Les Voiles de Saint Barth Richard Mille is more than just a sailing regatta, discovers Edwin Smith
Unless you’re travelling by yacht, or can bear the ordeal of a bumpy two-hour motorboat ride, practically the only way a visitor to the Caribbean can reach St Barth is via the island’s Gustaf III Airport. This is easier said than done.
Having made your way to St Martin or another island that serves as a regional hub, you must board an aircraft that is sufficiently small and manoeuvrable to handle the task. On the approach your landing gear will very nearly skim one of St Barth’s busiest road junctions on the crest of a hill as the pilot dives down towards the short, sloping runway.
It’s such a tricky undertaking that pilots require specific training and a special licence to take it on. Even so, there are apparently two accidents in the average month. A local tells me that revellers at Nikki Beach, just east of the airport, are sometimes distracted as a plane ploughs off the end of the runway and on to the sand. No wonder it was ranked the third most dangerous airport in the world by a History Channel documentary.
Still, there’s nothing like a brush with death to get you in the mood for a good time. Perhaps this contributes to the atmosphere on St Barth, which has attracted the rich and famous since 1957, when a branch of the Rockefeller family bought an estate and built a hilltop mansion overlooking a pristine bay.
Since then, anyone who’s anyone has been: Greta Garbo was fond of Eden Rock, where, these days, a 10-day stay in a villa can set you back $500,000. Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow were photographed in the altogether on their balcony by paparazzi when they stayed at Le Toiny hotel. St Barth is also a particularly good place for a regatta. There is consistent wind, explains legendary sailor Tom Burnham, speaking in an open, airy room at Fouquet’s, a bar where the balconies offer extraordinary views of the port of Gustavia below.
And yet, despite all that wind, the air and water are warm. What’s more, the island is of a size (less than 10 square miles) that means it can be raced around. No need for the artificial experience of charging back and forth between buoys, a feature of much of professional sailing. ‘And,’ this permatanned Captain America adds, ‘once you get onshore it’s not bad either.’
Alive to this winning combination has been Richard Mille. The Swiss watch brand has partnered with the island’s premier regatta – now officially called Les Voiles de Saint Barth Richard Mille – for each of its 11 editions. The event, which takes place across seven days in April, has grown significantly since its first year, when just a handful of boats took part. This year there are around 60, racing across 10 different classes. At this elevated level, sailing is a curious game.
Generally speaking the crew are all professional – apart from the man (and it is usually a man) at the helm. Most often he is the owner of the boat, who supports the team financially, with some help from sponsors. This year Les Voiles has attracted one of the best-known boats in the ‘maxi’ class, the 72ft Bella Mente, which is often helmed by its owner, Florida-based entrepreneur John ‘Hap’ Fauth.
Another of the top crews here is aboard the 52ft Jolt 3, the boat owned by Richard Mille’s CEO for EMEA, Peter Harrison. Harrison has been with Richard Mille since the very beginning, working alongside the man who designs the watches and gives the brand its name.
At just 21 years of age, the company is more than a century younger than many of its competitors. It also sells relatively few watches – just 5,100 a year, while Rolex produces 810,000. In the blink of an eye, though, it has become the seventh biggest luxury watchmaker by revenue, raking in CHF 1.1 billion in 2021.
This success is partly down to its eye-catching (and eye-poppingly expensive) timepieces, known for their barrel-shaped ‘tonneau’ cases that are engineered so the mechanism is ‘open’ and visible. The Richard Mille tagline, ‘a racing machine on the wrist’, alludes to the inspiration taken first from cars and now for anything that can be raced – boats included.
Harrison tells me that the arrival of the brand – developing highly engineered watches with advanced, modern, often lightweight materials – represented a change of pace for the industry. ‘It used to be the case that a watch being or looking heavy meant that it was expensive,’ he says. ‘But our audience – people with a passion for racing – understand that reducing weight can be a good thing.’
As well as being one of the leading sailing regattas in the world, in 2022 Les Voiles is also the stage for the launch of a timepiece – a limited edition of the RM-032 dive watch developed in partnership with free-diving world champion Arnaud Jerald. The brand’s commitment to developing watches in consultation with its ambassadors was a major factor in Jerald’s decision to write to Amanda Mille, Richard’s daughter and a key figure at the company, to propose working together.
When we speak on the balcony at Fouquet’s, Jerald, 26, tells me it is his goal to build a team around him that is ‘like a family’. That means working with partners who inspire confidence, and who don’t make him ‘feel any pressure on my shoulders to do something crazy’ when he is competing, diving more than 100m below the surface of the ocean.
Perhaps it is this combination – of dedication to the technical craft of watchmaking, but also its creation of a community of likeminded, performance-driven people – that gives Richard Mille its identity. It certainly means its support of Les Voiles makes perfect sense. If this year is anything to go by, the regatta will keep bringing such people back to St Barth for many years to come. As long as they can stomach that landing, of course.
Main image: Courtesy Les Voiles de Saint Barth Richard Mille
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