Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez : The spirit lives on

Friday, 05 October 2012


If one boat could fully encapsulate the fabled allure and spirit of Saint-Tropez it has to be Manitou. This 62-ft cutter rigged Marconi yawl may be difficult to differentiate from the other 113 beautiful and historic Tradition yachts lining the wharf at Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez. Like so many others, she sports a pristine white hull, teak deck, brass fittings and immaculately varnished spars. What sets her apart from her fellow competitors in the Rolex Trophy fleet and draws the crowds is her association with the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.

While her prestigious former owner may never have raced her, Manitou was today lined up on the start line for the third race of Les Voiles and the Rolex Trophy. The 14 nautical mile course sent the Tradition yachts north-east out of the Bay of Saint-Tropez, before a leg south, and the westward return home. For the main part, the race was conducted in a wide-ranging 5 to 15 knots of easterly breeze, which swung a dramatic180 degrees towards the end of the race.

“It was my friend Philip Jordan who came up with the idea that we might buy President Kennedy’s sailing boat,” explains Claes Goran Nilsson (one of the co-owners along with Jordan, Pat Tierney, and Melinda Kilkenny). “It took nearly a year to finalise everything and after some renovation work we started racing last year. We have been quite successful this year with a win in the Spanish Cup, but here we’ll have to see!”

It is not immediately clear which element of her past first attracted Nilsson and his friends to the idea of Manitou – its illustrious past or its illustrious designer: “It’s a Sparkman & Stephens design which meant we liked the boat and it was what we were looking for. They designed great boats, and you know they are real quality from the smallest piece to the biggest. S&S are very special. But even as a Swede I like the story of Kennedy. I remember him as the first modern president with a vision for the future. It is definitely an added ingredient with this boat.”

Nilsson is quietly understated but he clearly understands and appreciates the significant piece of maritime history he has at his disposal: “When we are racing, we are just one of the other boats, but within this class it is nice to have a good-looking boat with history. It gives us a special feeling when we are talking about the boat, its story, and how we should present it.”

Manitou has long been a valued yacht. In 1936, American James Lowe commissioned Olin Stephens to design him a boat that could win the 289nm Chicago-Mackinac Race. Launched in 1937, Manitou more than fulfilled her owner’s ambitions breaking the elapsed time record and winning the 1938 race on corrected time too. Nilsson and his fellow owners may take great credit for having restored the racing pedigree of a fine yacht.

Some of the most memorable photographs of JFK on the water were taken onboard Manitou and the yacht was known as the ‘floating white house’. That Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis tried to buy her while courting Jackie Kennedy, former First Lady of the United States, only adds to the lustre of Manitou’s story. All told her credentials surely give Manitou the right to an exulted place within the exclusive legend of Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez.

Manitou, which means ‘spirit’ in Native American, was apparently named after the Manitou Passage on Lake Michigan. An appropriate name for a boat which provokes huge interest wherever she goes in the Mediterranean, and carries the memories of one of world’s most significant individuals. For Nilsson, though, all the classic yachts at Les Voiles have some significance, and the regatta is the better for their presence: “Les Voiles is special because of all the boats that are here. I think everybody loves the town and this regatta. It is a great place to have the finale for the year.”

Tomorrow marks the fourth and final race for the Rolex Trophy awarded to the best performing yacht over 16m on deck in the Tradition division at Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez.

Anna Maria Gregorini

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Last Updated ( Friday, 05 October 2012 )