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Sailing with the King

Mon, 03/06/2017 - 09:30 -- Brian Keelan

I met Marc Fitzgerald in the bar at the Sube Hotel in St. Tropez, France during the Voiles de St. Tropez: the last sailing regatta of the racing season in the Med. After that, the boats all go and get prettied up before heading across the Atlantic to the Caribbean for the Caribbean racing season. The Sube Hotel is where all the sailors from the British Commonwealth gather after the races: Australians, Kiwis, Brits, Irish and Canadians etc. It’s a very lively and boisterous crowd. Standing at the bar was this tall Irishman named Marc Fitzgerald who bought me a large Stella draft and started asking me questions about the boat I was on: Running Tide, a boat I had sailed on way back in the seventies. I had long wanted to sail in this event and managed to get myself a berth aboard Running Tide where I spent 10 days living aboard and racing with six French guys and, “one Corsican knave.”

Marc was the skipper of Sojana; a 115 foot Farr state-of-the-art carbon fibre/composites ketch-rigged sailboat. It was owned by a gentleman named Sir Peter Harrison of London, England.

When I got back to Running Tide, I googled “Sojana” and all I can say is, “Wow.” She is fantastically beautiful and big... every bit of her 115 feet. I thought to myself, “It would be pretty cool if I could get a ride on that that thing for next year’s Voiles de St. Tropez regatta.”

Back home in Canada that thought kept surfacing and the following March, I located Sojana on the internet doing the Caribbean winter circuit. I e-mailed Marc and told him that most sailors only ever read about boats like Sojana, yet, all of us wonder what it is like to actually sail on them. I suggested to him that (maybe) I would come and be a regular crew on the boat (unpaid of course) and that I would pay my own travel expenses to get there and then back home. I would like to write a story about the experience from the point of view of the average small-town Wednesday night sailboat racer.

Marc agreed that this might be interesting and told me that he would run the idea past Sir Peter to see if he approved and get back to me.

Fortunately, Sir Peter agreed and I was invited to sail on Sojana in the Voiles de St. Tropez regatta in France that fall. I was actually hoping for a shot in the New York to Cowes Transatlantic race at the end of the Caribbean season but you know what they say about beggars and choosing... right?

Two weeks after Labour Day, I flew to Paris and then down to Marseilles. There I caught a very fast train to the town of St. Rafael and from there I caught a ferry across the bay to St. Tropez. In St. Tropez I had been instructed to go to the Sube Hotel, call Marc and let him know that I had arrived. Marc told me to have, “a few beers,” and he would send someone along to pick me up. So, I settled into the beer thing and before I was done my second beer, a young man named Simon came into the hotel looking for, “a Canadian guy wearing a headband with a red maple leaf on it.” Fortunately, I was the only guy in there wearing one.

I bought Simon a beer and started asking him questions. He was very friendly and informed me that Sojana was not actually in St. Tropez, she was at anchor in the next harbour over (Baie de Canebiers) since there were no available berths big enough to handle Sojana in the St. Tropez harbour. Also, Sir Peter had rented a house on the beach of Baie de Canebiers so he just anchored the boat, opened up the garage door on the stern and launched one of the three tenders Sojana had to ferry Sir Peter and his pals around.

Sir Peter is the VP of the Chelsea Football (soccer) club. From what I could tell, they are sort of like the New England Patriots of the NFL: if they aren’t winning the title, they are usually in the hunt for it. Turns out Chelsea had a big game with Marseilles that week and Sir Peter wanted to watch the game with a few of his friends and that’s why he rented the house. It was a pretty ritzy neighbourhood: Brigitte Bardot and several rich Saudi types are neighbours. The famous Pampelonne Beach where the rich and famous do things that only the rich and famous could afford to do or get away with doing is just around the corner. This was definitely what my old pal Jesse would call, “the tall cotton.”

It was a pretty cool house too. Tres modern with lots of rooms, right on the water and a nice big swimming pool in the front yard. Rental at this time of year must have been big bucks: it costs over $500 Cdn. to rent a hotel room in town; which is why Marc let me sleep on the boat.

But I don’t think Sir Peter was worried too much about the money. He had sold his internet business a few years earlier for $300 million Pounds Sterling which is about a half a billion Canadian give or take a few hundred thou. He is now listed as one of Britain’s richest men.

After the sale was completed, Sir Peter had Farr Yachts in Annapolis build him in Sir Peter’s words, “A high-end race-boat with a gentleman’s club down below.” Up top she’s all carbon fibre, Kevlar, Spectra, Dynema, Harken and any other high-tech, high-end composite material, hydraulics and electronics that will make her lighter, stronger and faster. Down below its all African mahogany and marble. Just about the coolest (and most luxurious) place I’ve ever seen. You could film a James Bond movie in there.

Marc told me that this boat had an annual operating budget, “in the millions.” Even he didn’t know for sure how much it actually cost and, “I’m supposed to be in charge of spending the money!”

We had a beautiful prime rib dinner served aboard accompanied by wines that were packaged in wooden crates. Marc had lots of paid crew aboard of both the male and female persuasions. Their main job was to keep Sir Peter and his guests happy. I also met Sir Peter’s girlfriend who was from Vancouver. She was introduced to me by her girlfriend - also from Vancouver. Sir Peter turns 80 this year and his girlfriends are in their - oh let’s be generous and say - “forties,” and leave it at that.

After meeting all the crew, drinking some wine and making my famous Canadian Caesar salad, I was ushered into the main cabin to meet Sir Peter himself. He’s seven years older than I am but nonetheless, a very accomplished man… and a real gentleman. He welcomed me aboard and introduced me to all his cronies… a very well-heeled, interesting group of people. I do remember asking Sir Peter if he’d ever met Conrad Black who at that time was in jail in the USA. Sir Peter frowned and replied, “Yes. I’ve met him. The blokes a bit dodgy wouldn’t you say? In jail you know.”

After that the evening degenerated into music, stories, oh-so-French finger foods and lots more of Sir Peter’s wine before moving on to the port, then brandy and finally back to beer. I’ll say one thing about these people. They are not health nuts.

The next day was the first day of racing and Marc assigned me to be the guy in charge of the running backstays on the mizzen mast (the shorter mast at the back of the boat). Even so that mast was bigger than most of the masts on any boat I’ve ever sailed on. I didn’t even have to grind a winch. I just pushed a button since no humans could grind any winch with those loads on them.

One of Sir Peter’s cronies, a rather large man named Big Don took over the galley and cooked up what is traditionally known aboard Sojana as Big Don’s Big Breakfast. Very good and lots of it. Then it was off to the races. By 10 am we had over 30 people aboard.

One of the professional crew was Andy Beadsworth from Great Britain; an Olympic Soling sailor who owned a boat built by the Abbotts here in Sarnia. He and Bill Abbott have faced each other on many starting lines over the years. Andy had been imported to drive Sojana during the starts. Another of the professional racing crew was Lionel Péan. He had captained the yacht L’esprit d’equippe to victory in the 1985-1986 Whitbread Round the World Race. Only 12 people on this planet have ever done that. Lionel had many interesting stories to tell me over the next few days and we became good friends.

Another crew member was Colin. He was a trimmer, a job that requires a very strong guy on a 115 foot sailboat. Colin ran a security business in England; the kind that provides personal security for people who can afford and need it. He had been in the British army - what he called, “elite special services.” The guys said he had fought in seven wars. Now he was doing it for, “a lot more money,” than he ever got from the army. He was pound for pound just about the toughest guy I have ever met.

I have been in a lot of sailboat races over my years and the starts can involve some of the trickiest close quarters sailing you will find anywhere. Most of my starts have been on 30 to 40 foot sailboats and against other 30 to 40 foot sailboats. On Sojana we are 115 feet long and most of the boats we raced against are over 100 feet long. Mari-Cha was 145 feet long. There were three J-Class Boats there (120 feet long and built way back in the 30’s) so you can bet that the starts were a little tense as collisions at ten to twelve knots can easily cause damages in the millions.

I’ll have the rest of the story for you next month so stay tuned. That’s when the foam hits the fan.

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