Story highlights

  • Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup takes place in Sardinia
  • Event is most glamorous on big-boat circuit
  • Costa Smeralda on Sardinia’s north east coast
  • Porto Cervo built by the Aga Khan in the 1950s

Looking cool — while superyachts tower like white cathedrals and racing rocketships strain at their mooring lines — is not one of them.

The bronzed crews, with sun-bleached hair, big shades and matching kit, mill about the pontoon looking fit and confident, masters of their nautical universe.

The broad sterns of their multi-million dollar vessels boast of enticing home ports — George Town (Cayman Islands), Road Harbour (British Virgin Islands), Valletta (Malta), London.

Outsiders strolling the quay look on in awe. It is not hard to tell the two tribes apart.

Welcome to Porto Cervo, Sardinia, created by His Royal Highness the Aga Khan in the 1950s and now one of the world’s most upmarket yachting locations.

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Porto Cervo hosts the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup, hosted by the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda, one of the most prestigious events on the Mediterranean big-boat calendar. The boats will be inspected Saturday, skippers are briefed the following day, with racing starting on Monday.

A record 52 yachts from 60ft and upwards have turned up for a week of inshore racing and coastal sprints along the spectacular Costa Smeralda and its notorious stretches of water with names like “Bomb Alley.”

Sardinia's Costa Smeralda offers stunning sailing among rocky islands.

Billionaire lifestyle

The sailors, globe-trotting guns for hire, exude an air of surf chic combined with preppy pro jock. The younger the sailor, the more disheveled the look. Much like life.

Hands are strong and coarse. Handshakes firm to crippling. Eyes crinkle into smiles, the effect of years sailing in sun and wind.

While the scene is glitzy, at least in the marina, the sailors’ office can be a dangerous salt-lashed bucking bronco with high stakes.

Chatting to the crews, the number one trade-off is not the risk but the time spent away from home and families.

“You’re part performance athlete and part hobo,” says Andy Green, a Newport, RI-based British sailor and America’s Cup commentator. 

“You’re living out of a bag but living the life of a billionaire. When it’s all over you go back to your apartment or whatever and live a normal life.” 

The big yacht circuit generally begins in the Caribbean with races such as the Caribbean 600 from Antigua in February and Les Voiles de Saint Barth in April before moving to the Mediterranean for the summer and regattas in oh-so chic spots like Majorca, Corfu, St Tropez, Porto Cervo and Palermo in Sicily.

Among the traveling tribe there is a distinct hierarchy at work.

At the top, at least on shore, are the owners. High-achieving businessmen with big bucks to lavish on their chosen sport. A new mainsail costs north of $160,000 and just the running costs for a summer campaign can be anything between about $1.5 million and $5.4 million.

“It’s highly competitive. All the owners are very friendly, we have drinks and invite each other to parties but on the water nobody gives you any quarter — on the water you want to kill them,” Sir Peter Ogden, owner of Maxi 72 Jethou, told CNN.

Britain’s Ogden, who built up UK company Computacenter and owns the Channel Island Jethou, adds: “The hardest part is signing the cheques. That, and steering the boat.

“But this is what I do to relax. Angst is when I go home and see the pile of envelopes.” 

The Wally 107 Open Season in action during the 2016 Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup in Porto Cervo.

‘Testosterone-fueled’

To deliver the boat to these sun-drenched corners of the world and get it to the start line in one piece, the owners employ a full-time boat captain and a handful of permanent crew.

“We’re partly sailors, partly worker bees,” laughs England’s Mike Atkinson, boat captain on the Wally 107 Open Season, owned by former Bugatti boss Thomas Bscher of Germany.

His role involves logistics, crew transfers, accommodation, food, safety, maintenance and budgeting. Running costs “virtually doubled” from the previous 94ft Open Season to the current 107ft version — a “big learning curve”, says Atkinson.

“It’s a good lifestyle, you have to work hard and it’s definitely not 9-5 but it beats working in an office. I couldn’t work in an office,” adds Atkinson, who is based in Palma, Majorca, with his Spanish wife and two young kids.  

He is backed up by first mate Tom Bayliss, who is responsible for all the rigging and fittings, and engineer Sally Weatherstone, an exception not just for being a woman but for being a female engineer.

“I started just crewing on boats, then I got a mate’s job, and we needed an engineer,” says Weatherstone.  “I learned on the job, and when I did my exams they said I was the third girl that had been through in 10 years. 

“It is a bit blokesy, it’s a testosterone-fueled week.”  

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Hap Fauth's Bella Mente won the 2016 Maxi 72 world championship in Sardinia.

‘Stressful’

On the Maxi 72 Bella Mente, owned by Minneapolis businessman John “Hap” Fauth, the permanent crew of four swells to 20 for racing.

Skipper Peter Henderson leads a full-time team comprising a boatbuilder, a hydraulics and winches expert, and a junior. With a bigger budget, the role of travel organizer and logistics is separate.

“We’re on the road non-stop, you ask my wife. In 2013 I was on the road 300 days,” said Henderson, who grew up sailing in Michigan.

Unlike the more cruising oriented Wally class, Bella Mente is a stripped-out racer, a black carbon shell with no frills down below.

The toilet is of the “bucket and chuck it” variety. There is no galley in day-race mode, and sleeping facilities, should they be needed for longer offshore races, are pull down canvas shelves, operated on a “hot-bunk” basis for sailors on different watches.

Last year a storm in Porto Cervo meant Henderson and another had to sleep on board and take turns to keep watch as a big sea surged into the harbor, threatening to ram her onto the dock — Bella Mente’s keel is too deep to retreat further inside the marina.

“That was stressful. More so than the racing,” said Henderson.

‘Dangerous’

While the permanent crew are the workhorses, the stardust comes from the tacticians and other members of the “brains trust,” the big-money signings making the racing decisions.

Among those calling the shots this week are Open Season’s Jochen Shuemann, a multiple Olympic champion and former sporting director for America’s Cup outfit Alinghi, and former America’s Cup-winning tactician and skipper Brad Butterworth on Jethou.

The tactician can also have an input on the rest of the crew, often beginning with the top pros in their specializations.

Kiwi Warwick Fleury, who has competed in eight America’s Cups with Team New Zealand and Switzerland’s Alinghi, is the mainsail trimmer on Jethou.

 READ: Fold-up speedboats to superyachts

“It sounds glamorous and probably looks glamorous, but the downside is time traveling and away from home,” said Fleury, who will join 30 or so other sailors for a charter flight to Mahon, Menorca for the TP52 Worlds as soon as this is over.  “But even then, a bay day is not all that bad.”

Crew work is vital, everyone has their role onboard.

Like all freelancers, the next gig comes through contacts, word of mouth and old-fashioned cold calling. Some have to work harder than others.

“There’s not huge job security. And it can be dangerous,” adds Green, who was once skippering a yacht in Sardinia when a crewman broke six ribs and later lost his spleen when he was thrown against the rigging.

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“You have to be enthusiastic, you’ve got to keep current, and keep winning.

“It can be challenging. It’s all about building relationships. You sometimes have to have difficult and frank conversations about how to make a boat go fast. Some people have very strong opinions, so you have to be a diplomat and a racer, it’s a difficult balance. 

“But you go to some amazing venues and meet some really interesting people.  It can be incredibly rewarding.”

Being able to cross the owner’s palm with gold, sometimes literally, helps get a ride.

Croatia’s Igor Marenic and Sime Fantela won the gold medal in the 470 class at Rio 2016, and are sailing alongside Green on Nahita, owned by the Turkish-Croatian sponsor of their Olympic campaign.

Marenic, not long back from Rio, carries his Olympic gold medal wrapped up in a black sports sock in his rucksack. He is reluctant to flash it around.

“It’s safer with me,” Marenic tells CNN. “I don’t get it out. I only showed the boss when he asked me where the medal was.”

Further down the chain are the rank and file, grafting pros and youngsters whose office just happens to be in a billionaire’s playground. Or guests of the owner, in turn borrowing the sailors’ lifestyle for a few days.

Whoever they are, stepping onto the yacht places them in a different realm to the shore-bound onlookers. 

A school of cool. Part of the tribe. A long way from home.

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