A passion for sailing. The perfect venue. Strong partnerships rooted in sailing and the setting. These are the factors that led to the founding and now meteoric fame of Les Voiles de St. Barth. Started seven years ago by two friends, François Tolède and Luc Poupon, with the help of fellow sailor and St. Barth resident Annelisa Gee, this event has grown in quantity, from 27 boats in 2010 to an expected 70-plus this year, and quality, including top-notch race teams aboard yachts the likes of Odin, Phaedo3 and Comanche. Much of the credit for this success lies in the event’s founders.
“We wanted to make Les Voiles a competitive and recognized regatta dedicated to big-boat owners, while staying open to smaller boats,” explains Tolède, a native of Royan, France, sailor since childhood and two-decade St. Barth resident who, with his wife, created the Saint-Barth French West Indies brand. “Our other goal was and is to be as attractive ashore as offshore with a festive and friendly atmosphere.”
Tolède served as the General Secretary of the St. Barths Tourism Committee in 2010. This is when he and long-time friend Poupon came up with the idea to create a sailing event that took advantage of the island’s perfect conditions and would also extend the high season. Poupon proved a perfect partner. A native of Brittany, he’s a professional sailor from a famous family whose brother Philippe won La Route du Rhum in 1986. Poupon’s experience includes racing in regattas such as the Fastnet and the Whitbread. He discovered St. Barths during one of his transatlantic races and fell in love with the island. Tolède and Poupon then met Gee, a long-time resident of St. Barths and a fellow avid sailor. Gee, who splits her time between St. Barths and Newport, Rhode Island, where she owns businesses, has played a major role in the event’s growth by drumming up interest and enthusiasm among sailors from around the globe.
“Each of us brings a different angle to the event,” explains Gee. “Francois is extremely into the events side, music, the show, hospitality and keeping sponsors happy. Luc is great at thinking on his feet as any sailor does, choosing courses and selecting the best members from the FFV (Fédération Française de Voile/French Sailing Federation) to serve as president and jury. In addition to being a part of the team that makes decisions on diverse matters after lengthy discussions and debate, I bring the American customer service aspect to the event. I want to make coming to a French island that has a reputation for being very expensive and exclusive as easy and accommodating as possible. This means facilitating each team’s interface with the port and logistics, for example. We appreciate how much time and money goes into each team’s participation and want them to get their money’s worth and then some.”
Famed photographer Patrick Demarchelier, a part-time St. Barth resident, and celebrity sailors such as Lionel Péan, Loick Peyron, Jim Swartz, Peter Harrison and George David, have supported and participated in Les Voiles since the first edition in 2010.
St. Barths itself presents the perfect palate for this talented team of organizers and supporters to build a regatta. The diverse coastal landscapes and some 15 small offshore islands provide an opportunity to set diverse race courses with multiple legs and sail angles to test the race maneuvers of well-oiled crews.
Tolède and Poupon, along with Gee, say they are happy to see that Les Voiles has grown, in seven short years, into a world-recognized regatta. For example, the event was chosen last year and this year to be part of the official races on the Maxi 72 class calendar. In addition, it welcomes some of the best sailors in the world like Terry Hutchinson, Ken Read, Peter Isler and Charlie Ogletree, to name a few.
Looking ahead, Tolède says, “The important thing is to have controlled growth and not to be overwhelmed by too many boats. We prefer quality over quantity. We want to raise the number of participants to 80, but also limit it to that, since it’s important to preserve the intimate atmosphere of the island and the quality of the race.”
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.