The St. Francis Yacht Club hosts 140 days of racing per year, but September’s annual Rolex Big Boat Series is the premier event on the calendar.
September in San Francisco means one thing to sailors, regatta fans, and lovers of the sailing lifestyle: Rolex Big Boat Series at the St. Francis Yacht Club. This year, 89 boats and more than 900 competitors answered the call in wind-powered crafts as diverse as Tom Siebel’s super fast 70-foot trimaran Orion, Lorenzo Berno’s beautiful Kernan 70 Peligroso, and the ever-popular 24-boat strong J/105 class.
With the World Championships of the small but speedy J/70 class held in San Francisco last year, recent RBBS events have included a large number of boats under 35 feet. This year, with the debut of the new Pac52 Class, the big boats have returned to Big Boat Series.
Competitors came from as far away as Hong Kong, Japan, and Uruguay. Anticipation was particularly high for Karl Kwok’s Hong Kong-based Beau Geste, which made their debut in the glamourous Pac52 Class. (The next Pac52 regatta will take place at St. Francis Yacht Club this week.)
Beau Geste put on quite a show with a perfect score of seven wins. Her dramatic dragon covered mainsail was majestic against San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge. The crew work was poetry in motion; many of who have sailed together for years on Karl’s collection of Grand Prix yachts, the Mod70 Phaedo3 soon to join the stable.
I was surprised to learn that this is Karl’s first Rolex prize. “Rolex has dominated the yachting world for a long time, but I started racing 35 years ago. I won Big Boat Series years ago, but that was several years before Rolex was the title sponsor. This is my fourth Rolex Big Boat Series. The last time I was here was in 2003,” he told Sail Couture. Karl also raced the Transpac in 2003 on his TP52.
The first Japanese J/70 owner, Akinori Takezawa decided to test himself against California’s best. Although an experienced sailor with lasers, J/24s, and four years with his J/70 (the first in Japan) under his belt, this was his first opportunity to race against other J/70s. There are now only 10 J/70s in all of Japan. “It was a wonderful regatta. The sailing and beauty of the location, the hospitality of the St. Francis Yacht Club, the staff, the volunteers, the other competitors made it an amazing experience,” he said.
Takezawa chartered Christine Robin, StFYC members Christy and Tracy Usher’s J/70, while they were racing in the Worlds in Sardinia.
Locally based but international in flavor is Nicolas Popp’s Sunfast 3600 Invictus. Nicolas and wife Laurence are originally from France and now live in Los Altos Hills. Their crew list reads like a mock United Nations.
“We’re the most international boat here—we’re like Europa [the European supermaxi]. We have French, Belgian, South African, American, and I’m Turkish,” exclaimed trimmer Burak Kocal.
As we went into regatta week, the forecast was all over the place, and anything but typical. The central valley was relatively cool and the city was heating up. Potentially, it could have been a light-wind regatta. But as the boats left the dock on Thursday there was a steady 10 knots, and by the time racing got going it was breeze on.
“There was more wind than I expected, but that is probably typical Bay Area weather. Sailing San Francisco Bay has been on my bucket list and it lived up to my expectations. The highlight was sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge,” said Mark Williams, trimmer on Viggo Torbensen’s Dana Point-based J/125 Timeshaver.
San Francisco isn’t only known for big breeze though—the rise and fall of the current can really play a factor, in what side of the course to play and the size of the waves you’ll have coming over the bow. This regatta was predominantly an ebb-tide regatta, which means there was plenty of chop. As they made their way back to the dock at the end of the day, there were a lot of soaking wet sailors.
“In some fleets, the same boat kept winning, and the excitement built to see if they could keep winning. In other fleets, it came down to the last race, including the J/70s, the J/105s, and the Farr 40s. Those divisions were so exciting to watch,” said Christine Weaver, Latitude 38 racing editor.
It was a sentimental victory in the ORR A division for Sy Kleinman’s Schumacher 54 Swiftsure, making its 36th appearance at RBBS. Kleinman passed away at the age of 96 earlier this week. On Sunday, the fleet honored his memory by spreading carnations on the water on their way to the racecourse.
Sail like a girl
The Volvo Ocean Race has gotten a good deal of press this year for reworking the rules to encourage teams to include women, and as of this writing, all but one Volvo team has at least one woman on the crew. But I was really excited to see how many boats in the RBBS fleet had women on the crew—and they weren’t just “squirrels” or “snackticians.” They served in key roles from the bow to the stern.
Daniel Thielman’s Melges 32 Kuai had not one but three women on their eight-person crew: Jen Canestra of Whitecaps Marine on bow, Terre Layton in the pit, and Chelsea Simms on main trim. On the water, these three beautiful ladies are fierce competitors. Off the water, they turned heads in the StFYC Grill Room looking smart dressed in team jackets from Helly Hansen. Kuai, it should be noted, was one of the boats winning in straight bullets in the PHRF Sportboat division.
I was thrilled to see so many women in the premier class, the Pac52. Jenn Garvey on Fox, Paige Cook and Kirstin Dodson on Rio, and Dana Riley and Evelyn Hull on San Francisco local Frank Slootman’s Invisible Hand.
“They are big, fast boats and we’ve got five of them,” said Evelyn. Gladiator, the newest Pac52 will be on the start line for the first time this week. “They are a higher level of sailing with close racing, and go really fast downwind—I’m a big fan of going fast.” Evelyn has recently taken up kiteboarding and does a little bit of skiff sailing, too.
Jenn Virskus is the spinnaker trimmer on Tony Pohl’s Farr 40 Twisted. Jenn looks to have been the only female spinnaker trimmer in the Farr 40 fleet this year.
“The Farr 40 is a big step up for me—I’ve only been racing for six years. The first time I sailed the boat was down in Long Beach, Dana and Evelyn were on the crew, and I was the downwind grinder for a pro trimmer. I was moved to spinnaker trim for Big Boat last year. I was so new, it was very much a ‘hold on and hope for the best’ kind of trimming. Kudos to Tony for giving me a shot! This year I feel a lot more confident with the sheet and we made some good moves downwind,” Jenn said.
In the J/70 fleet, Isabelle Du Moulin and Cassidy Lynch were sailing on Jim Diepenbrock’s Wingman Racing. Isabelle grew up sailing on the Bay—literally. Her parents strapped her in her car seat to the mast of their Folkboat as an infant. She has been working at StFYC coaching sailing (a member of the team since high school). She put out the word out that she and Cassidy would like to crew. They were thrilled when the vice commodore asked if they would like to sail on his boat with Olympic Bronze medalist Pam Healy. Domenic Bove, who Isabelle sailed with at Boston College, rounded out the team as main trimmer and tactician.
“For Cassidy and me, and Domenic too I believe, this was our first RBBS regatta, which is a really big deal. We all grew up in Northern California, we grew up seeing this regatta and hearing about this regatta, and finally to be a part of it as a competitor is a dream come true,” said Isabelle.
Isabelle recalled their most exciting finish on Wingman: “On the last finish of the last race, we happened to be finishing at the same time as two Pac52, one on either side.” This is perhaps the most iconic aspect of Rolex Big Boat Series, the way the fleets mix it up, up and down the city front. It adds an extra dimension to already exciting racing when you have two fleets of two different sizes rounding the same mark together.
Elizabeth Little, a long-time face on the San Francisco sailing scene, was on the Express 37 Expeditious this year. “We didn’t do nearly as well as expected, but I was stoked to be the only woman aboard a long-standing male crew,” Elizabeth told Sail Couture. She has previously sailed on the J/70 Loose Lucy and was a long-time member of the J/120 Desdemona crew, not to mention numerous others. She’s a member of the St. Francis Yacht Club and is often spotted at South Beach Yacht Club during their summer Friday Night Series. No matter how hard the day of sailing was, you can bet that she’ll be looking smart in a marinière and slacks or a skirt at the club later.
“Elizabeth and Betsey Wiler, who was on race committee for this event, are my yacht club style icons,” joked Jenn. “What’s always amazed me (and most of the male racers), since I first started sailing Big Boat Series, is the transformation that takes place every afternoon in the women’s locker room. We all come off the boat dripping and cold, and 20 minutes later after a hot shower, a few minutes in the sauna, and a glass of wine, everyone walks into the party dressed to the nines.” Like Jenn, I love Elizabeth’s style and I also love that of Kathleen Kiriakis, wife of the Commodore. Ultra casual, basic blue blazer or designer dress she always dazzles.
Of course we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the important contribution of many women behind the scenes: Regatta chair Susan Ruhne, race director Jenn Lancaster, Nyna Armstrong of South Beach Yacht Club who brought over SBYC’s race committee boat Annabel to help officiate and was on sounds, firing the gun, and Pac52 Class manager Julie Servais, just to name a few.
Off the water
Per tradition, Rolex kicked off the regatta on Wednesday with the Commodore’s Party, a “light” reception of cheese and charcuterie, shrimp cocktail and sushi for skippers and crew. By the time the doors opened for the Rolex Party Thursday afternoon, the regatta was in full swing. Both events are a great way to catch up with old friends, make a few new ones, and size up the competition for the weekend.
Friday brought the now legendary Mount Gay Rum Cocktail party, especially festive this year on a picture-perfect San Francisco September evening. I strolled the grounds sipping a tasty Mount Gay Black and Stormy and sampling a kaleidoscope of cuisines from the gourmet food trucks catering the evening. There was plenty of nautical chic on display. The yacht club lawn is a perfect venue for casual style.
One team that really stood out was the J/105 Big Bouys in their very bright and very festive team shirts. “It’s the Summer of Love and we wanted to do something subtle to celebrate,” joked skipper Peter Baldwin of San Francisco by way of London. “Every year we do bright shirts and this year we wanted to up the ante!”
On Saturday, it was a more typical sort of yacht club fashion that assembled in the grand dining room at the St. Francis Yacht Club for a delicious sit-down crew dinner.
“I really felt the spirit of the event this year,” said Kira Maixner, who sailed on Gerard Sheridan’s Elan 40 Tupelo Honey. “The excitement was palpable each day, from the very first morning setting up the boat to the evening of the awards. On Monday, I was sad it was over, not only for the sailing aspect but because it meant that the glitz and glamour of the event wouldn’t be here again until next year.”
The appearance of the Pac 52s made this year’s Big Boat Series one for the history books. All eyes were on those yachts—and most of the photographers’ lenses—from the starting line to the final finish. There were a number of glorious yachts, sporting colorful spinnakers, and well-timed crew, but this year, the Pac52s stole the show.
Perhaps regatta chair Susan Ruhne said it best: “What makes Rolex Big Boat Series so wonderful is the combination of sailing talent, weather conditions, and tide changes, not to mention the camaraderie at the social events on shore. My favorite part of the whole thing is seeing all my sailing friends from around the world on the docks in the morning, and in the afternoons knowing that they had a fantastic day of racing. Of course, I want my team to do well!” Indeed!