After a year’s hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 43 of the world’s largest and most advanced racing boats have gathered in the jewel of northeast Sardinia that is Porto Cervo, for tomorrow’s start of the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup.
First staged in 1980, the world’s premier event for 60+ft monohulls is run by the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda in conjunction with the International Maxi Association, the body officially tasked by the sport’s governing body, World Sailing, to oversee and develop maxi yacht racing internationally. The event has been supported by Rolex since 1985.
Returning are many past winners. The Super Maxi class for boats longer than 100ft (30.51m) has been dominated in recent years by the magnificent J Class. In 2019 Ronald de Waal’s Velsheda prevailed while the previous year it was the turn of Topaz, the 1935 vintage Frank Paine design, launched in 2015. Both boats return this year, their owners and all-star crews keen to continue their heavyweight match racing.
Unprecedented is scale of competition at the top end of the Maxi Class for yachts of 24.09-30.5m (80-100ft). This comprises six 100 footers plus Becool, the first of Nautor’s new Swan 98s. But stars of the show among the Maxis will be highest rated boats under IRC – the VPLP-Verdier designed Comanche, raced here previously under original owners Jim and Kristy Hinze Clarke, will face the highly seasoned crew of America’s Cup veterans led by Brad Butterworth on George David’s Rambler 88.
For Comanche, this will be her first event under her new Russian owner, for whom, remarkably, this is his first boat. The crew is led by Australian Olympic Tornado medallist Mitch Booth, who explains: “We have spent a month in Antibes. It’s been fun sailing and giving the owner an introduction to his new boat. This will be the first time we have sailed with the full race team. We have some new guys, all top level sailors. It is all going really well.” The Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup will be a prelude to a winter spent racing offshore; the preferred environment for the 8m wide, canting keel monster.
Given the relatively light forecast this week, the smart Maxi class money is on the Trieste-based Arca SGR, campaigned by Furio Benussi and Guido Miani, which this year has already claimed line honours in the Rolex Giraglia and Palermo-Montecarlo. Despite having once won Rolex Sydney Hobart line honours as Skandia, her present owners have optimised her for the light wind regattas typical of the northern Adriatic.
The Wallycentos, Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones' Magic Carpet Cubed and David M. Leuschen's Galateia, will also enjoy a welcome return to competition. Both are previous Wally class winners here, the former claiming the title in 2014, the latter in 2017, however this year they have been incorporated into the Maxi fleet. Magic Carpet Cubed is the more race fit having been second home behind Arca SGR in the Rolex Giraglia, while it is the first event for Galateia in two years. For Kiwi six time America’s Cup winner Murray Jones, this personally will only be his third sailing event in that time, but he is looking forward to returning to Galateia: “We have a few different guys, but a good crew. It will be fun.”
One Maxi that has enjoyed past success at this event is the Farr 100 Leopard, winner of the Maxi Racing division in 2016 under original owner Mike Slade. She is being campaigned now by Dutch internet entrepreneur Joost Schuijff, but with many of her original crew including skipper Chris Sherlock and round the world veteran Paul Standbridge. However in the Maxi fleet none have achieved as much success as Irvine Laidlaw’s Highland Fling XI. This Reichel Pugh 82 is not only the defending Maxi class champion, but also claimed the title in 2017, 2014 and 2011.
Likely to be leading the charge in Mini Maxi 1 is Hap Fauth’s Botin 72 Bella Mente, the newest of the ‘former Maxi 72s’ fitted with a deeper fin and a new bulb since her last visit in 2019. However sistership, Dario Ferrari’s Cannonball was the popular winner here two years ago. She is back, with many of her pro-laden, largely Italian crew including Vasco Vascotto and Michele Ivaldi.
“I am very happy to be here,” said Ferrari. “We have done a couple of little practice races here and it has been very, very close between three boats. The Americans are very strong: Bella Mente, and even Proteus and Vesper have done very well. But they have been sailing all the time, whereas we have been stopped for exactly two years now. It will be a tough competition and we will not be in a position to really compete in the right way, but we will enjoy it. What is important is to be here and to start again and that is a good feeling. Finally we are breathing air and we are on the sea. So if we don’t win it is the same and this is the first time I say that, because normally if I don’t win…”
Many past winners are to be found across the Mini Maxi classes. Notably Riccardo de Michele's Vallicelli 80 H20 is a serial winner here having claimed Mini Maxi Racer Cruiser Division 2 for the last three editions. She is now racing in Mini Maxi 3 where she will face Terry Hui’s formidable Wally 77 Lyra, winner of the Wally class for the last two editions with a talented crew led by Kiwi former Olympic Star and America’s Cup sailor Hamish Pepper.
In Mini Maxi 2, IMA President Benoît de Froidmont’s Wally 60 Wallyño will be trying to repeat her success of 2016 when she won the Mini Maxi Racer-Cruiser division. However Wallyño will face stiff competition from the Swan 601s Gerard Logel’s @robas and Jean-Pierre Barjon’s Lorina 1895 as well as Alessandro Del Bono, racing with a seasoned crew aboard his longer ILC maxi, the Reichel-Pugh 78 Capricorno. De Froidmont is particularly keen to do well here as it will help position him to defend his title in the International Maxi Association’s Mediterranean Maxi Inshore Challenge 2021. This will be the third event of five in this year’s Challenge, which will continue with Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez and conclude in late October with Palmavela.
There is also much new hardware racing this week with all eyes on the very latest grand prix racer, Deep Blue, the Botin 85 of Wendy Schmidt competing in the Maxi 1 class. According to Deep Blue’s tactician and project manager Rob Macmillan, co-founder and President of Schmidt's non-profit organisation, 11th Hour Racing, to race off the Costa Smeralda is why Deep Blue exists. “We love sailing here. It is our favourite place to sail, arguably in the world.” The boat is essentially an enlarged Maxi 72, based on Botin Partners’ work on their successful Bella Mente and Cannonball.
It is also perhaps the most finely race-tuned yacht that never raced, having been launched in February 2020 at the start of the pandemic. “This is our first regatta, our coming out party,” says Schmidt, who previously was best known in sailing for campaigning her Swan 80 Selene. “I am really excited to see what this boat will do against other boats.
“This is a fantastic event. It is so well organised and well designed, it is the most perfect race course you could have in the world for this type of racing - the pinnacle of competition. It is super exciting.”
In addition to the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda’s experienced race management team, American Peter Craig is the Principal Race Officer. Of this event compared to previous years, he says: “The courses will be a little different. With COVID and the ability to have smaller crews, the organisers months ago decided to place an emphasis on coastal races. So all of the classes will be sailing coastal races except for Mini Maxi 1 where there will be one day of windward-leewards.”
Craig is pleased with the turnout: “Talking to folks, a couple of months back and they would have been happy with 20-25 boats based on what is going on in the world. To have more than 40 racing is just terrific.”
Tomorrow the first warning signal will be at midday local time with the forecast currently showing 7-10 knots of wind. Racing runs until Saturday with a layday on Thursday.
Photo: ROLEX / Studio Borlenghi