“Cinqo, quandro, tre, duo, uno…”
And with all the fiery enthusiasm of a football match commentator and the thunderous bellow of a start horn, so began the third leg of the Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge (PCYC) into its landmark 10th anniversary this year. Held in sun-blessed Argentario, an isle south of Rome, off the coast of Tuscany, the entire race attracted some 80 boats, but for this Argentario leg — the next four in Naples, Minorca, Imperiale and finally in Cannes — only 50 are competing and in five categories. These are the Classic, Vintage, Big Boats, Spirit of Tradition, the Metre Classes and the One Designs (see sidebar).
We are observing the races while perched on the Bermudan ketch Eilean, the figurehead vessel of luxury watchmaker Officine Panerai, which has sponsored the PCYC since 2004.
This event, called the PCYC Argentario Sailing Week, will see sailboats battling it out over three races in three days, triangulating the stretch of Mediterranean waters between Golfo di Talamone and the Giannella beaches.
Around us, cloistered in the regal confines of our very own spectator vessel, the evidence of the ferocity and muscularity of the winds was in the majestic spinnakers that puffed up like pigeons’ chests: Taut, buffeted and proud, all thronging the seas.
And the pride is justifiable: The combined value of all the boats in the running this year is valued at over €50 million, we were told.
Gliding past is Cambria, the defending champion in the Big Boats category. Incidentally, it is also built by the same naval architect as the Eilean.
Our classic yacht guide Paolo pointed out Draumen, a gaff-cutter with brick red sails looming in the distance. “That’s Giovanni at the helm,” he says, referring to its captain. “He was a former Boeing pilot.”
Many more boats passed us: Mariquita, owned by the Royal Yacht Squadron, once labelled by Forbes as “among the snootiest clubs on earth”; the gaff-ketch Javelin, built in 1897, is the oldest classic boat competing this year.
And soon, we were cast in the shadow of a juggernaut of a vessel: The nine-sail gaff schooner Eleonora. Built originally for Thomas Lipton, it is the biggest in the circuit this year, standing at 41.6m.
Unmissable at a distance is the Capricia, with its standout brick red sails. A Marconi yawl boat, it used to belong to Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli, who has since donated it to the Italian Navy as a training vessel for Naval Academy cadets. This accounts for the majestic gold-red-and-blue crest proudly painted on its spinnaker.
Vim is another boat with a striking spinnaker emblazoned with a huge red three-pronged star. Commissioned by William V of Scotland, it still spots the same aluminium mast of 1959 — extremely rare for a vessel as classic as it is, to still use the same surviving mast after so many years.
“The more you keep the originals on a boat, the more points you can score,” Paolo explains. Conversely, if racers use modern materials, such as carbon fibre, they incur a higher penalty in their scores. The PCYC is won on a weighted scoring system, where a huge part of the calculations are based on the type and make of the boat you compete with. “So it doesn’t mean that the first to cross the finishing line will win first placing,” he says.
“It’s not so easy to understand this regatta.”
As you would already have noticed by now, many of the classic boats racing at the PCYC have a past — often a once-glorious history then abandoned on some European beach, only to be restored by pedigreed owners and in some cases, likely to go on to earn stripes in top regattas.
After each race, they will have new owners, new restorations and a new lease of life.
The Eilean herself is the same.
Once upon a time, it was languishing derelict on an Antiguan beach when it caught the attention of Panerai Chief Executive Angelo Bonati. Four years, 60,000 man hours and about €3 million later, the Eilean was resurrected.
The acquisition of the vessel is a strategic one, as it has historical resonance with the Panerai maritime heritage. Built by the renowned Scottish shipbuilder William Fife III, it was made in 1936, the same year Panerai launched its very first precision diving watch, the Radomir, for what was formerly Italy’s Royal Navy.
Says Bonati to the Financial Times earlier this March: “Our relationship with yachting encapsulates so many of the positive values and hallmarks that we want associated with.”
“It’s an exciting form of active storytelling that moulds our past, present and future,” says the man who has been sailing since his early 30s.
At its tallest, Eilean stands at 28m, thanks to its main mast, made of Alaskan spruce so highly polished it gleams in the Tuscan sun.
With a heavy construction and hence a more comfortable constitution, the Eilean was designed more as a cruiser, rather than a racer. In tandem, it will be competing in only three regattas this season, including the finals at Cannes this month. It will be spending the rest of its time on water for public relations activities for the watchmaker.
Its pop-cultural claim to fame was that it was used for the filming of one of Duran Duran’s music videos Rio, with a lot of retro 1980s-styling. “There were a lot of blue and red costumes,” says Eilean’s captain Andrew Cully, a seasoned blonde sailor with matinee idol good looks. The band’s frontman Simon Le Bon, he says, will be visiting the following week. “I’ll be reminding him of that again,” laughs Cully, who has captained the ketch since its restoration in 2009.
At the end of the three-day circuit, Mariquita won in the Big Boats category, while Chinook took home the Vintage prize. Marconi cutter Bufeo Blanco won the Classic section and Wianno bagged the Spirit of Tradition trophy.
All winning boats won Panerai watches as prizes, which is apt and symbolic. After all, just as the sails have lassoed an invisible wind and made it flesh, Panerai as a watchmaker has captured a concept as intangible as time and made it conceivable in its watches.
In a sense, the PCYC reminds us of the simple love of sailing, where not too long ago, all that was were just the wind, wave, water and wings (sails), first fabricated from mere flaps of cloths. Such passions existed long before the age of the superyachts and all the sleek leviathans that fame shipbuilders the likes of Perini Navi, Feadship and CRN can now conjure up. And as the PCYC shows, that fire has yet to abate.
FOUR THE WIN
Besides the Metre Classes and the One Design categories, the most glamourous categories at the Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge are as follows:
Yachts must be built in wood or metal before December 31, 1949. Argentario Winner: Chinook (1916)
Yachts must be built in wood and metal before December 31, 1975. Argentario Winner: Bufeo Blanco (1963)
Yachts must have huge sail plans and overall lengths (LOA) of over 30m, a throwback to the golden age of sailing.
Argentario Winner: Mariquita (LOA: 31.22-m)
SPIRIT OF TRADITION
Yachts must be new boats using modern materials and technologies, but have designs inspired by ships of the past.
Argentario Winner: Wianno (2011)