To the once upon a time sleepy fishing village, now the focal point for Russian oligarch excess, outrageously ugly super-yachts, and what is commonly known as the scum of the earth, the nouveaux-riches of the 21st century. Yet a tiny but perfect airport for small planes and jets means the 747s that the camel drivers prefer are too big to land and have to use Nice or Marseilles as a result.
I am here for the annual Pugs Club regatta, and flew down from Gstaad in Peter Livanos’s chopper, a great machine that slalomed around the snowy mountains in a fog, skipping the dense parts, climbing and diving around protuberant rocks, getting us down from door to transom in one hour and 40 minutes. Sorry, folks, but it’s the only way to travel nowadays. Five minutes by car from my chalet to Saanen airport, 75 minutes of inspecting the Alps from very nearby, then a 15-minute ride to the port of St Tropez, where a chartered racing machine was waiting for me.
The four competing boats were all lined up: Tim Hoare’s beautiful Alexia, Roger Taylor’s Tiger Lily, Tara Getty’s Skylark, and the poor little Greek boy’s toy, a modern marvel that can reach 20 knots in a high wind, and is as ugly as she’s fast. Needless to say, all the competing boats had to bribe the local powers to secure a place right in front of the famed St Tropez quay, usually reserved for the most flamboyant boats owned or chartered by types that think Paris Hilton is class personified.
The first evening dinner took place at Rolf Sachs’s (Gunter’s boy) house in the bay, where, not for the first time, the competitors got much too chummy with each other and far too drunk. I spilled the beans about my boat’s speed, and like a fool demanded I be given a handicap to match. Alexia is a truly beautiful boat, even more so than Bushido, but I think of her as a ravishing woman who is lousy in bed. Alexia under sail is slow. Tiger Lily is like an old girlfriend, comfortable, round, always welcoming, and deceptively fast. Her owner, the drummer of Queen, and her captain have a lot to do with her ability to keep snatching victory from faster-looking boats. Skylark I know little about but she is a true classic of the Twenties. Her owner has a professional crew that races her in all major events, and had the Crown Prince of Greece crewing on her — more of that later.
The next morning, during the trials, I was too hung over to attend the meeting on the mother ship, my son had not yet arrived, and my French captain’s English vocabulary was limited to one word, ‘rosbiff’. Although commodore Hoare is a very fair man, and our president for life Nick Scott even more so, it was decided that the 20-mile course of one leg upwind and one downwind would be sailed by all boats once, except for the poor little Greek boy, who would have to sail it twice. I was still asleep when my captain explained it to the mother of my children, who, although as fair as a German can be, nevertheless described it as more of a punishment than a handicap. Ah, these Germans have a way with words, especially when not in their Panzers. After a riotous lunch at Club 55, hosted by our commodore, president Nick Scott and I retired to my boat where the two of us proceeded to knock off a couple of bottles of delicious chilled rosé wine, and then it was my turn to give dinner, one that was fortunately on the quay, which made it easier for my son, fresh from Paris, to carry me across and put me to bed.
Race day broke bright and sunny with a wind of about 12 knots, perfect for racing, which began as the gun went off on the mother ship, Mark Getty’s Talitha, at exactly 12 o’clock. Last off the line, I soon passed the other three and noticed that Alexia was heading for Corsica, where last year’s race took place. (She has a square rig, and sailing upwind is not her strong point. Adding to her misery was Tim Hoare’s disastrous decision to demote his chief naval strategist, Sir Bob Geldof, to kitchen duty, hence her Corsican journey.) We flew upwind at about 12 knots, reached the midpoint jibing and tacking, and headed downwind where we reached 14 knots. Once again we then turned 180 degrees and headed upwind crossing Skylark, which was speeding along like an Italian tank in retreat, on her way to victory. Tiger Lily came in second, and when I finished after three hours and 20 minutes we just managed to nip Alexia, who had made her way back from Corsica and was happily cruising along at three knots with a party going strong on her beautiful teak deck.
We then all gathered on Talitha for the award ceremony. Tara Getty accepted first prize with grace, and then something happened that had me close to tears. Prince Pavlos of Greece, an experienced sailor, as well he should be with a father, the King, a gold medal Olympic winner in 1960, had gone out very early that morning and bought a beautiful silver clock and even found the time to have it engraved for poor little me. The president said it was for sportsmanship in having accepted the handicap I was given. I thanked everyone, especially Prince Pavlos for his kindness, took the clock and went to bed. I’ve been sleeping it off ever since. There’s always next year, especially if the liver holds out.