Founded in 2010 by François Tolède and Luc Poupon, the Richard Mille-sponsored Les Voiles de St Barth is now established as one of most important regattas in the world.
Earlier this year, the eighth edition of the event was held with close to 70 boats from 20 different countries on the starting line. Among those taking part were Peter Harrison – CEO of Richard Mille Europe, Middle East and Africa – and crew, aboard his TP52 yacht Sorcha.
Revolution was there to cheer him on and to talk about the thrill of the race.
Richard Mille has sponsored Les Voiles de St Barth for eight years. What’s the benefit of being involved with the event?
Well there’s definitely a glamour factor – an event like this attracts the sort of people who are going to buy luxury watches. The association with sailing per se is quite glamorous as it’s still a sport where you have amateurs competing at the highest level. I don’t think it’s particularly sailors that are buying the watches – as a rule most of them wouldn’t think anything of spending a fortune on a piece of equipment for their boat but they would happily walk around with a nondescript plastic watch. But then the people who come to St Barth don’t necessarily come for the sailing, they come for the food, the beaches, the lifestyle. It’s really a unique part of the Caribbean.
François Tolède and Luc Poupon created the regatta eight years ago and today the event is host to some of the world’s most beautiful boats and great sailors – the best ones. Richard Mille has been involved from the beginning, giving financial help at the start to entice the top boats. Back then, there were 20 boats competing and today there are 67. François and Luc don’t want to grow to more than 80 boats and 1,500 sailors as these are the comfortable limits for the island’s infrastructure.
The objective in St Barth is quality over quantity. The regatta runs for a full week and this was deliberate from the outset. In St Barth, it is not just about the sailing, it is very much a lifestyle event. The sailors bring their families and spend time here and the benefits of this are passed on throughout the island. At just eight years old, Les Voiles de St Barth is considered among the top five regattas in the world.
What sort of sailing do you do?
What we normally do is a set of races called the TP52 Super Series, which is probably the most competitive keel boat racing in the world. TP stands for Trans Pac and refers to a boat developed for the Trans Pacific race from San Francisco to Hawaii, 52 refers to the length of the boat in feet. We have six events this year – Key West, Miami, Scarlino, Sardinia, Majorca and Minorca – I can’t race in all of them this year, but we will do four of the six. Les Voiles de St Barth is outside of the Super Series but I will always race in it because Richard has asked me to be here to fly the flag and strengthen the connections between the event and our brand. As well as Sorcha, we have another, more classic boat for Les Voiles de St Tropez.
We have a good mix of crew ranging from ex-Olympic medal winners and America’s Cup sailors to amateur helms like me. I don’t think there’s another sport at this level where you can say: ‘Today I beat a guy who won gold in the last Olympics.’ That’s not to say that you don’t need to have a certain level of fitness. A few years ago, an off-the-cuff comment from my navigator Campbell Field spurred me on to get in to shape and I went on to lose 30 kilos. Although the Super Series is great fun, it is also incredibly physical and I knew that if I wanted to be good, I had to get fitter. We also do some offshore sailing like the Fastnet, and to sail non-stop for three days on little more than three-hours sleep, is really hard work.
Is there any crossover between sailing and watch technology?
The technology in a pure race boat like Sorcha draws on know-how from the aerospace industry and Formula 1 – a bit like Richard Mille. As you know, we make watches using TPT (previously known as NTPT, standing for North Thin Ply Technology). We use it for watch cases but it comes from the highest form of carbon sail development, using a nano-structure with a honeycomb centre like the shell of F1 cars. It has an extraordinarily light and strong structure. As with our watches, everything on Sorcha needs to be as light as possible, for example the ropes holding the mast are little more than 1cm thick and can withstand almost seven tons of pressure – that means that they could potentially lift four Rolls-Royces.
There are lots of timepiece manufacturers involved with different types of sailing. Why is the sport so appealing to watch brands?
I think it goes back to the last century and the evolution of watch customers. Back in the glory days of the 1940s to 1960s, high-end watch buyers would get into a sport and would challenge their watchmakers to create a watch to suit the activity they were doing. I think this connection is why watch companies have continued to develop the relationship.
I have often wondered, does the countdown function of a regatta watch have any practical use?
Again, going back to the early years when sailing was more of an amateur sport with amateur sailors and crew, it was a clever complication with a real benefit. Today the stakes are higher and consequently there is a lot more modern, high-tech equipment to help you get to the start line exactly on time.
I do look at my watch occasionally, but I don’t have time to do the necessary calculations. Instead I have a man shouting at me: “Four minutes! Three minutes! Two minutes!”
We have a countdown from five minutes before the start with a callout every 15 seconds and then for the last minute it is every ten seconds with the last ten seconds being called individually. There is one guy shouting the time down and there’s another shouting seconds-to-burn to the line – meaning to come off the wind and slow down. We know from pre-race measures how long it will take at a certain speed to cross the line but obviously other boats and conditions at the time change that.
Also, different race committees have different start times, for example St Tropez has a seven-minute warning, but here in St Barth and in Cowes it is five minutes. So, it’s all but impossible to create an all-round regatta watch. Our RM 60-01 is more of a navigator’s watch than a regatta timer.
You have long been a keen sailor. How did you persuade Richard to get involved in Les Voiles de St Barth?
Richard and I were friends long before he founded the brand and we had always discussed designs for various sports watches, including one for sailing. He rang me one day and said he’d been asked to sponsor a new event – Les Voiles de St Barth – and he wanted my opinion as someone interested in sailing. Richard has always been very good at recognising the value in something from the beginning, seeing the potential and encouraging this, and as a result people are loyal to him. Luc and François have given everything to develop this regatta – they started from scratch and have achieved their goal of establishing one of the best regattas in the world today.
And this loyalty is a two-way thing?
Absolutely. For keel boat regatta racing there isn’t a better regatta in the Caribbean so of course they have had offers from other brands but they have trust in Richard Mille and have built a relationship that goes beyond money. In fact, many of our high-profile ambassadors are courted by other brands but they would rather stay with Richard who supported them when they maybe weren’t in such good shape.
There are different types of opportunism, and the opportunism we take with sponsorship and our ambassadors is a family business approach. The really great brands like Rolex have, over the years, aimed to foster loyalty and in return, that loyalty is reciprocated. If you can keep that family vibe then the consumer sees the genuine affection that exists and feels confident buying in to it.
So, the partnership will go on?
Absolutely. Richard spoke to François and Luc yesterday and he confirmed that the sponsorship will continue into the future. His actual words were: “It will be a long story”.