Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez: 'The most beautiful racing boats ever built'

Story highlights

  • Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez visits French Riviera each year
  • Classic race boats take to the water
  • Some are over 100 years old

(CNN)America's Cup boats are admittedly some of the most impressive machines in sport and skippering one has been likened to piloting a fighter jet or driving a Formula One car. It is a task left to "superhuman" athletes.

But there are times when modernity isn't everything.
Welcome to Les Voiles de St. Tropez, an annual regatta on the French Riviera that celebrates classic race boats from a bygone era, showcasing some of the most beautiful boats ever made.
    When viewed alongside today's America's Cup, this competition may look like a different sport entirely. Polished wood and brass adorn the interiors of the yachts, and chunky ropes hold large, cream-colored sails in place.
    But these stunning boats -- 26 of which were built over a century ago -- once competed in the America's Cup and the Olympic Games.
    "This fleet of 15-meter [yachts] -- they're arguably the most beautiful racing boats ever built," Gonzalo Botín, owner of "The Lady Anne," tells CNN Mainsail at this year's event in Saint-Tropez.
    "Racing these boats is a really big privilege. It's like a time machine, getting on board these boats and knowing they were once raced really hard."

    'Exceptionally pretty' boat design

    There were four 15-meter classic yachts of this kind at the festival, each the brainchild of Scottish yacht designer William Fife. He designed 600 yachts in his lifetime (1857-1944), two of which contested the America's Cup.
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    As a sailing craftsman, Fife was unique. About 80% of the classic yachts gathered in Saint-Tropez this year were made under his name.
    "He was not only able to make his boats very fast, but also very beautiful," says Botín.
    "This is remarkable because you'll never see a Fife boat which isn't exceptionally pretty. I think that's really difficult. I think other designers of the time were able to make really fast boats, but not as pretty."
    Befitting the spectacular yachts it hosts at the regatta, the town of Saint-Tropez has a reputation for glamor and Mediterranean chic.
    The 1956 film "And God Created Woman" starring Brigitte Bardot helped put the small harbor town on the partying map, and it quickly became a go-to destination for the social elite during the 1960s.
    Les Voiles de St. Tropez arrived in 1981, and since then the festival has gone on to attract over 300 yachts and 4,000 sailors each year.
    "When you have this incredibly beautiful port, this tiny port, filled up with the classic boats, it all fits," says Chris Barkham, captain of the Fife classic yacht Cambria.
    "At the end of the season, it's the perfect way to finish the year."