After a two year hiatus, the 11th edition of Les Voiles de St Barth Richard Mille returned to the Caribbean island last week with the 22 metre Judel Vrolijk 72 sailing yacht Vesper winning the Maxi division.
Skippered by American Jim Swartz, five-time winner of Les Voiles de St Barth Richard Mille, Vesper claimed the Richard Mille Maxi Cup Trophy after winning all of her races with the exception of one, which was won by 26 metre first-timer Deep Blue finishing just 12 seconds ahead of Vesper under IRC corrected time.
“It’s been a joy to be back racing and this is one of my favourite events,” said Swartz, who named the winning Maxi after James Bond’s true love, Vesper. “It was awesome – classic big wind St Barths; what you come here for," he added.
The yacht fought off competition from Hap Fauth’s Botin 84 Bella Mente and her all-star crew who took second in the Maxi class, as well as the Botin 85 Deep Blue and former regatta winner Rambler 88, which both tied for third place.
High winds and an Atlantic swell made the start of the week challenging with breezes from the east blowing in excess of 20 knots, but conditions in St Barths became gradually lighter during the week dropping into the mid-to-high teens.
Vesper tactician Gavin Brady said it was a close competition between the six-strong Maxi fleet. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many lead changes in Maxi racing. They have happened every day, which you don’t see elsewhere. Maybe it’s the waves: They create huge opportunities: Two good waves can gain you 100 metres.”
Bella Mente’s co-helmsman and crew boss, two time Volvo Ocean Race winner Mike Sanderson, agreed: “It is amazing - it almost feels like since the class has opened up, the racing has got closer.”
The first day of racing saw the Maxi class work its way around a 28-mile course with an easterly breeze sitting firmly in the low 20s and waves rolling in from the Atlantic. “We had a nice match with Bella Mente on the first beat - classic boat racing, which was really fun. Then we rounded the mark and under spinnaker downwind we were doing fine - they got ahead of us, but we were right with them,” said Swartz.
An unfortunate spinnaker drop followed for the team on board, but not all was lost as Bella Mente suffered a halyard issue. The other Maxis, competing in the CSA 3 class, raced a shorter 24-mile course positioned closer to the shore. Jim Madden’s Swan 601 Stark Raving Mad VII prevailed among the lower-rated maxis.
On day two, conditions remained largely the same with winds in excess of 20 knots. Vesper finished close enough to her Bella Mente to win under IRC corrected time. Meanwhile in the CSA 3 class Stark Raving Mad VII prevailed again, with Luigi Sala’s Vismara 62 Yoru second.
Despite the tough conditions, in both classes a match race for the lead took place. On the start line, Bella Mente was looking for maximum engagement, circling its competitors which made for entertaining spectating from Gustavia. This course took was set mostly on the leeward side of St Barths, but with a shorter loop up into the nature reserve northwest of the island and a longer beat at the top where the boats experienced the full brunt of the Atlantic swell.
The third day saw a 47-mile long course starting on the windward side of St Barths, with a long broad reach across to the island of Tintamarre off the coast of St Martin, before doubling back in the direction of Gustavia. Both Vesper and Bella Mente were tacking on one another with tacticians working overtime to get the upper hand – the battle between the two is unsurprising given the collective experience of the crew, many of them former America's Cup winners.
The penultimate day welcomed more stable conditions with winds dropping to 10 knots. For the first time at this event, Wendy Schmidt’s Deep Blue came first place in the Maxi division and put an end to Vesper's winning streak.Read More/So you want to race? All you need to know to get into the game
On the final day, Bella Mente led the first half of the race before Vesper pulled out in front at the top mark. Bella Mente's tactician Terry Hutchinson said: "We didn’t make a lot of mistakes. But eventually they ran us over with speed and that is a hard thing to beat.”
Vesper ended the week on six points to Bella Mente’s 12, giving her maximum points for the third event in the Caribbean Maxi Challenge. Speaking on the week's racing, Anthony Kotoun, tactician for CSA3 class winner Stark Raving Mad VII, said: “Your lead is never safe and if you are behind you are never out of it. It is everything you ever hoped for in a sail boat race.”
The regatta marked the third and penultimate race in the International Maxi Association’s inaugural Caribbean Maxi Challenge, consisting of the RORC Caribbean 600, St Maarten Heineken Regatta, Les Voiles de St Barth Richard Mille, and Antigua Sailing Week.