How the elite holiday, by Tristan Rutherford
Camper & Nicholsons SEA+I Magazine, February 2019
Cresta Run, St. Moritz
Underemployed gentlemen brought the sport of sledding St. Moritz during the 1870s. With no dedicated run to speak of, the well-to-do troop careened through the icy Alpine streets, hazarding conservative villagers. A solution was found by Johannes Badrutt. The proprietor of Kulm Hotel, where the young aristocrats stayed, built a slaloming sled course using packed ice. Badrutt’s guests delighted in the breakneck halfpipe with its ten menacing corners. The new run also stopped employees at the Kulm from being mowed down by British yahoos yelling ‘tally ho!’
The St. Moritz Tobogganing Club formalised Badrutt’s course in 1885. Further innovation followed. In 1877 a Mr Cornish adopted a faster head-first descent. This bracing downhill position - a posture impossible with bobsleigh, luge and ‘safer’ downhill sports - would become known as ‘Cresta’ racing. The introduction of flexible skeleton sleds, which support hurtling passengers with a bone-like frame, coincided with the creation of an annual Grand National competition.
Nor did the Kulm Hotel rest on its laurels. The Badrutt family welcomed guests to their ever-expanding guesthouse with telephones, an elevator and warm air heating. They also hung Switzerland's first electric arc lamp above the dining room, a salon which now hosts a two-star Michelin restaurant.
Although the 1928 and 1948 Winter Olympics utilised the Cresta Run course, the club never forgot its dilettante roots. As Gary Lowe, secretary and CEO of the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club, explains: “Our values are essentially Corinthian. Riders are competitive, and race for trophies like the Grand National, but there is no financial gain.” Lowe feels that camaraderie would be put at risk by any form of professionalism, a prospect he claims is “too frightening to contemplate”. Indeed most of the organisation’s members belong to the self-deprecatingly infamous Shuttlecock Club. “To qualify one needs to have fallen at the most notorious corner on the Cresta: Shuttlecock,” says Lowe. “Whilst not quite a right of passage, being able to don the Shuttlecock tie allows one to feel a great sense of belonging.”
Such amateurism is woven into club etiquette. Although former Shuttlecock Presidents have included Gianni Agnelli and Constantin von Liechtenstein, absolute beginners may contact the club to book a SFr52 downhill ride. Few are likely to beat the 49.92 second descent of Lord Wrottesley in 2015. The former Olympian and old Etonian barrelled out of the lower course at 80mph, while withstanding similar g-force to a Formula 1 driver. No wonder sledders celebrate with a Chambord Spritz in the Hotel Kulm’s Sunny Bar.
Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique, Monaco
In 1911 Prince Albert of Monaco hit upon a fine idea. To promote Monaco's modernity, automobiles would race through winter from the four corners of Europe, then ‘rally’ together in the sunny Principality. The inaugural race started from 11 European cities. Over a week later, the competition was won by French racing driver and aviator Henri Rougier who averaged 13.8kph, around twice walking pace. (Rougier's previous exploits in a Voisin biplane, where he flew from Monaco to Nice until a storm at Cap d'Ail forced a crash landing in Port Hercule, made him a worthy winner.)
The glory years for the Rallye Automobile Monte Carlo spanned from 1955 to 1980. Winning automobiles read like a who’s who of classic racing cars: the Mini Cooper S, Renault Alpine A110, Citroën DS and Lancia Stratos. Then as now the route included the Col de Turini. The 15km climb at 7.2%, with its tortuous descent to follow, was raced in the icy darkness, earning it the sobriquet ‘night of the long knives’ after vehicles’ headlights sliced through the frigid sky.
In the 1980s the race became a stage on the World Rally Championship. Back then Ford Fiestas and Subaru Imprezas competed with five times the horsepower of the 1960s entrants, but without the vintage élan. The race’s most recent winner, Sebastien Ogier, averaged speeds of nearly 100kph.
How to recreate these halycon days? Enter the Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique. From the late 1990s, classic rally cars have been invited to hotfoot from across the continent for a more leisurely, but no less rivalrous, racing regatta through rural Provence. “For our 2019 race, spectators can watch from starting cities including Barcelona, Milan, Reims and Bad Homberg,” says Gery Mestre, President of the Automobile Club de Monaco’s Automobile Collection Commission.
“The last night of the Col de Turini is always magical,” attests Mestre. This winter, drivers will bolt out of Monaco at 8.30pm uphill towards La Turbie. Then they will zigzag the Alpes-Maritimes’ most curvaceous passes before completing the course at Port Hercule by 1am. The following day’s prize-giving at the Monte-Carlo Sporting Club concludes the race’s illustrious history in style. That’s because the ceremony is sometimes performed in the presence of Prince Albert II, great-great-grandson of the event’s creator.
Calcutta Polo Cup, Calcutta
During the 1990s the world’s oldest polo organisation almost died of old age. “Polo is an expensive sport,” explains Keshav Bangur, president of the Calcutta Polo Club. “And royal patronage isn’t what it once was.” Lucrative sponsorship was directed towards cricket in which the Indian national team excelled. Furthermore an “old guard” of officers seemed removed from the nation’s burgeoning middle class. The ancient Bengali club, whose patrons had included the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Duke of Edinburgh, had nearly played its last chukka.
Fortunately Bangur comes from a business background. This allowed him to rebuild a tip-top club using his organisational acumen. The President started by subsidising student players. Each beginner would practise striking pucks with mallets, while their boots were stirruped to two bricks to simulate a horseback whack. Relationships were also fostered with other clubs that had survived on the sport’s outer reaches, including the Polo Club of Miami, which still saddles up on the sands of South Beach.
Even Instagram was used to used create links with the wider polo fraternity. Bangur’s staff now receive vintage photographs from the world over. The most recent of these was a horseback snap of Sandhurst graduate Herbert Augustus Moses, which was posted by his granddaughter. In the 1880s, Moses coached the Calcutta club to success while moonlighting for the Maharaja of Jaipur’s team.
Perhaps Bangur’s most insightful idea was to reintroduce the Ezra Cup. The oldest instituted polo trophy in the world sparkles on the Calcutta social calendar. The action begins when mounted players are bagpiped onto the field by a military band. Teams of four from as far as Italy and Argentina then swing mallets from their ponies for each seven-minute chukka. Seated spectators wear the finest in Calcutta tailoring despite the 30°C humidity. Each has a clean line of vision beyond the field to the snow-white Victoria Memorial and the unctuous grey Hooghly River.
By saving the Calcutta Polo Club, Bangur also preserved a piece of history. Centuries ago a mounted ballgame was used to keep royal calvaries in trim across Asia, hence the ‘Sport of Kings’ moniker. As Bangur explains, in the 1850s two British officers, Captain Robert Stewart and Major General Joe Sherer, played a game of Pulu against locals in Manipur in northeastern India. “Back then there were no goalposts, there could be 20 players aside, and horsemen could push each other off,” says Bangur. “It was a ruleless game right? But jolly fun to play.”
The evolving sport, now anglicised and rule-bound as ‘Polo’, became the yardstick that Maharajas and British Indian armies could measure themselves against. The game became so popular that Sherer and Stewart were obliged to start the Calcutta Polo Club in 1862. That makes the outfit a mere stripling compared to Camper and Nicholsons, which started building boats eight decades earlier.
Voiles de Saint-Tropez, St Tropez
The French Riviera’s most fabulous regatta began with a friendly rivalry in 1981. Patrice de Colmont, proprietor of Club 55, challenged an America’s Cup 12m to a race against a Swan 44. With no naval chart to hand, de Colmont used a road map to plot what would become the Voiles de Saint-Tropez.
Conveniently, the race route started at the Vieux-Port. It then turned right at the Nioulargue buoy, before finishing outside de Colmert’s beach bar on plage de Pampelonne. The winner received a bibulous lunch at Club 55 plus a silver platter purloined from France’s Marine Nationale. Local journal Var-Matin mistook the fuss for a full-blown regatta. The following day it led with the headline: “Une nouvelle America’s Cup est née!” - ‘A new America’s Cup is born!’
According to Tony Oller, president of the Société Nautique de Saint-Tropez and organizer of les Voiles de Saint-Tropez, both heritage and humour remain intact. “The aim of our unique event is bring together 300 of the world’s most beautiful boats, and have fun,” he says. The most anticipated race pits over 100 tradition yachts, most launched before the current Elizabethan era, in a sea of timeless sail. Camper and Nicholsons yachts are popular with spectators and challengers alike. Regulars among the latter include America’s Cup J-Class challenger Endeavour (1934). Plus Charles E Nicholson's first large yacht design, Marigold (1892), and the glorious gaff cutter he built for himself, Folly (1909).
Another fan favourite is the Maxi race. Here Wally Class yachts, sporting jet black sails, sprint like wraiths across the Bay of St Tropez. The entire regatta is easy to follow, claims Oller. “Viewer may climb the Citadelle or up to the Chapelle Sainte Anne for an extraordinary panorama of the races,” says the yacht club president. “This year, for the first time, there will also be a giant screen in the harbour.”
Indeed rosé and ribaldry go hand-in-hand at the Voiles de Saint-Tropez. “All the competitors meet in the Vieux-Port for drinks while debriefing,” explains Oller. “This is also an opportunity for them to ‘tease’ their competitors”. Most importantly, “our event’s character is to be entirely open to the public, with nothing closed or barred”. Thus one may check one’s reflection in the polished brass of a classic yacht, before sinking a glass of Château Minuty, the rosé of choice back at Club 55.
Bosphorus Swim, Istanbul
A cross-continental swim through the world’s busiest shipping lane has all the ingredients of a new classic. That’s because the Bosphorus, a 30km-long waterway both unites and divides Istanbul’s 15 million souls, is a stupendously treacherous stretch of sea. Sections of the straits bulge at 3km in width. Others shrink to a mere 700m across. That means that devilish currents from the Black Sea are squeezed into the Mediterranean at up to 8 knots, while a viscous countercurrent runs in the other direction deep below the waves. Only the brave or the foolhardy would dive right in.
The annual Bosphorus Swim from Asia to Europe welcomes both. This year 2,000 competitors from 55 nations will suit up in the ritzy Asian suburb of Kanlıca. In just three decades, the swim has become as international as the Bosphorus itself. Astride the surging waterway, an Ottoman elite distilled their empire’s wealth from the Arabian Gulf to the Atlantic into 600 waterside yalı, or wooden villas. These includes the rococo yalı of Ahmet Atif Pasha. This Turkish trader was so rich that he commissioned Alexandre Vallaury, the French architect who designed Istanbul's Pera Palace Hotel, to build it. Not that swimmers will focus on such froofy architecture as they plunge into the Bosphorus. Their focus is purely on crawling their way to another continent.
Despite the surging seas, the annual swim is more “tricky than dangerous”, says Simon Murie, founder SwimTrek. Murie organises entry to the Bosphorus race as well as other, more leisurely, long-distance swims in Croatia, the Caribbean and the Galapagos. “A key approach is to judge your angle correctly,” explains Murie. “Turn too late and you risk being swept past the finish line. Turn too soon and you may get into the countercurrent, which will make your swim longer.”
As participants near the European suburb of Kuruçeşme, cheering crowds provide a welcome boost. Because the Bosphorus Straits are closed to both container ships and passenger ferries for these precious hours, the city comes to a literal standstill, resulting in a welcome afternoon off for many waterside workers, who wave from both banks.
There’s a keen sense of fellowship at the haulout line in Europe. Each participant receives a document certifying them as an ‘Intercontinental Swimmer’. The oldest competitor has been a sprightly 85 years of age. Even Olympic champions Ian Thorpe and Mark Spitz have joined in to witness the fun. Any final tips? Murie suggests that “a hammam is a great way to relax tired muscles after the race”. We heartily recommend the Kılıç Ali Pasha steambaths. This waterside hammam was donated to the city's sailing fraternity by an Ottoman Admiral in 1583.
Many more yachting stories can be read on Tristan and Kathryn's official website