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96-year-old Itchenor Solent Sunbeam welcomed at the Classic Yacht Regattas in the South of France

by Sarah Johnson 25 Oct 2019 07:12 BST
Solent Sunbeam 'Dainty' passes Elena © Anna Boulton

Bosham-based Peter Nicholson, owner of Solent Sunbeam 'Dainty' hull no 1, shone amongst the 'grand dames' of classic yachts at La Belle Classe, Regates Royales and Voiles de St Tropez regattas in the South of France.

What started 15 years ago as an unusual and challenging adventure, has become not only an annual event, but one that has created life-enhancing memories, incredible sailing experiences, lifelong friendships, prestigious awards and a few headaches along the way.

Getting a 96-year-old classic keelboat plus its skipper, crew and shore-team to the South of France is a military operation which takes planning and commitment, not to mention people and financial resources! Each year the yacht visits Haines Boatyard in Itchenor for maintenance and restoration. The trip down to the Cote D'Azur is taken at a leisurely pace allowing time to enjoy the food and wine on the way.

As you would expect from 15 years of towing a classic yacht from Itchenor to the South of France, it has not always been plain sailing and this year was no different. Problems at the ferry were followed by wheel lock outside Monaco, together with disappearing hire cars and parking fines! Fortunately with the assistance of the Monaco Yacht Club and the Monegasque police, Dainty eventually enjoyed a police escort for the final few miles to her launch point in Monaco.

La Belle Classe regatta is an exclusive event sponsored by Prince Albert of Monaco and is by invitation only. Les Regates Royales attracts all the great classic yachts from around the world and Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez is a huge event attracting both classic yachts and the latest modern racing yachts with over 300 yachts taking part and in excess of 4000 sailors and supporters. Peter notes that St Tropez with its magical location and stunning racing makes the perfect setting for finishing his sailing season.

This year, the racing was very hot, often with light winds which proved both challenging and resulted in some postponements and cancellations. The evening parties and camaraderie however more than made up for it as well as the sight of the priceless array of vintage yachts in the harbour.

The sail to Cannes, for the next regatta, was lively and quick with winds building Force 6 or more and a big swell with dramatically high following surf. 96-year-old Dainty coped well with it all, due to her exceptional hull design and prudent helming and enjoyed speeds of over eight knots as she entered Cannes.

At Regates Royales Dainty was joined with a gathering of around 150 of the world's greatest classic yachts, including a number of 'grand dames' such as Elena of London, Cambria, Sunshine, Moonbeam and Mariska often gracing the bay. The event guarantees tight, competitive racing on the water followed by the friendliest of evening soirees ashore as the yachts moor alongside each other on the quay in the old port.

According to the rules of Les Voiles, formerly known as La Nioulargue, yachts under 10m were not strictly allowed to participate but the event organisers were so taken with commitment and loyalty of keelboats such as Dainty (as well their delightful lines) that they created a 'Classe Invité' so they could continue to compete! Being so small, at just 8.2m, means that Dainty is one of the few yachts taking part that has no engine. This makes for nerve-wracking mooring manoeuvres when trying to reverse into her berth in the old port, but always elicits great admiration from the neighbouring yachts and on-shore crowd!

A highlight is always the Coupe d'Automne race from Cannes along the beautiful cliffs of the rugged shoreline to Saint-Tropez. This year was six and a half hours to windward in a growing slop and force 5 to 6. Dainty won a cup from the Yacht Club de France for finishing 38 seconds behind Sonda on corrected time.

Despite having some good starts, usually keeping clear of the larger yachts and sailing a steady course, Dainty's results in the three regattas were not outstanding, just missing by countback third place and a place on the podium at Saint-Tropez. However, Peter, owner of Solent Sunbeam Dainty hull no 1, which was built in 1923, and his team greatly enjoyed taking part. The atmosphere and camaraderie are what bring him and his 96-year-old Sunbeam, Dainty back year after year.

If you are interested in owning a piece of yachting heritage that also has a very active racing fleet, then the class has a number of boats available for sale or part ownership, with more details available on the Solent Sunbeam website.

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