Transatlantic Dash

Seasoned skipper Stefano Valente prepares for the world’s most challenging yacht race

Today, a fleet of yachts embarked on a race across the Atlantic, set to traverse 3,000 nautical miles through non-stop trade wind-powered sailing. The fourth edition of the international Panerai Transat Classique will see over fifteen classic and vintage vessels dash from Lanzarote to the Caribbean isle of St. Kitts. Crews must tactically navigate the archipelago of the Canary Islands before tackling the Antilles, mastering wood, water and wind.

At the start-line sits Eilean, a 22-metre Bermudan ketch built in 1936 by the renowned William Fife Shipyard in Scotland and faithfully restored by Panerai, the Italian watchmaker who has been sponsoring the race since 2005, but whose relationship to the sea stretches back to 1860. Originally founded in Florence by Giovanni Panerai as a workshop, shop and school of watch-making, for decades it officially supplied the Royal Italian Navy and its specialist diving corps with precision instruments. These designs, including the Luminor and the Radiomir, were covered by the Military Secrets Act and only made public in 1997.

Before the expedition, Port talked to the skipper of the Eilean, Stefano Valente, about the siren call of water, racing and adventure.

What first drew you to sailing and how long have you been on the water?

I had my first sailing experience at the age of 16, when I joined the Italian Navy Corps to do my degree. During the sports classes I attended the sailing courses, which I enjoyed very much. But my attraction to sea started even earlier, since my parents had a small motorboat we used during our vacations when I was a kid. So, I’ve been on the water for over 40 years.

Have there been any stand out races you’ve competed in over the years? What made them memorable?

Since I’ve been on Eilean since she was refitted, I’ve participated at all the Panerai Challenge Races for 9 Editions. Thanks to the fantastic crew(s) past and present, all of those races were memorable. A special race, given the wonderful landscape and sea side – as well as the particular weather conditions – was the race around the island of Cowes in 2012.

Are you only as good as your crew?

It is determinant to have a crew that works together in harmony and efficiency.

Why are yachts suitable boats for swift, long distance racing?

Eilean has been designed as a cruising yacht rather than a racing or performing yacht. Therefore, she is much more suitable and fit to face different weather conditions which, on a long-distance race, you are likely to encounter.

How has Eilean’s original 1936 body been restored and refined for the 21st Century?

The restoring and refurbishing works took nearly 3 years. While her metal frames have been completely replaced, more than 70% of her planks are still the original ones, just as all the hatches, the rudder and the steering system. Obviously, systems like hydraulic, electric and electronic system and propulsion have been entirely replaced. Also, the navigation and communication system are of the new generation, adequate for today’s class requirements.

When do you know you’ve won, or lost, a boat race?

Already during the race, one gets an idea of whether you have chosen the right winning strategy. Of course, the communications of the race comity and of the other attendees’ position allows you to understand your possibilities of winning the race.

Which 3,000 nautical mile is the hardest?

Probably the last part of the race will be the hardest one, since the crew – after weeks out on the sea – will be rather exhausted…and we might struggle holding the glasses full of Caribbean rum while toasting at the end of our adventure.