From 31st May until 4th of June, Port Vauban will host the classic Les Voiles d'Antibes yacht race. The port changes completely; the motor boats leave and are replaced by beautiful racing yachts and the town buzzes with excitement as captains march around in uniform, hurriedly getting their paperwork ready. Later, after a hard day's sailing, the crew party into the night. If ever a film agent was looking to cast pirates, this would be the place to find them.
The prize to the winning captain is a Panerai watch and significant glory. These boats and captains have been competing against each other for years. The atmosphere is sporting, but the rivalry is tangible. This is not a 'firstpast- the-post' system: each boat is handicapped on the basis of how well it is restored and how close it is to the originally intended form. As a complete sailing outsider, last year I was fascinated by the beautiful boats and determined to learn more. Perhaps it was beginner's luck or good schooling by captain and artist Antony Parks, but I somehow managed to learn the difference between the boats to spot a Fife and on an even luckier hunch, guess the winner - Moonbeam 4.
While strolling in the port earlier this year, I discovered sail yacht Eva carefully wrapped up like a race horse in her winter blanket. The outline of this perfect Fife racing yacht was immediately recognisable. When I learnt she had a female captain, Charlotte Franquet, I simply had to know more and Charlotte very kindly spent some of her precious time giving me her insight into the yachting world.
As I sit on deck and chat with Charlotte, it soon becomes clear that one of the major differences between this boat and a modern yacht is the lack of mechanical assistance. The brass fittings look spectacular and in her day, Eva was cutting-edge. This said, vintage does not make for fast or light technology. Raising and lowering the Dacron sails is hard work. The noise is deafening - you can only imagine the sound when the boat is under race conditions. As Charlotte points out: “If the Eva were a modern boat, I could sail her alone.
I simply can't do that; it takes at least two of us to get her out and a crew of 10 to race.” She talks about the boat as if it were a living entity: “She could not be in a dry dock; it would not be good for her. Wooden boats are almost like living things. They need water to expand their timbers and stop them from cracking.” The Caribbean is no good for her either… The water is so warm it warps the wood.
The more time I spend with Charlotte, the more I realise that .
“You have to feel the balance of the boat and its angles to the water,” she explains. “You sense the wind in your hair, tacking upwind, feeling the turns… Getting the sail changes right is vital to capture the wind and the significant seconds, which all add up to a win later."
Sailing, it would seem, is both an art and a science. Instinct, timing, judgement are all essential, as is having a crew that works well together. As Charlotte puts it, the crew is the other side of the machine.
I believe her when she says, “I can feel it in my body, how the boat is sailing.” Experience goes a long way. Charlotte has been a captain for 18 years and she discovered her love of the sea during her childhood summers with her grandparents, spent on their fishing boat in Brittany. She knew from the age of 17 that she wanted to be a sailor.
We discuss her being the only woman in her class: “I get interviewed a lot more! But really it has mostly been very positive for me; I was promoted long before my male colleagues in the Caribbean. Owners like to seem progressiveness. The only downside is getting respect on the mechanical side of things. The yard is male-dominated. Sometimes they find it hard to accept that I know what I am talking about.”
Recently Charlotte worked on a modern boat, a VOR 70 called the SFS with Captain Lionel Pean, the only French skipper to have won the Whitbread. “Knowing your own boat and the courses is great, but it’s good to step out of your comfort zone if you want to learn something new,” she tells me. “It was a whole different game - I learnt so much - it was like going from classic racing to Formula 1.”
I can’t help wondering what tricks she has up her sleeve this season and on that subject, I notice that her wrist is not yet weighed down by a chunky Panerai watch. All I can say is I hope that they have them in a women’s size this year as under a very cool exterior, I sense steely determination. This year, my money is on Eva.