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Creole: On board the world’s largest wooden sailing yacht

Launched 90 years ago, Creole has quite some history. But under the loving stewardship of the Gucci family, this classic schooner still sails like a dream...

Allegra Gucci’s classic sailing yacht Creole has graced the cover of Boat International before — but you may not have realised. The classic image (March 2015, for devoted collectors of this magazine) features a 1955 photograph of Sophia Loren at her most alluring, bound in a shimmering bodice, with this vast schooner in the background. The boat puts up an impressive fight for the viewer’s attention.

The extraordinary yacht and the family’s other classic, 18.3 metre Avel, are under the loving stewardship of Allegra, younger daughter of the late Maurizio Gucci — and she is guarding her father’s legacy with skill. She may be the scion of a fashion dynasty, having grown up between residences in New York and St Moritz (where she still resides now with her husband and small child) but she is also a serious sailor with a law degree, who can usually be spotted working on deck during races — or getting her hands dusty at a shipyard when on land.

“It’s like a small industry. A boat like Creole, in composite with double teak, needs maintenance — every year we take her out of the water for it. Black paint is not the best paint for a wooden boat, but Creole was born like this and we like to keep her that way.” Gucci may wear a Rolex but it’s the sailor’s arm candy of choice — a Submariner.

On and off the water, she seems happier in action than in a ball gown. “When I met my husband 12 years ago he introduced me to the world of motorcycles and fast cars. We share our passions and I really enjoy driving supercars on circuits. At the same time, he loves sailing, regattas and classic yachts.” Her current favourite ride is the McLaren 570S, which she took for a spin at Goodwood. But sailing on Creole, as she puts it, “has always been my first passion”.

Maurizio Gucci, the last member of the family dynasty to run the fashion empire, shared the same enthusiasm for the water and bought Creole in 1983, two years after Allegra was born. “I think at the time it was a little bit crazy,” she says. “We’re talking about the beginning of the 1980s, when there was not the knowledge we have now about restoring classic boats. And obviously Creole is not a normal classic yacht, she is an enormous classic yacht.”

Indeed, this 65.3 metre behemoth is the largest wooden sailing yacht in the world. Creole was launched as Vira by Camper & Nicholsons in 1927 for US carpet manufacturer Alexander Smith Cochran, who messed about a little too much with the design post-splash. He thought the masts looked too tall and had them cut (too much), adding more ballast to compensate for the newly stumpy masts. The result was too much roll and poor performance.

Her next owner was British yachtsman Maurice Pope, who renamed her Creole after a dessert invented by his chef, and then she was bought by an English baronet. Now she could sail, but the timing was poor — she was requisitioned for wartime service as a mine-hunter. Afterwards a new buyer, Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, lavished more money than any previous owners on restoring her, but sold her in 1977 to the Danish navy, who stripped her out to use as a training vessel.

By the time Maurizio Gucci took possession, she was badly in need of another passionate and wealthy yachtsman to pamper her. “She was like a wreck really,” says his daughter. “The goal of my father was to give Creole a second life, to keep the boat as original as possible. There were no interiors, so those were the only things made new — and they were made to respect the soul of the boat, in harmony with its history.”

Major refit work was undertaken at Beconcini in Italy, Lürssen in Germany and ended in Astilleros de Mallorca, while the designer Toto Russo was drafted in to reflect the style and the elegance of the period in which Creole was built, and a wealth of artworks was added across the six guest cabins. The result was a big, stylish and glamorous boat that sails like a dream.

“I remember a day in Saint-Tropez when we had perfect conditions and Creole was sailing in around 17 knots of wind, the cap rail properly in the water. It was one of the most thrilling moments I have experienced in sailing.”

This is a boat that has been with Allegra throughout her life — she holidayed on board as a child with her older sister Alessandra. “Some of the best memories I have on Creole are the water fights that would suddenly break out on board. They would start as just a splash between me and my sister and by the end of it everyone would be soaking wet — owners, crew and officers. Quite often somebody ended up in the sea. It was great fun!

“Another great memory is crossing the Med, from Spain to France or to Greece. I remember the beauty of the dark sky, the silence of being in the middle of the sea in perfect conditions and enjoying the quiet and the magic of the night. I remember lying in the cockpit covered by towels to protect me from the humidity.”

But at 65 metres, this fantasyland of a yacht was never going to be a practical training boat for the aspiring sailor. “I started learning on little dinghies, when I was around 10 years old, like normal kids do,” she says. She sailed a Laser around the lake at St Moritz, brushing up at summer camps in England, Brittany and Mallorca. “I always loved the sea — it is something like my ecosystem: the water, the sun, the wind.”

When she was still small her father decided he needed something rather humbler than Creole to enjoy regattas on — “it was becoming dangerous racing on Creole, there were lots of little boats on the circuit” — and he came across Avel. “She was built in 1896 but in 1927 the owners could not keep her in the water, so they put her in the mud and built a house boat on top. The hull remained in a perfect state because of the humidity of the mud.”

A quick refit was undertaken by the specialist Harry Spencer and she was on her way. Of a more manageable size than Creole, this was the family boat that provided the young Gucci with practical experience — “My objective was to be on the foredeck. I started on jib sheet, then finally after years I conquered my position on the foredeck” — and also inspiration.

“I was fascinated that you could stay on a boat that was built as long ago as 1896 — it’s a little piece of history,” she says. “I just fell in love with this world. When you go sailing on a classic boat it is magic. The feeling, the sound of the boat on the water is something you cannot describe. With modern boats, yes, you can go very fast, and you have the adrenaline. But with a classic — it’s pure, it’s like poetry. When you have the boat that is perfectly balanced, with the sails and the wind, it’s something fantastic.”

It’s worth noting that Avel has no engine. She’d never had one and the family wanted to respect the original design as much as possible during the refit. It means that she must be towed to the start line in regattas, but it doesn’t seem to have held her back. From 1994 she started to rack up the awards on the Med circuit, notably the Grimaldi Trophy and most prestigiously, “in the season of 2011 and 2012 we won the Les Voiles des Saint-Tropez”, says Allegra.

“It’s not a racing boat — it’s a Camper & Nicholsons design, not as fast as a Fife design for example. But we gave Avel a chance to be fast because it’s always been the same core crew racing her for 20 years, so we know what she’s good at and, more importantly, what she’s not so good at.”

The success is also due to a bold decision that was made after her father’s death. “When Avel was being restored (with a new mast and boom) we couldn’t find the original sailing plans. After a while, thanks to friends, we found them — the mast we had created was too tall and the boom was too long.

“So we decided on the philosophy of my father that the boat ought to be as the architect drew her, so we cut the mast and the boom. Everybody was a little bit scared — maybe the boat would go slower if we reduced the sail area of the main? But actually she didn’t, because she was much more balanced and fast.”

Following her victory at Les Voiles, Allegra, who was pregnant and unable to sail, decided the boat should be given a rest from racing. “I was on board for all the races Avel has done because it was fun for me. I’m not going to give the crew the fun to race without me!” But she couldn’t resist a little competition — Creole started participating in a few regattas and in 2013 won the Monaco Classic Week.

Her parents may have spent the 1980s at cocktail parties with Jackie O and the Kennedy clan in New York, but it was her father’s seadog friends who left young Gucci star-struck. “In my childhood I was very lucky to have the chance to meet fantastic sailors and people who were involved in the yachting world, such as Harry Spencer and Mark Ratsey.

“They were like superheroes to me, with so much experience and so many stories to tell. Mark became a special friend and I have learned from him most of the things I know about sailing. He was the best tactician you could possibly want and a very special person. We have done many, many regattas together in the last 20 years.”

Today, with a child under the age of three, the time she spends aboard the boats is more limited. “Creole is a big boat, so having a child running up and down becomes a bit difficult. We go sailing — but maybe not with 28 knots of wind.” Leisurely cruising works better, with the Med’s cruising grounds at the top of the list. “It’s the perfect place for classic yachts. You have nice wind and in some places you don’t have too much swell that gives shocks to the boat.”

The Balearics have proved a family favourite and Gucci’s best-loved beaches are the white sands of Formentera. “I remember going there once, not to a specific place — and we said ‘let’s just follow the wind’. That was great — going sailing for two days with more wind, or less wind, and just enjoying time on the boat. It gives you the sense of freedom. I have the same enthusiasm that my father had for sailing and a true respect for our old ladies, Creole and Avel.”

Indeed, this year the family will celebrate Creole’s 90th birthday. It’s a mark of that respect that this Italian fashion dynasty has lavished as much substance as style on its two favourite models.

First published in the June 2016 edition of Boat International

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