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Monday 5th September 2011

This is not a boating magazine, and I am not a sailor. Only a handful of times have I sailed on a ship powered by the wind, or tried to tie a nautical knot, or used the terms “port” and “starboard” correctly. Yet recently I was invited to crew on the world’s largest double-masted schooner at the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta. I told my hosts at Officine Panerai, sponsors of the event, that I was inexperienced, that I understood if Elena’s captain thought I’d just be in the way. My hosts assured me I was more than welcome. The experience of sailing on one of the world’s most magnificent sailboats was one that I, and I would wager each of my 50 fellow crewmembers, will not soon forget.

Neither the outcome of the race nor the safety of Elena and her passengers ever rested in my inexperienced hands. The real racing we left to professionals numbering only a couple dozen, under the leadership of Steve McLaren, who just three years ago oversaw the construction of Elena from beginning to end in Spain. The rest of us, with varying levels of sailing knowledge and usefulness, were invited to sit on Elena’s teak deck, apply ample sunblock, and occasionally rush from one side of the boat to the other, providing “dead weight” during a few sharp turns—tasks at which I dare say we excelled.
Many things grabbed hold of my attention that Sunday in late April—the natural beauty of Antigua, the painstaking details incorporated into the ship herself, and the effectiveness with which the working crew harnessed such a massive schooner (her hull measures some 55 meters long). I was also impressed with spirit of camaraderie that grows among men and women from completely different walks of life when they compete alongside each other in such a regatta.
In my day of sailing on Elena I counted more than ten nationalities among my shipmates, with careers ranging from New York tax attorney, to French beverage importer, to fashion photographer, to oil rig technician. All were united by a passion for sailing traditional wooden boats such as Elena. (Mike, the attorney from New York, told me that he saves up practically all of his vacation time for competitive sailing events such as the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta.)
Every year, hundreds of sailors like Mike flock to Antigua for two weeks of world-class sailing. For prestige, Antigua’s regattas have few rivals, excepting the much more famous America’s Cup, which tends to dominate the neophyte’s understanding of professional sailing. Each April, Antigua plays host to the Classic Yacht Regatta, in which vintage boats in a range of classes compete alongside “Spirit of Tradition” boats that pay homage to historical methods of shipbuilding (Elena is a prime example of such a ship). The next week, wooden hulls and bright white cloth sails give way to sleek fiberglass hulls, carbon fiber sails, and souped up space-age mast constructions that weigh a fraction of those seen the week earlier. The two weeks attract an eager cohort of sailing press and onlookers, as well as the occasional watch scribe.

In my day crewing and a few days spent dockside as a spectator, I noticed that nice watches and sailing tend to go together. Clearly this is something that Panerai CEO Angelo Bonati has understood for some time, as he has from the outset sought to emphasize the maritime history of his brand, as well as to create the perfect environment for Panerai by forging partnerships with the world of classic sailing. Bonati quickly points out that tradition, beauty, and the pursuit of excellence are apply not only to restoring and maintaining boats such as those found in the Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge, but also to the manufacture of high-end timepieces.
Bonati’s commitment is perhaps best exemplified by Panerai’s complete restoration of Eileen, a 72-foot Bermudian Ketch that will compete in the Circuit as Panerai’s own entry. (Built in 1936, Eilean had some celebrity pedigree even before Panerai bought her and fixed her up: she was the set for Duran Duran’s 1982 video “Rio.”) Once she is competing in races on a regular basis, Bonati expects that Eilean will be a fine ambassadress of the Panerai brand.
The Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge has grown from its inception, in 2005, into one of the largest and most prestigious series of classic yacht regattas in the world, comprising circuits in North America and the Mediterranean Sea, along with British Classic Week and the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta. (Late summer will see three Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge events in New England, and iW will be on-hand to cover them all.) While each regatta has its own character—they were established long before the circuit brought them together—they have in common a spirit of enthusiasm for preserving a very special type of sailing experience for future generations.
Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta
From April 14-19, the Antigua Yacht Club Marina became the homeport of the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta. One of the best attended classic yacht regattas in the world, this year’s event saw 68 vintage and classic boats of various sizes and classes docked at the picturesque Caribbean resort. Thanks to the club’s native Italian owner, Carlo Falconi, the resort has a distinctly Mediterranian vibe, with guest rooms perched in villas on a hill, reminding visitors of an Italian seaside resort town.
Marking the end of the classic sailing season in the Caribbean, the regatta comprises three days of racing various courses, with ships in a range of classes vying for the best corrected time. Because the event is a celebration of classic yachts spanning several decades, the ships are incredibly diverse, of different styles, weights, lengths and ages. Each of the entrants, therefore, is sorted into a handful of categories in order to ensure a level playing field.
These include Vintage (boats with hulls built before 1950), Classics (boats with hulls built from 1950 to 1975) and Spirit of Tradition (boats built after 1970 in a classic style of construction). After three days of racing, a champion is crowned in each category, and after a series of calculations correcting for weight and other factors, an overall champion emerges. Though Elena consistently posted excellent results, including first place in Spirit of Tradition Class A the day I sailed on her, 2011 was not her year. This year the champion was Lone Fox, a wooden ketch competing in the Classics category. Lone Fox’s captain, Ira Epstein, received a Panerai Radiomir Black Seal from the President of Panerai for the Caribbean and Latin American markets, Mr. Julio Sato.
With the end of the racing season in the Caribbean, many of the boats resumed their charter activities or returned to their homeports in the Caribbean, North and South America, or Europe. A few of the larger vessels set sail for the Mediterranean to race the summer season of the Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge. Some of the of the boats, among them Carlo Falcone’s Mariella, the will be on hand to race in the North American Circuit, which commences August 12th in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Written by Jonathan Bues as published on  Photo compliments of iW International Watch Magazine.

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