Sea and Sardinia

  • Michael Schulze

Midway through the race, five yachts—Viriella, Sei Tu 2, OPS 5, Flying Dragon, and Charis—converge on the same buoy. The wind is light, but the boats have gathered a good head of speed, and as they cluster together, shouts rise up in Italian, Spanish, and English. Viriella, behind and to the right of Charis, has approached within 6 feet of that vessel; their masts are tilting close together, and the crews regard each other tensely. This is the fifth day of the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup, and the yachts are sailing just west of the tiny Mediterranean island of Spargi, off the town of Porto Cervo in Sardinia, Italy. Viriella has the size advantage, and it seems likely that Charis will cede the lead to her. But if she does not—if she tries to round the buoy first—the boats will collide.

The Maxi Cup, a six-day regatta that takes place toward the end of the summer sporting calendar each year, is open to boats 79 feet or longer. They compete on courses that change each day, depending on the weather. The regatta includes a variety of categories that compete concurrently with each other: lean, fast racing craft with minimal accommodations; vessels built to resemble classic yachts, called Spirit of Tradition boats by the race committee; sailboats built exclusively by Monaco’s Wally Yachts; and boats built more for pleasure cruising than for racing. A Mini-Maxi division, for craft 59 to 78 feet long, recently was introduced.

 

Weight is paramount on the racing yachts, so participants in this division typically are restricted to crew members. But the situation relaxes somewhat on the cruising boats (though their owners take their contests seriously), and it is not uncommon to find family members and guests helping the crew—generally by weighing down the port or starboard sides during turns. Viriella, owned by Italian entrepreneur Vittorio Moretti, is a large cruising yacht, while Charisis a Mini-Maxi.

The Maxi Cup, launched in 1980, is part of a packed schedule of regattas hosted each year by the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda in Porto Cervo. During the sailing season from late April through September, the club hosts eight or nine events along the immediate coastline, including the Farr 40 European Circuit, for 40-foot boats designed by New Zealander Bruce Farr, and the Sardinia Rolex Cup, in which national teams race three yachts each. Just a few miles to the south, in Porto Rotondo, more summer regattas take place, including a contest, held at the same time as the Maxi Cup, for yachts made by Italy’s Perini Navi. Both Porto Cervo and Porto Rotondo have little purpose other than to host regattas: During the summer, Porto Cervo’s population exceeds 20,000; during the off-season, it sinks to about 300.

The scene on Costa Smeralda—the Emerald Coast along northeast Sardinia, named after the area’s clear, green water—does not receive much attention in the United States. But in Europe, it is an important element in a summerlong nautical experience that peaks during the traditional vacation month of August. Sardinia, located to the west of the Italian peninsula in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, is situated halfway between Italy and France, making it an ideal stopping place for boaters. And the north coast in particular receives the force of the Sardinian mistral, a wind that begins in France, sweeps southeast over the island of Corsica, and reaches Sardinia at speeds of 35 mph or more. At Porto Cervo, the mistral is reinforced by thermal winds that ricochet between the mainland and the Maddalena Archipelago, a group of small islands nearby. On days when the mistral is blowing, regatta organizers set racecourses from the port to open sea. On calmer days, they establish a course between the mainland and the archipelago to exploit the thermals.

Much of Sardinia still resembles the wild, craggy, wind-blasted place described by D.H. Lawrence following his visit there in 1921. In his book Sea and Sardinia, Lawrence writes of finding a “savage, dark-bushed, sky-exposed land, forsaken to the sea and the sun,” dotted with tiny “clay-coloured villages, clay-dry,” and characterized by “a peculiar ancient loneliness . . . something stiff, static, pre-world.” He observes how granite outcrops “stick up fantastically” throughout the island, in “points and precipices . . . all jammed on top of one another.” Most memorably, he tries to convey the depth and richness of Sardinia’s glistening light, especially on the coast: “the lovely strong winey warmth, golden over the sea.”

There is evidence that humans lived on Sardinia more than half a million years ago. Beginning about 6000 B.C., Neolithic inhabitants erected huge standing stones, called betyls. The people’s Bronze Age descendants built elaborate rock structures now dubbed Giants’ Tombs, as well as rounded monuments called nuraghe, more than 7,000 of which remain standing, many a short distance from highways or hotels.

Remarkably, the inhabitants of Sardinia are not seafarers. Many cannot swim. For thousands of years, they associated their coasts with only malaria and invaders. Sardinia’s location has made it ripe for plucking since at least 1000 B.C.—by Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, then various Italian clans. Accordingly, Sardinians tend to make a living inland, often by herding sheep, and coastal property historically has been perceived as next to worthless. But in the 1960s, Prince Karim Aga Khan, a leader of the Nizari Ismaili sect of the Shi’a Ismaili branch of Islam who is currently based outside Paris, sailed to Costa Smeralda and found it deserted. The prince, then in his 20s, explored the area, gained an appreciation of its winds, and resolved to build a sailing center there. It would, he decided, be a home for the world’s elite, a place where they could both compete and forget their cares.

Porto Cervo is almost entirely the Aga Khan’s creation. In fact, it is not a town at all but a condominium in disguise, carefully controlled by a governing committee. The prince has directed that no building in the area can stand taller than three stories. Situated along the hills that ring the small harbor, small houses cluster around granite outcrops, their brown shapes blending into the island’s thick, scrubby vegetation, called macchia. The larger buildings, in stone or in unevenly applied stucco painted in warm pastels, recall dwellings seen throughout Mediterranean Europe but are reminiscent of Native American pueblo houses as well. Many Sardinians scoff at Porto Cervo, likening it to Disneyland. But these buildings have a tasteful appearance, and the Aga Khan’s defenders point out that he never set out to build a Sardinian town: He aimed to create a global gathering place.

In 1961, the Aga Khan had a large rock blasted out of the mouth of Porto Cervo’s bay to build the Old Port, a small marina on the harbor’s south side. He founded a yacht club there, close by his villa, which occupies a promontory in the harbor. In 1976 he recruited Gianfranco Alberini, who had just retired from a post as rear admiral in the Italian navy, to serve as the club’s commodore. The following year the club moved to a location across the bay—called the New Port—and Alberini began launching regattas: the first Sardinia Cup in 1978, the first Maxi Cup in 1980, and so on. In 2000, he commissioned architect Peter Marino of New York to design a new club. The building, completed in 2003, includes a restaurant, a lounge, a pool, and 24 guest suites. It is filled with artworks and artifacts collected by the Aga Khan, including marine paintings, most with an America’s Cup theme; nautical maps of Sardinia and the Mediterranean, some dating to the 16th century; and remarkably detailed sailboat models in wood, bone, and ivory, made by prisoners of war in the 1800s.

 

On the third day of this year’s Maxi Cup, while the boats are racing, Commodore Alberini, now in his 70s, sits in the club’s lounge overlooking the eight-pier marina, gripping a gin and tonic that he never drinks and reminiscing about some of his best moments at the club’s helm.

“We mounted the first Italian challenge in the America’s Cup in 1983. I was the president of the syndicate; the boat was Azzurra—for the color of the sea. We had no experience, so we went there to learn. But the boat performed very well, and we entered the semifinals.” He laughs. “It was fun to eliminate the French! The British! We took third place. In Italy, there was an explosion of interest in yachting because of Azzurra, as if we had won a world soccer championship.”

The commodore points to a patch of blue in a small boatyard nearby: Azzurra herself. “As the challenger of record,” he continues, “we organized the next America’s Cup. An enormous job! But we learned important skills. Believe me, it’s not easy to manage these regattas.” (Indeed, the commodore’s full-time staff numbers only 15; they work nonstop during the season, through evenings and weekends, and then, one of them says, retire to bed for the month of October.)

Alberini gestures toward a small sculpture in the lounge: three stylized sails in silver and semiprecious stones, on a base of blue sodalite. “The Sardinia Cup. We won it this year—took it from the Spanish.” He grins slyly, then rises and proceeds to the club’s entrance, stopping at models of both Azzurra and the powerboat Destriero (steed). An assistant offers an explanation: In 1992, Destriero, carrying the yacht club’s burgee (flag), cruised from New York to the Isles of Scilly off southwestern England in 58 hours, 54 minutes, and 50 seconds, bringing the trophy for fastest transatlantic crossing to Italy for the first time since the ocean liner Rex had won it in 1933.

“Things are different now,” Alberini muses. “Movie stars are coming, glamorous people, celebrities . . . . They know nothing about sailing.” He waves toward town, beyond a newly built piazza. “In August, it is very crowded. The cars cannot move. But fortunately the harbor is small.” He smiles. “We can only grow so much. That’s a good thing.”

During this year’s Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup, 46 teams from 15 countries are competing, the biggest group ever for this regatta. The fiercest battles take place in the racing category, between two nearly identical 98-foot boats: Alfa Romeo, owned by automobile entrepreneur Neville Crichton of New Zealand, and Wild Oats XI, owned by Bob Oatley, a pioneer in the Australian wine industry. Both of the yachts emerged from San Diego’s Reichel/Pugh Yacht Design, and both incorporate a canting keel (which moves beneath the vessel, changing the rake of the mast to suit weather conditions) and a number of other innovations. Last winter, Wild Oats prevailed at the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race from Australia to Tasmania, sparking a feud between the two teams—especially since Reichel/Pugh had designed Wild Oats after it had designed Alfa Romeo, prompting charges that Oatley had copied Crichton’s boat. But at Porto Cervo, Alfa Romeois dominating the match.

 

In a regatta such as the Maxi Cup, crossing the finish line first does not determine the winner. Because the boats differ so much, the contest requires a handicapping system. During the race’s lay day—the Thursday between the first three and last two days of the regatta, when the sailors rest—Ken Ryan, who recently retired as a vice president of the International Sailing Federation (ISAF), sits down to discuss how races are judged. Ryan, who first joined the ISAF in 1968, was a principal in its Racing Rules Committee, and as such helped devise the regulations that govern handicapping. He also has served on many international juries, the groups that make judgments in disputes between skippers.

“One of a jury’s jobs,” Ryan explains, “is to investigate charges that a boat isn’t exactly what it’s said to be. In a handicapping system, one can encounter boats that have been”—he chooses his words carefully—“measured incorrectly. If a sail is reported to be smaller than it is, that boat will receive a better handicap, giving it an advantage.” Indeed, the following day, Commodore Alberini will announce that the Mini-Maxi yacht Aleph has been found to have a lighter keel than its owner had claimed—and Aleph will fall from first place to sixth.

During his tenure with the ISAF, Ryan also helped develop methodologies for judges, who address protests after racing boats return to port, and umpires, who follow the racers and resolve disputes on the spot. Umpires often must make difficult calls in tense situations. “Racers,” Ryan notes, “always try to ‘dirty wind’ each other—get in front of the other boat to steal wind from her, so that boat must tack off and lose time. When a leader does this, it’s called ‘covering’: You do what the boat behind you is doing, so she can’t catch the wind and get ahead.” This maneuvering can grow especially nasty as boats approach a buoy for a turn. A skipper who is trailing another boat often will try to “overlap” it, or move his bow past the leading boat’s stern, which (if he establishes the overlap at least two boat lengths away from the buoy) gives him the right of way and obliges the other boat to veer off. It is a delicate, often high-speed game of chicken, and problems can arise when two skippers differ on whether an overlap has occurred. In these cases, an umpire may render a judgment—but obviously, in some cases the boats already will have hit each other. Indeed, such a collision would occur just a few weeks later, at the Breitling MedCup off Ibiza, when two yachts, Santa Ana Stay Calm and Bribón (with Spain’s King Juan Carlos I aboard), would come too close at a buoy, and both boats would be knocked out of the race.

The cruising yacht Viriella, which measures 118 feet, holds four staterooms, and has space sufficient for 24 passengers, is large enough to merit a full-time captain, Giorgio Tacchi. But during the Maxi Cup, the boat is commanded by skipper Gigio Russo, who has been racing for 38 years. Russo capably leads a 20-person crew, which includes the four-man afterguard, or command crew, and the trimmers, bowmen, mastmen, and pitmen who maneuver the sails and guide the boat. The skipper knows the area between the Costa Smeralda mainland and the Maddalena Archipelago well, so he feels confident sailing the yacht quite close to shore before tacking or jibing. When he finally decides to turn, his sailors move promptly, grabbing lines and running pell-mell with them along the boat’s sides, raising and lowering headsails of various shapes: a jib, an asymmetrical spinnaker, a genoa. Meanwhile everyone else dashes back and forth, providing ballast.

“Trimming for speed,” Russo barks. “Veering off a bit, then tacking.”

“Coming up to the breeze,” announces trimmer Lucas Brun, a Brazilian. “OK . . . feeling pressure on my skin . . . good pressure now.”

“Yes, very good pressure.”

“OK, start to ease . . . ease, ease, ease . . . cut!”

“Down a bit . . .”

“Five degrees down.”

“That’s a good angle, good pressure . . .”

Then Viriella approaches the four boats at the buoy near Spargi, and for the first time during the race, Russo appears agitated.

Some European men are referred to as “men of the soil”—salt of the earth. One of the sailors who works for Vittorio Moretti, the owner of Viriella, has privately called his employer a man of the soil. Moretti has considerable gravitas, and his face—rocklike, severe, with a strong Roman nose—recalls pictures of Dante. But the man also loves his pleasures. One of his traditions, before he leaves his boat after a race, is to offer the sailors pane carasau (a flat, salty Sardinian bread) and to uncork bottles of Bellavista, a sparkling wine that he produces. Moretti owns vineyards, hotels, and the Maxi Dolphin boatyard (which built Viriella); most of his businesses are located near his home in Italy’s Franciacorta region. When asked what he thinks about Costa Smeralda, he replies frankly: “The Aga Khan had a great idea, but now he is less influential, and the area is becoming too commercial, too touristic.” He reflects, then smiles and gestures toward the water. “But the sea is beautiful, and the sailing is the best in the world.”

Skipper Russo agrees. “I don’t like Costa Smeralda,” he says. “Everything is offered at an extreme price, and the services don’t match the prices. I prefer to live on my boat; I don’t hear any noise. I was sailing with my son, and I was telling him: ‘Let’s not talk. Let’s just hear the waves and the wind. Let’s drink water and eat bread . . . that’s all you need to live.’ ”

In Porto Cervo, the sailors frequent a bar called the Clipper. Its drinks are less expensive than elsewhere, and the bartenders stack Heineken cans in pyramids on the bar. But the sailors generally do not drink to excess. They are all world-class athletes, with muscular arms and legs, required equipment for handling large sails. Most of them, like the majority of crews these days, hail from the fierce boat-racing cultures of Australia and New Zealand.

One evening the crew of ABN AMRO One, a Dutch boat, have gathered at the Clipper. They recently won the eight-month Volvo round-the-world race. Now they are competing in the Maxi Cup, mainly to reinforce their skills sailing close to land. ABN AMRO is about 70 feet long, with only some bunks and a head belowdecks.

Later, Ken Ryan, the former ISAF man, explains what it takes to sail in such a boat for eight months with 17 other men. “For a crew to work,” he says, “you can’t have anyone bothering anyone else. And when the skipper says ‘Tack,’ everyone must know exactly what to do. There has to be a great harmony and work ethic among a crew. And if you act up, you’ll eventually be excluded—it’s a matter of natural selection.”

The rigor and discipline of the sailing life contrast curiously with the changes occurring on Costa Smeralda. A few miles south of Porto Cervo, a hotel called Cala di Volpe (Cove of the Fox) is, as Commodore Alberini laments, increasingly attracting jet-setters and movie stars, and it is competing with a few other properties for the title of most expensive hotel on the planet. Prices for its presidential suite range from about $12,000 per night to about $36,000, depending on the month (peak season is in July and August). But visitors to Cala di Volpe frequently do not sleep there: They have lunch in the restaurant, sometimes for five hours or more, to see and be seen.

The hotel’s design is relaxed, even playful, with a white stucco exterior that follows the lines of the tree trunks that form the beams. There is not a right angle in the place. French architect Jacques Couëlle is said to have created the design not on paper, but by playing with clay, and during construction he introduced a number of whimsical touches, including his own handprints and signature embedded in the walls. The rooms are fairly small, though some combine to form expansive suites. According to manager Jan Pachner, the hotel’s biggest problem is caused by wild boars that venture onto the property and root up the grass.

On the evening before the final race, a party is held near Cala di Volpe’s pool. Boat owners, regatta sponsors and organizers, and members of yachting organizations mingle on the lawn. The Aga Khan is present, gravely shaking hands. Waiters and waitresses move through the group, offering canapés. Soon the guests will sit down to a buffet dinner and a concert by Italian singer Lucio Dalla, very popular in Europe, who, backed by an electrified mini-orchestra, will offer up a surprising mix of romantic melody and scat.

Marina Simeoni, who keeps times for the races, stands with a small group from the ISAF. She is a short woman who owns a pharmacy in Porto Cervo. “For years,” she says over a glass of Champagne, “people have been giving me high-tech devices to record finishing times.” She grins, holding up a watch. “But I keep returning to my old black Casio.”

The guests include dignitaries from Rolex. The watch brand has been associated with sailing since 1974, when the company sponsored a regatta in the Virgin Islands. It approached the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda in 1984, and now its name is attached to four of the club’s events. Possibly because the watchmaking and sailing communities share some of the same fascinations—with technology, with craftsmanship, with timekeeping—they have maintained a strong bond for decades. Raceboats bear the logos not only of Rolex but of Corum, Breitling, Hublot, Blancpain, Richard Mille, and other watch manufacturers.

Watchmaking and sailing also share a sense of prestige. Touch down in Rome or Milan on the way to Sardinia’s Olbia airport (the closest to Porto Cervo), and almost every person one encounters sports an impressive timepiece. Yachting is just one element in a broader fashion scene, and this influx of the well-dressed, the wealthy, and the status-conscious prompts some Sardinians to point to Costa Smeralda as just another example of a foreign invasion of their land.

Indeed, there is a danger that the people of this northern coast will lose sight of their deeper identity—their athleticism, their seamanship, their civilized mingling of international cultures—in favor of becoming fashionable. Many contend that this is happening now. But like Vittorio Moretti, these same critics often point to the Aga Khan’s original vision for Costa Smeralda—his respect for the environment, and his insistence on a human scale—and hold that if the area can stay true to those intentions, it will not lose its integrity and charm. The Aga Khan’s daughter, Princess Zahra Aga Khan, currently presides over the board of directors of the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda, and she does not appear inclined to abandon her father’s principles.

On the sixth day, following the last race of the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup, Italians in particular find cause to celebrate the regatta’s overall results. Alfa Romeo proves strongest in the nine-boat Racing division, regaining some of the respect it had lost at the Sydney Hobart. Atalanta II, owned by Italian media magnate Carlo Puri Negri, takes first place in the Mini-Maxi division. And in the 11-boat Cruising division, Italy’s Roma wins top honors, while Viriella comes in toward the back of the pack.

Not that Moretti is perturbed. “It is the sailing,” he says, sipping his Bellavista. “The sea.” Which of course means that, for this Italian businessman, life does not get much better than this: navigating the green waves, in Lawrence’s winey, golden light, with a capable crew and a family on board. “I do not call it luxury,” he says. “This is quality of life.”

As for the near miss with Charis near Spargi, whether Viriella overlapped her a sufficient distance from the buoy may be disputed, but Viriella was certainly a much bigger boat. At the last second, Charis’ skipper relented; that yacht tacked away, and the crews’ strained expressions dissolved into smiles. Viriella rounded the buoy first and headed back toward Porto Cervo.

A few minutes later, Moira Uberti, a hostess on the boat, was asked whether such close calls are common during races. She smiled. “È normale.”

Yacht Club Costa Smeralda
+39.0789.902200
www.yccs.it

MATCH POINT

Each year, from late April through the end of September, the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda (YCCS) manages a crowded schedule of sailboat races and other events. Most occur in Porto Cervo, a few elsewhere (as noted). The highlights:

April
Rolex Capri sailing week. A regatta at the Marina Grande in Capri, Italy, for boats that include 45-foot yachts from Nautor’s Swan of Finland, vessels made by Italy’s Comar Yachts, and Farr 40s. 

June
Vela & Golf Trophy. A combination of a golf tournament, hosted by the Pevero Golf Club (see preceding page), and a regatta featuring Smeralda 888s—29-foot yachts that the YCCS introduced in 1992, with a design by the Argentine firm German Frers.

Farr 40 European Circuit. A race between 40-foot boats designed by New Zealander Bruce Farr, one of the world’s most prolific yacht designers and the creator of many America’s Cup contenders.

Sardinia Rolex Cup. A biennial event in which national teams compete with three craft each: a Farr 40, a Swan 45, and a 52-foot yacht from Transpacific Marine of China.

Coppa Europa Smeralda 888. A regatta in which members of the YCCS, the Yacht Club of Monaco, the Gstaad (Switzerland) Yacht Club, the New York Yacht Club, and the Royal Yacht Squadron (United Kingdom) compete aboard Smeralda 888s.

July
Jeep Invitational Challenge. A contest between four America’s Cup teams on yachts of the same design, organized in collaboration with Jeep Italia.

Yccs Social Championship. A regatta for YCCS members, at the conclusion of which the club nominates a Members’ Champion.

August
Mario Formenton Trophy. Held in Porto Raphael, northwest of Porto Cervo, and named after the former chairman of Italy’s Mondadori publishing company, an avid sailor who died in 1987. Open to all cruising racers, veteran and classic boats, craft with lateen (triangular) sails, yachts in the International J/24 Class, and Smeralda 888s.

September
Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup. A regatta for boats 79 feet or longer, in the categories of racing craft, cruising boats, vessels built to resemble classic yachts (Spirit of Tradition boats), and boats built by Monaco’s Wally Yachts. Also includes a new category, called Mini-Maxi, for yachts 59 to 78 feet long.

Rolex Swan Cup. A race between more than 100 Nautor’s Swans of various models and sizes.

In June, the YCCS also hosts a genial event called Le Bateau Gourmand, in which chefs who work for yachts compete to create the best dishes—with the stipulation that each dish must be prepared aboard a boat.

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