It was 35 years ago when two friends agreed to meet in Saint Tropez for a glass of wine and a race of their sail yachts. The course led from the harbour around the peninsula to the famous Pampelonne beach. The winner was the one to reach the legendary Club 55 first. The loser would buy the drinks and dinner. The two could hardly have realised that their friendly excursion would be the launch of one of the most famous races in the Mediterranean, perhaps even the world.
Initially under the name La Nioulargue, the name given to a sand bank close by, and later with a new name - Les Voiles de Saint Tropez - the race has since seen hundreds of yachts from hypermodern carbon ships to spruced-up sailing veterans with wood and flashing brass fittings compete in a range of groups against each other. It is this mixture of old and new that gives the event its special charm and many skippers return every year to participate in its exceptional racing atmosphere.
Looking out east on the Sunday afternoon from the pier, one will see a mass of white clouds looming in the distance as the classic and sailing vessels speed towards Saint Tropez. Fresh from the Régates Royales in Cannes, countless vessels meet again in the famous bay. Celebrated yachts such as the J-Class Shamrock V of Sir Thomas Lipton, Skylark of philanthropist Tara Getty or the Gucci sisters’ Avel are heading for the finish line in front of the marina’s entrance. It is a dramatic finale with some teams greeting each other with the strong thundering of cannon blows and on many an occasion, a boat shrinkage is accompanied by violin or bagpipes.
The very first evening begins with a welcome cocktail where musicians play to the sailors and the crowds. Besides the Capitainerie, a small village of white tents is erected, where all sorts of useful and beautiful objects from the racing and water sports world are presented, from binoculars through to photographs, watches, knives, books, nautical instruments and even boats themselves and luxury cars. At the bar, everyone comes together for a glass of wine or a beer and to revel in the sociable environment.
The daily regatta starts quite early and it is rewarding to rise with the teams and observe their preparations from around 9am. With a little luck, you’ll spot sailing legends such as ‘Mister America's Cup' Dennis Conner making packed lunches for himself and his crew on the quay!
When the boats leave the harbour at around 10am, like a long string of pearls, a moment of peace falls over the town and many take the opportunity to stroll through the streets of Saint Tropez, visiting its boutiques or enjoying a coffee and croissant at a quaint bistro. The racing can be viewed from countless outlooks: Port Grimaud and Sainte Maxime or out on the water itself.
The Thursday is traditionally a rest day, but there are many other highlights, such as the following of the first, historic course around to Pampelonne. Some years there is also the Centenary Cup, reserved for yachts over 100 years old.
On land, the big pétanque or boules tournament for crew takes place on the Place des Lices and in the evening there is highly anticipated crew parade, a carnival-like event with sailors, music and good vibes.
The Voiles de Saint Tropez, which begins on 24th September and ends 2nd October, is an event like no other. Whether you appreciate the brightly polished brass of an old classic or are enamoured by the carbon-fibre hills of the modern entities, it is impossible not to be awed by the impressive array and individual flair of the vessels taking part. Basking in warm autumn sun and enhanced by the beauty of Saint Tropez, Les Voiles creates a fever in its spectators that refuses to go away.