Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup - An obsession with excellence
15 September 2015
Every September the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup takes place in the crystal clear waters of Porto Cervo, Sardinia. Since Rolex formed a partnership with the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda more than 30 years ago, this regatta has become established as one of the most spectacular and exciting regattas in the international yacht racing calendar.
Precision and excellence in all areas - design, technology and team work - are essential, as the best skippers and crews are matched with the most modern and powerful yachts of the moment. Attracting an impressive line-up of sailing power and prowess, this week of intense racing through the beautiful but challenging archipelago of La Maddalena is regarded as an inspirational annual rendezvous for innovators and early adopters of cutting-edge yachting technology.
The world's leading naval architects, sail designers and professional sailing talent gather for great competition and to share the thinking that shapes their community. The owners of these advanced racing machines return time and again to the idyllic charms of Porto Cervo, founded half a century ago by the Aga Khan, also instrumental in establishing the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda as one of the most prestigious yacht clubs in the world.
Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones is one of those owners who just can't help but return year after year. "The Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup is the one we all love because it's the most difficult," says the British owner of Magic Carpet Cubed, a 100ft WallyCento luxury racing yacht. "Racing through these beautiful islands, everything is always so different and unpredictable. It's never quite the same twice, no matter how much you practise.
"But it's also so beautiful. Formula One drivers claim that they are sensitive to how beautiful the circuits are. I think it's the same for us. Of course we're concentrated, yet, we catch the occasional glimpse of those beautiful hills. The surroundings are just magnificent. For sheer beauty, there's no other race course that comes close to this."
Sir Lindsay brings the same competitive spirit to high-performance yacht racing that has seen him race in long distance motor races such as the legendary 24-hour Le Mans, the iconic endurance race where Rolex has been the Official Timekeeper since 2001. Having beaten his rivals in the Wally Maxi fleet in 2014, it will rankle that fellow motor racing enthusiast Thomas Bscher has gained the upper hand in 2015 after America's Cup winning designer Rolf Vrolijk redesigned and extended his 100ft Wally, Open Season, by 7 feet. The reconfigured yacht has dominated the racing in Porto Cervo this year, showing that innovation is key to success at this level.
Bscher also employs the best of the best to race his elegant cruiser/racer to its maximum potential. Jochen Schümann makes the tactical decisions on the German boat, drawing on all the talent and experience that has brought him three Olympic gold medals and victory in the America's Cup. With some of the larger yachts weighing in excess of 50 tons, the loads on board are immense, and the intricate dance around the race course requires careful choreography by the most experienced and accomplished professional sailors. "Good professionals should anticipate situations before they happen," says the double Olympic medallist, Thierry Peponnet, tactician on the French 80-footer Tango G. "We never try to put the boat in difficult situations although some times you are forced to do so. We are fortunate that this is a gentleman's sport, and there is a good spirit between the owners."
Such is the case between the six owners of the almost-identical Maxi 72s who fought each other in the Rolex Maxi 72 World Championship, a championship within a championship at the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup. From its beginnings in the early 1980s, the regatta has seen a gradual evolution from large cruisers that go racing occasionally, to all-out carbon-fibre racing machines with absolutely no concession to comfort or luxury. Many of the yachts taking part in Porto Cervo provide accommodation of the highest order, but not the stripped-out, bare-bones Maxi 72s.
Owner of Robertissima III, Roberto Tomasini, comes to the Costa Smeralda for the heat of battle, nothing else. "All we have on board is the minimum for survival - no electrics, very few electronics, winches with coffee grinders," says the Italian owner. "It is nice to participate in regattas with fridges, TV, stereo, music and whatever. But the six owners that are here in the Maxi 72, we like the pure sailing. This is pure sport."
If the sleek 72-footers are impressive, the 100ft Comanche looks like she has just landed from another planet. Jim Clark and Kristy Hinze Clark's powerful yacht is a precision weapon designed to finish first in every race she enters. This American spaceship appears to defy the laws of physics, capable of travelling at almost twice the speed of the wind that powers her vast sails.
Veteran of round the world races and America's Cup campaigns, Ken Read, was an obvious choice to skipper such an advanced racing machine. "The priority for the boat is to hit every great offshore race on the calendar," says the American professional. "The Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup is a premier event. YCCS does an amazing job putting it together. When you're sailing in a venue with conditions like this, it's the dream sail. It's the right place to race these boats. I don't think any of us would like to be anywhere else this week."
Since her launch late last year, Comanche has set a 24-hour record during a very fast Transatlantic crossing, and she was first across the finish line of the legendary Rolex Fastnet Race. Leading the fleet around the race course at the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup was another obvious goal for the campaign. But the one blemish in her CV is finishing runner-up in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race last Christmas. The decade-old - but ever innovating - Wild Oats XI notched up her eighth ‘Hobart', but Read and his crew will return for revenge this December.
Hired as the local knowledge to help navigate Comanche safely through the rocky depths of the Sardinian archipelago, Lorenzo Bortolotti can't fail to be impressed by the ceaseless quest for excellence in every part of the Comanche campaign. "You can see that their focus is come back strong in the Rolex Sydney Hobart," says the Italian veteran. "They have unfinished business. They are doing a lot of research in new keel designs, in sail designs. Comanche is an incredible R&D project."
Racing alongside Comanche in Porto Cervo is Shirlaf, a 1976-vintage Swan 65 ketch that hails from another era. Yet Giuseppe Puttini's classic yacht shares the same DNA as Comanche. For her day, the Swan 65 represented the cutting edge of ocean-going technology, and it was this very design that won one of the very first round-the-world races.
Commodore of the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda Riccardo Bonadeo is proud to host such a broad spectrum of Maxi yachts in Porto Cervo. "Our venue and the conditions are perfect for such yachts. The nature of the regatta has changed very much over the past 35 years. It has moved from being more cruising oriented to being very performance focused today, a contest of precision skills and tactical excellence. But it is good that we still see older yachts like the Swan 65 taking part at the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup. These yachts are part of our heritage."
The partnership of more than 30 years between Rolex and the YCCS continues to grow stronger, most recently with the announcement of the inaugural Maxi Yacht Rolex Caribbean Cup, which will take place next April at the YCCS Virgin Gorda.
For the winners of this year's Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup, few would savour it more than Thomas Bscher. Open Season's runaway success in the Wally Class was particularly sweet for the German owner, the culmination of more than a decade's effort to be crowned victor at the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup. The Rolex Maxi 72 World Championship was always expected to be close fought, but who could have imagined that Bella Mente's margin of victory over runner-up Robertissima III would come down to just 19 seconds in the final race?
After the windiest day of the week, the tired but elated crews gathered at the Piazza Azzurra for the prizegiving. Victorious owners were each awarded the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup and a specially engraved Rolex timepiece; a symbol of success that marks out the winners as having accomplished something remarkable after a week doing battle on the beautiful but challenging waters of Sardinia.