by Thomas Hill
It started with a text message: “Hi. Can you be free next week to do the Monaco Classic Week Regatta with Griff Rhys Jones?” I thought about it for a minute, maybe less, and replied that the Monaco Classic Week Regatta sounded very nice and I’m sure whatever important activities I had the following week could probably wait. Now I started to worry whether I was good enough. Surely guys who race classic boats are semi-professional? Will I cut the mustard?!?
We were flying from London so Holly, the text sender, and I drove down the night before. We got the train from Liverpool Street and Griff and his assistant by chance got on the same train. I must admit I felt a little star struck. One of the first things Griff asked me was whether I would be able to take the job of tactician as the usual guy couldn’t make it. I began to sweat.
At the airport people do look at you funny when you’re with a celeb. They also talk to you like they know you. People kept asking where his dog was. I started to wish I’d watched Three Men in a Boat.
On arrival in Nice we caught a coach to Monaco. The drive was beautiful with some of the road skirting the Med with sheer cliffs dropping down to the sea. On arrival in Monaco we made straight for the harbour. Gin palaces everywhere and of course loads of classic yachts. All this made for a quite amazing sight. We wandered down the pontoon to Griff’s yacht, Undina. She has an immaculately painted blue hull and varnished deck and weighs a hefty 15 tonnes. At 45 foot she is bigger than I’m used to but looked to be around the smallest in the row we were in and we seemed to be dwarfed by some of the others dotted round the harbour.
By now the crew numbered 9. We had met Ziggy at the airport and he seemed more than happy to take over the job of tactician, a lucky escape maybe? All bunks on Undina had already been taken so sadly I was moved up into town to spend the next few days in an apartment. Holly, Paul (Griff’s assistant) and I had to share one, with Griff and Ziggy in another next door. The apartment we found out on the last day when trying to post some letters with Monaco stamps on was actually in France!
That night we joined all the other crews on the harbour side for drinks and nibbles. The organisation of which wasn’t fantastic, a theme that the Monagascins seem to adhere to in planning the racing too! The bars were too small, they hadn’t got enough booze, it took hours to get any food, the bit of pier they’d chosen was too small to accommodate all the crews. I think it added to the charm of the place and I didn’t care as I hadn’t stopped smiling since I’d arrived!
The race briefing was held the next morning. Griff, Ziggy, Holly and I attended. It was held in French with a chap admirably trying to translate for us. The wind was picking up nicely and we had around 15 – 20 knots. Motoring out I was still in seventh heaven. Classics of all sizes mingled, hoisting sails and sizing up the competition. The committee announced the course. Ziggy got a little confused but eventually we worked out it was a downwind start. We managed to start without hitting anyone else and on the first leg even managed to get the kite up. A feat no one else in our start bothered to do. I felt good about this until we realised the reason no one else had one up was the first mark was very close! Kite down! Which we did neatly, as was noted later by another crew. The wind stayed and we had a great race. Hard work as the sails are a little bigger than Humdinger’s but fantastic fun. The problem with racing is you never seem to have chance to take a picture at the right time. Rounding the leeward mark with some of the big boats was fantastic. One huge kite would go on the foremast....then the second huge kite would go up on the mizzen!!! The J Class boats looked awesome. The final leg dead downwind under kite was interesting. When a 15 tonnes wooden yacht gets a roll on there’s not much you can do to stop it.
I thought we were doing ok in our class too. There were 4 in our class and we were eager to see how we’d done. 5th! Right, there must have been more in our class, not a great result but I’d really enjoyed the race. Who wouldn’t! Sadly that was the last race we had. The next day there wasn’t enough wind to start a race and on the last day (it’s only 3 days so I don’t know why they call it a week!) they started the race in hardly any wind. Not really safe with these yachts. Litterally 1 minute after the last start the race was abandoned. We had a sneaky suspicion that they only started the race for the cameras so they had at least a few pictures of sailing that day.
The second day I did get chance to wear my new blazer and slacks. We had a sail past where we would be judged by the Mayor of Monaco. There were three of us with blazers, Griff, Baines a regular crew member and I. I was also given a Monaco captains hat to wear. After the final race it was chaos in the harbour. Tuiga, a yacht owned by the Monaco Yacht Club celebrated its 100 years anniversary and as it sailed into the harbour the whole place erupted with vessels horns, whistle and anything else that could make a noise.
That could have been the end. That night there were big discussions about the next regatta and I got asked to stay on for the Regatta Royales de Cannes. I’d heard that this would be more fun as it’s a little more about the racing rather than just showing off! After a quick call home to explain that it wouldn’t be fair to leave them now, I was staying for another week.
So onto Cannes. A lovely motor sail along the coast with sunshine and a book. On arrival there certainly appeared to be more vessels here and I later found out that there was a Dragon regatta here too with some famous faces involved (anyone remember Lawrie Smith?). The social looked much better here too. There was a little tented village with numerous bars and shops. We got a place in the harbour which was depressingly far away from the town quay, all the bars and all the action it seemed. We were not amused. We were given a little sign to put up so that holiday makers could walk by and see who we were, who owned the vessel and some history. Sadly being so far away no one ever walked past! One of the crew did manage to coax a couple of young ladies onboard who stayed all day once the wine and beer had appeared.
Racing was better organised although the wind experience on that first day in Monaco was not repeated. Races were set around the bay and round a small island just offshore of the town. Griff’s usual tactician was onboard now. He was certainly a keen racer and liked to push the envelope at times. We got very close to a couple of yachts much to the annoyance of the other crews who certainly made their displeasure known, usually in French so we didn’t take much notice. Starts were exciting as these yachts don’t manoeuvre as quick as some and you really need to make decisions early. At times it was also hard to identify who and where the committee boat was due to the number of yachts on the water.
Nightime was great fun in the tented area. Every night there was food available for the minions, something missing at Monaco, and the beer was always cold. I got chatting to a few of the ‘old sweats’ of classic yacht racing and soon came to realise there weren’t many crews without professionals onboard. This made me feel a little better about our positions on the water. There was also a boules competition that we entered. Our first match was against a dragon crew. We didn’t do well and were soon back in the bar.
The last day heralded light winds but enough to race. The course was set around the island and we set off into the sunshine. Sadly the wind dropped and we were soon becalmed. We swapped for Griff’s new, very big light weight genoa and crept towards the mark. Soon the retirements started to come thick and fast and by the time the light was failing we were nearly the final vessel out there. We did manage to finish just inside the time limit. Even better, we beat the huge J-Class ‘Cambria’ by a few hundred meters. This lifted our spirits somewhat after a long day. Motoring back into the sunset was lovely and I got a chance to hear some funny stories from Griff about his exploits with Undina in the Baltic.
This was my last night and after the race we adjourned to the bar. The next day i woke early, a little hazy, snook out of the apartment and set off back to Scarborough. It had been a great trip and I hoped that I had been of enough use to be invited back. Fingers crossed!!!
So it is now April 2010 and I’ve received a welcome e-mail. Do I want to go racing again this summer? Mmmm....I think I will. Barcelona in July, Cannes and St. Tropez in September. The story continues.