It all sounded terribly sophisticated when Yves Carcelle, the dashing and debonair head of Louis Vuitton, invited me to spend a weekend sailing in Dubai on some of the world’s fastest and most impressive racing boats.
It was the last in a series of sailing races in the Louis Vuitton Trophy – a competition that during the past two years has brought together top sailing teams as they prepare to do battle in the next America’s Cup in 2013.
Much to my surprise, I found myself on board the All4One Franco-German yacht as the 18th man. Not being a weathered sailor, I was told to sit down at the back and keep quiet. Anyone who thinks that sailing in this type of highly competitive event – even under the Louis Vuitton banner – is a civilised pursuit would be mistaken. Within minutes, my smart Loro Piana slacks were completely soaked. Still more disturbing, crew members kept coming down to my end of the boat to relieve themselves over the side, perhaps because of the tension of the race.
This was a fierce competition, which we lost to the BMW Oracle American team. It was with a mixture of sadness and excitement that we eventually returned to port in the glowing red Gulf sunset. Sad because when the Dubai regatta ends this weekend it will be the last time the magnificent 100 or so International America’s Cup Class single-hull racing yachts compete. Many of these 24m-long boats will now be heading for the scrap yard.
But crew members were also excited at the prospect of the big changes about to take place in the America’s Cup. For they will now be competing with giant new multi-hull catamarans, which will make the races even quicker and more challenging.
The competition on the water to secure what many call sailing’s “holy grail” has always been aggressive. But in recent years the real battles have been fought on land. Between 2007 and 2010, the world of top competitive sailing has been buffeted by legal skirmishes between the US software mogul Larry Ellison and the Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, who won the America’s Cup with his Alinghi team in 2003. Bertarelli defended the title in Valencia in 2007.
Carcelle soon fell out with Bertarelli, disliking his hands-on business approach to the competition. As a result the venerable French luxury company stopped sponsoring the selection of the challenger who would take on the previous winner of the America’s Cup and put an end to its 25-year association with this grand sporting event.
“Thank God that Bertarelli found himself opposed to someone like Larry Ellison,” Carcelle told me over a glass or two of champagne, just before dispatching me for my somewhat fraught Louis Vuitton racing experience. “He [Ellison] has very deep pockets and could afford to pay the lawyers and keep appealing and counter-appealing until he eventually was able to challenge Alinghi with his BMW Oracle catamaran in this year’s contest.”
Ellison’s catamaran won– and he is now the defender of the next America’s Cup. To select the challenger to BMW Oracle, the old Louis Vuitton Cup contest will be resurrected in a new format that will involve high-tech catamarans. And to prepare and train the teams a new world championship series will be organised using less sophisticated catamarans, while the contestants build their new boats in time for 2013.
The emphasis is on returning the America’s Cup to a sport-orientated venture rather than a commercial circus. To this end, anybody wanting to sign up for the competition will now have to splash out $1.5m and not the $10,000-$15,000 they used to put down in the past. The idea is to attract serious competitors and dissuade second-rate challengers.
It would be naïve to suggest that Louis Vuitton is returning as key sponsor of the America’s Cup because of its dedication to the sport alone. Carcelle, who has become a sailing enthusiast, is the first to acknowledge that Louis Vuitton’s long-standing association with the competition also makes good commercial sense. It has helped promote its new products, and, above all, its foray into the luxury watch business.
But sailing has not just been a promotional vehicle for Louis Vuitton. Indeed, it was America’s Cup sailing that first brought the company into contact with Moët Hennessy, the champagne and cognac group. It all happened at a dinner at the swish Castel nightclub in Paris organised by Bruno Troublé, the veteran Olympic sailor who has been from the beginning the heart and soul of the Louis Vuitton Trophy. That night in 1984, Troublé brought together Jean-Louis Masurel, then Moët Hennessy’s managing director, and Henry Racamier, the head of Louis Vuitton. Both were fanatical sailors. Both were keen to be involved in America’s Cup sponsorship. And, a little later, they decided to merge, creating the luxury goods group LVMH.
Carcelle came on board at Louis Vuitton, brought in by Bernard Arnault, who had moved in and taken control of LVMH. Arnault, the undisputed king of the luxury jungle, had no particular penchant for sailing. But given the double-digit annual growth record of Louis Vuitton over Carcelle’s 21 years at the helm, Arnault has come round to the idea that sponsoring the America’s Cup is no bad thing.
But then the ever cheerful and energetic Carcelle can probably sell you anything – whether it’s toothbrushes (which he did after graduating), LV-monogrammed luggage, or, indeed, persuading his guests that sitting at the back of an America’s Cup yacht is an entirely glamorous experience. Though it was not what I had expected from a Louis Vuitton event, it had been pretty unforgettable. I said so to the German skipper as we returned to port. “Yes,” he replied, “it is no picnic and yes, you can get seriously hurt if you don’t remain extremely concentrated.” I recalled a member of the crew dangling perilously in mid-air as he struggled to fix the jib. And how from time to time a thumping noise shook the boat, as if it was about to crack in two.
Now, as we approached the harbour, it all seemed so peaceful – except for the odd crew member who still kept coming down to the end of the boat to relieve themselves.
Paul Betts is a Paris correspondent for the FT
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