Superyacht Beast Mode

Professional navigator Wouter Veerbrak describes the challenges and rewards of racing a high-tech, high-load 213-foot superyacht.

213-foot superyacht Perseus 3
The 25-man crew of Perseus 3 fine tunes its sail trim to get the 213-foot superyacht up to speed at the St. Barths Bucket Regatta.Carlo Borlenghi

The glass sliding doors leading into the salon part and our bearded boat captain, who goes by the nickname “Burger,” steps in with a wall of moist hot air. With a big smile and a firm handshake, he gives us a warm welcome, then gets straight to business.

“Today was a big day. Forklift day,” he says with an air of calm and determination. “We lifted 2 tons of racing sails on board and took 3 tons of charter equipment off. We have two more days to get everything ready before the rest of the race crew joins us.”

This is not just any yacht we are about to race. At 213 feet overall, with a 23-story mast, the Perini Navi Perseus 3 is one of the largest sailing yachts in the world.

Its 8,530-square-foot spinnaker is the size of a football field, sheets are as thick as my forearm, and at 639 tons, 40 feet of draft and 70 tons of load on the headstay, the only way to approach sailing this yacht is with sincere humbleness and respect. The event we are preparing for is the St. Barths Bucket. From all over the world, the largest sailing yachts have gathered at the luxury French Caribbean island. With considerable honor attached to winning the regatta, neither cost nor effort is spared in getting the yachts ready for the races.

The invasion of the race crew signals the start of four days of practice. It’s a reunion, with hugs and reminiscing about the last time we sailed together in St. Barths in 2017. Crew morale is right where we left it and refreshes our determination to put our shoulders into the Herculean effort to race this yacht to its full potential.

Race uniforms, caps, belts, rental cars, room keys and the daily schedule are distributed and the camaraderie amongst the crew is tangible. It’s a tight-knit family, but still, trying to get such a large group of free-spirited sailors all moving in the same direction might be more difficult than getting the yacht around the racecourse. Thankfully, we have the stewardesses to keep everyone in line—and eventually get us all to the right place at the right time. It might be two years since we last raced this big lady, but by keeping the team mostly unchanged, we swiftly find our racing feet.

With pursuit-style racing, where the slowest yacht starts first and subsequent starting times are calculated using each yacht’s ratings, we are second to last to start in our class. The first race takes us counter clockwise around the island.

A well-timed start, good upwind speed and a lucky shift brings us swiftly to the top of the island. Downwind, we manage to pass the similarly sized, ketch-rigged Perini Navi Seahawk—and at the rounding of the last island we’re not far behind the 183-foot Rosehearty. We know our strength is sailing to windward, so we plot our offensive. They go right, we nudge left, squeezing the maximum height out of our lady. The wind trends left as expected. Rosehearty tacks on the layline to the finish. The cross will be close, but a few degrees of left-hand shift arrives in time. A smooth tack and the finish is on our bow. We cross the line and take the win. The team is ecstatic with a fantastic start.

The second day is far trickier.

The Wriggly Course, which zigzags around different islands, has much shorter legs, so we can’t quite get a proper stride. The 131-foot Hyperion is on top of its game, and with its shallower draft, sneaks into the water between us and the island, preventing us from jibing, so we have to sail more ­distance. Third place is the best we can do.

On the final day of racing, we’re tied with Hyperion and Rosehearty. Winner takes all.

Communication officer: "14 minutes to the start."
Tactician: "OK, we only have time for one more loop before our final approach."
Helm: "Agreed, with this wind, let's avoid the jibe to save the battens."
Comms officer: "6 minutes to the start."
Tactician: "We are on the final approach."
Comms officer: "4 minutes."
Navigator: "1 minute to burn."
Helm: "Approach is good, burning time here early."
Crew boss: "Standby hoisting spinnaker."
Bow: "Bow ready."
Aft deck: "Aft deck ready."
Comms officer: "2 minutes 30."
Navigator: "20 seconds to burn."
Tactician: "Good timing. Ready for acceleration?"
Helm: "Happy with timing, bearing away."
Crew boss: "Hoisting spinnaker."
Comms officer: "1 minute 30."
Crew boss: "Bucket up."

The start gun goes, and within ­seconds, the gigantic spinnaker is steadily drawing; Perseus gathers pace and punches the line. On the flybridge, the guests cheer, again stunned by the enormous spinnaker towering above from the top of the mast. With the lush green island of St. Barths in the background, the scenery completes this picture-perfect sailing day.

Bill, our helmsman, and I would love to soak up all of this beauty, but the adrenaline is still flowing too wildly. “That was close,” I say. Crossing the line 5 seconds late might sound like a bad start, but on this 639-ton yacht, this is as close as we ever want to be in a downwind start.

There is no time to relax. Strong gusts are rolling down from the top of the island. A new patch of wind reaches us and the giant sail plan pushes us forward. With a more direct course to the mark, we make gains on the boats that chose the other side of the course. We are now quickly reaching the layline, so it is time to set up for a jibe. It might be hard to believe, but a jibe takes a full 2 minutes to execute, start to finish. Good communications and planning are key.

Our crew boss, Grimmy, is in his element and coordinates the bow and aft-deck teams. The staysail gets furled first. One minute to the jibe, the mainsail starts to come in toward centerline. Bill turns the wheel and gradually, our big lady responds. On the aft deck, more than 300 feet of spinnaker sheet gets eased by a team of three operating one winch. The new sheet is pulled around by four crew on the other winch. In the meantime, far away on the bow, 10 more sailors are executing a choreographed and synchronized routine to get the spinnaker tack down and the sheet around thick shrouds. The timing is impeccable. The jibe is perfect and with the boat quiet, we are quickly up to speed again.

Perseus mid-race
Clear communication between Perseus' bow team, the aft-deck team and afterguard on the flybridge keeps maneuvers sharp.Carlo Borlenghi

Over four years of sailing with the Perseus 3 team, the focus in most of our debriefs is on improving communication between the different teams manning parts of the boat. As tactician on the flybridge, I don't have a direct line of sight to the aft-deck team—and with the bow team 65 feet farther forward, yelling is pointless. The contemporary way of running superyachts is to have different squads.

There is the speed team, the maneuvers team, and the afterguard, which includes the tactician, navigator and helmsman. As tactician, my philosophy is to be more of a conductor, streamlining the communications to keep a quiet boat.

We’re approaching the downwind mark. This is the most crucial moment of boat-handling we’ll have all day. A sock snuffs the spinnaker to make manhandling it to the deck more manageable, but to get the 1,200-pound anaconda on the boat still requires a coordinated effort involving all 25 crew. Our Irish mid-bow team get the job done with incredible efficiency.

We turn the corner and are soon ­reaching for the next mark. Behind us, misfortune comes to Hyperion as their headsail splits in the steadily increasing winds. It’s a sign of things to come as dark clouds gather in front of us. The Caribbean islands are known for steady trade winds and beautiful sunny days, but the sky now looks like the arrival of Armageddon. Ahead of us, clouds darken, and I can see the wind building, pushing a thick gray wall of rain.

"Big gust coming in five," I alert the crew. The gust sweeps across Perseus. We ease the sails quickly, but the force of the wind tips us like a little dinghy. The flybridge dashboard lights up like a Christmas tree and Burger is trying to mute the deafening sound of various alarms. The side decks are awash with green water rushing ravenously along the cabin. The skies break open, emptying their contents. All of us are drenched within seconds. It is impossible to see much beyond the bow of the boat or hear each other over the drumming raindrops. Like an ancient Greek battle, it is Poseidon ­versus Perseus. Finally, our Medusa-slaying ­demigod regains her composure, and with blue skies reappearing, we trim in the sails and continue our lap around St. Barths.

In front, Rosehearty, evades the worst of the squall, so we have our work cut out to try and pass. Fortunately, the next part of the race is a beat. This is where our yacht excels. The speed team is constantly adjusting finding the right trim of the sails, so the yacht is balanced and drives itself. There’s a hushed chatter between the helm and trimmers, small adjustments, that is it, nicely in the groove.

With good speed, we close the gap with Rosehearty, and she is well within our reach when we reach the corner at the top of the island. Though Perseus was famously gifted speedy wings by Hermes, on the beam reach the ketch-rigged Rosehearty is fast and manages to extend its lead again.

But there’s still the final run to the finish. “Good course, no lower than this,” I remind the speed team. There are a couple of rocky outcrops to go around. This is where the navigator earns his paycheck.

“Ready on bow. Tack out.”

From bow to stern, there is a flurry of activity. Winches spin, the bow crew guides the spinnaker below the foot of the jib as the electric winch pulls it skyward.

“Bearing away.”

The spinnaker reaches top of the mast.

“Bucket up.”

The jib is rolled away, its enormous ­furling unit whining below the foredeck. The big spinnaker fills again and the speedo makes its climb to 14 knots. Will it be enough?

We are much faster than Rosehearty. The wind freshens, pushing us along with another knot of boatspeed. Another good puff and there’s even more in the tank. A win today would earn the trophy we have all be working so hard for. The distance to Rosehearty is steadily decreasing. We need more runway. With one-tenth of a mile to the finish, Rosehearty crosses the line ahead of us. We keep sailing the boat perfectly trimmed until the finish line is in our wake.

Win or lose, sailing Perseus is an absolute pleasure for everyone on board. We take second overall in our class, which is a step up from the last time we raced in St. Barths. We have one more step to go to reach the top of the superyacht scene.

We take pride in our finish, but more importantly, we make note of the stellar team spirit. We’re always improving, focusing on team building and making sure the owners have the best experience possible. Sailing these enormous yachts means extending lots of trust and having the patience of a saint to let the team figure out things themselves. Humor, too, is essential. Conversations must remain light when things go wrong, so we can find a constructive way to solve any problem. Keeping the mood light might not sound cutthroat and competitive, but it is essential to the success and popularity of superyacht ­racing. If we’re having fun, we’re winning.

If there is one thing St. Barths serves, it’s fun on shore. The vibrant restaurant scene provides the perfect setting for traditional all-crew dinners to conclude the event. With minds intensely focused all week, it is now time to relax and kick back. Our Irish contingent excel in this regard, and halfway through dinner the entire team is dancing on the tables and singing loudly, providing an unforgettable climax to an exceptional regatta for the family that chartered the Hermes-winged Grand Dame of the ocean.