite pastime of ‘regatta royalty’. Kitted out for complete luxury and boasting the latest hi-tech wizardy, welcome aboard the superyachts making an international splash
Superyacht racing? The very idea seems like a contradiction in terms. Superyachts are designed for supreme comfort, lavish entertaining and – let’s be frank – showing off… not speed.
They have multiple bedrooms, lounges, dining rooms, galleys, bars, spas, theaters and gyms all spread out across different decks. In order to be ‘super’, the boat must, by definition, be very big (over 100 feet), so if there’s one thing crazier than owning a superyacht, it must surely be racing one.
Yet superyacht racing is now one of the most fashionable forms of yacht racing, both among the ‘have-yachts’ set and among professional sailors who once scoffed at the idea. Because, while superyachts may never be able to compete with ‘proper’ racing yachts, the way they can compete with each other is nothing less than spectacular.
Superyacht racing began with the Nantucket Bucket in August 1986. Seven yachts raced 15 miles in Nantucket Sound in order to settle bragging rights on whose was fastest when put through its paces. Between 1986 and 2001, the Nantucket Bucket flourished, as owners and crews of the largest sailing yachts clamored to take part.
Naturally, other superyacht regattas began to spring up: the St Barths Bucket in 1995, which is now the most famous and popular superyacht regatta; the Palma Superyacht Cup regatta in 1996; the biennial Perini Navi Cup in 2004, and the Loro Piana Superyacht Regatta in 2008. Those last two regattas are run from Yacht Club Costa Smeralda in glittering Porto Cervo, Sardinia.
“I am sure there will be new regattas in the future,” says Jan Pachner, Secretary General of the club, “particularly in Asia.”
In 2011, SYRA was formed to establish much-needed safety rules; for example, yachts must keep at least 131 feet apart.
“When you have a spinnaker the size of a football pitch, the load factors are amazing but can get really hazardous,” says Pachner. “Superyacht racing is fun, but it can be seriously dangerous.”
Few superyachts bear direct comparison due to their individual characteristics, so a handicap system was devised to ensure fairness. If the handicapper does his job, the entire field crosses the finishing line at once.
In the pioneer days, a Corinthian spirit prevailed. There was no prize money –just the camaraderie, Champagne and garlands of glory to the winner, and that added-value cachet that entrepreneurs love.
“When you have big boats racing 40 metres apart, and the blood flows and the testosterone charges,” says Jonathan Kline, Captain of P2 (itals), the 125-foot Perini yacht, “you can’t put a monetary value on that. This is about emotional capital.”
However, with each season, a competitive streak has insensibly emerged. Owners have quietly polished their edges and upped their game. In the new ‘performance-orientated’ luxury yachts, considerations of winch power, anchor weight and water ballast vie with the soft furnishings, the marquetry and the color schemes. Likewise, the crews have become more race-fit, as owners have hired professional yachtsmen, grinders, tacticians and skippers.
At the 2015 Perino Navi Cup, eight professional sailors took part. Joey Kaempfer, owner of Rosehearty (the 184-foot Perini, which he bought off Rupert Murdoch, complete with Christian Liaigre interior), hired Olympic medalist Chris Draper and Paul Cayard, ex-CEO of professional racing team Artemis Racing, to help him lift the Perini Navi Cup.
“It gives Perini pleasure to design and build vessels with performance in mind,” says Burak Akgül, Managing Director Sales, Marketing and Design at Perini Navi. “But what counts most are the men and women who crew these boats.”
For a professional yachtsman, there’s good money in superyacht racing. An America’s Cup tactician can earn up to $50,000 for a week’s work.
“But the owner expects you to win,” says Pachner. “The pressure is on.” When adrenaline mixes with testosterone and ozone, emotions run high; 10,000 years of civilization can easily go overboard. No one has yet deemed ‘superyacht rage’ a medical condition, but it can only be a matter of time.
So what is driving superyacht racing? The sheer number of superyachts today causes congestion, which has spurred owners into becoming territorial and competitive.
Technology has also helped fan the flames. To sail a 164-foot yacht manually would ordinarily take 50 hands to control the sails and grind the winches.
“But Fabio Perini [founder/owner of Perini Navi] invented hydraulic winches that allow you to control one of these yachts with a small handful of crew,” says Pachner.
Perhaps another shift is in the mindset of owners. There comes a point when you get bored, even guilty, of owning a yacht, however beautiful it is and however many lives it enriches.
Racing it, and the sense of achievement that comes from competing and winning, offers some justification to the sheer ostentation of it all. Moreover, these regattas all bear certain seductive hallmarks, of course: beautiful surroundings, warm weather, yacht-hopping, networking, frivolous secondary competitions (best canapé, best cocktail) that make this a sporting pursuit for owners and their guests in more ways than one.
Of course, the reality is that superyacht racing is expensive.
“If you add up the logistics, it can cost an owner $260,000 simply to take part,” says Pachner. “But the feeling you get from cruising without engines more than compensates.”
Other sources reveal that one of the main hurdles regatta organizers have faced is convincing super-competitive, super-determined superyacht owners that winning is not the point, it’s the taking part that counts. And who knows whether they will ever conquer that challenge.