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The legendary Phocea

 Phocea_1Sailing Vessel turned Super Yacht

 By Sanny Ensing

 “She is absolutely gorgeous,” says French boat builder Guillaume Chidaine as he stares at the four-masted sailing yacht Phocea from shore, “and she’s got a very intriguing history.” Inspired by his admiration of the schooner, a visit was arranged the next week, and an interview scheduled with the captain, Juergen Mais. Mais and his friendly crew gave a fascinating tour of the elusive Phocea, not a yacht that admits many people to take a peek, and supplied a wealth of information on this historical sailing vessel turned super yacht.

 

The legendary Phocea was the largest sailing yacht in the world before the 2004 launching of Athena by Royal Huisman, and she is also one of the fastest, explains her captain: “When French businessman Bernard Tapie owned her, he was set upon breaking the record for mono-hull Trans-Atlantic crossings, and he did. She crossed in eight days, three hours and 29 minutes in 1988, at times touching up to 30 knots and she kept this title for 20 years.”

 

Phocea was built at the Toulon Naval Dockyard in 1976 for the well-reputed, single-handed yachtsman Alain Colas. Mais explains that this remarkable boat was launched upside down. Mais: “They had no way to turn her when she was launched and so they let her tumble over. They put her in the water as she was, upside down.” Shortly after competing in the Observer Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race, she was converted into the charter yacht “Club Mediteranée.”

 

Alain Colas had Phocea specifically designed by naval architect Michel Bigoin to win the Trans-Atlantic race. The race had been previously dominated by multi-hulls. One hull, four rigs; Bigoin designed a hull with a length over 70 metres and a beam of just 9.60 metres. He shared the sails out among four masts, each featuring a Bermuda Rig. Mais smiles and says: “Michel Bigoun is still around and comes to the yard and has a look when there is a problem. All her former owners and designers love her and will come back and do anything for her.” Most important, however, “and to Colas’s credit,” says Mais, “is his thought process: ‘I get speed from the waterline, so let me make an extremely long one.’”

 

Colas was leading the race with Club Mediteranée but shortly before arrival, a halyard broke and she came in second. Some blame the fact that Colas had a leg injury during the building process and could not test sail her before he set off for the race. Mais shrugs and says: “I think you always need a little luck to win a race and when your competitor has the luck, he or she wins!” After the race, she was fitted out with an interior and sailed around French Polynesia as a charter yacht. Mais laughs and says: “You could not really call it luxury chartering as we know it today. People were sleeping in hammocks.” Alain Colas disappeared at sea in 1978 just off the Azores whilst racing in the Route du Rhum aboard sailing vessel Manureva.

 

Phocea’s real super yacht history began in 1982 when French business man Bernard Tapie bought her and had her converted to a private yacht. Mais: “Phocea was still in racing boat configuration and he tried to take her into the charter market, there were not really luxury charters as yet.” It was Tapie who christened her Phocea, in honour of the Phoenicians who founded Marseilles where she was refitted. During the refit, the hull was extended to 74.20 metres and the masts by 6 metres. Interior designer Jacques Pierrejean decorated the Phocea in a strong, bold 1970’s design with a lot of colour and incorporated nine guest areas, including an owner’s suite, a hairdressing salon, a dining room, an office and accommodation for a crew of 18.

 

In July 1997, Phocea was purchased by Mouna Ayoub after Tapie had been in some trouble and then lost the boat. It was Ayoub who began her transformation into the yacht she is today. Nasser Al-Rashid, Mouna Ayoub’s ex-husband, partly paid for the $17 million refit of the Phocea by the sale of “The Mouna,” a 112-carat (22.4 g) record-breaking diamond. At Lurssen she received major interior and exterior upgrade. The builder modernized the yacht and sail systems and upgraded the engineering to become state of the art. In 1999, a refurbished Phocea left the yard with a rigging that has no equal in the world.

 

My tour aboard Phocea reveals the gorgeous interior that contains living and accommodation areas with wood panelling, and some furniture by David Linley. Classic refined woods and materials make her interior timeless. Ayoub had the guest cabins reduced to five and created space for en-suite bathrooms as well as adding a gym and a sauna. The Owner’s Suite is situated on the main deck whilst the VIP guest cabin and four other double cabins, all with full en-suite facilities, are located on the lower deck. Stepping outside onto the fly bridge, Mais explains how the sails adjust and unfurl at the touch of one of the many joysticks at the bridge. He steers Phocea from the enclosed bridge or the fly bridge using a conventional wheel. Phocea remains a fast sailing yacht despite the comfort and luxury found within.

 

Her dedicated captain looks out to sea and says: “I think no one knew in 1976 that she would still be around today, 35 years later. She changed ownership in June 2010 to three French owners who will keep her as a charter yacht as well as for their own usage. With the new owners, we are getting back into business and back in the heart and mind of people.”

 

Phocea is usually based in the Mediterranean and has not been in the Caribbean for a very long time. This year she sailed to Antigua for the boat show, with owners and guest, and soon she is off to attend the Genoa boat show. Mais: “You see, Phocea has been off the market for a couple of years but she is in great condition and we love to show her off.”

 

This beauty is anchored out in Simpson Bay as she has too much draft to enter the lagoon. Her crew of 15 is doing regular maintenance at the moment and Mais explains that St. Maarten is the best place to do that. Mais, a former naval captain turned commercial, who has captained many well known super yachts, says: “On other islands, you have a facility here and another somewhere else, but on St. Maarten you have a good concentration of service and workshops and also great purchasing options. It is not just the number of yachts that visit, but the history of the place. It is one of the best places in the Caribbean to stay. Just look around you, you see all the big boats are here!”

 

This is not the first time that Mais has captained Phocea. He served for a year under Madame Ayoub from 2005 to 2006. Mais laughs: “…and that is long, as she went through captains quite fast.” So what is it about the Phocea that captivates Mais? The German skipper explains: “There are many challenges to sailing this boat safely; manoeuvring her into European ports that are getting smaller all the time, and sailing the boat safely at the same time as maintaining her super yacht service. She is a very fast sailboat with a lot of rigging and we can heel quite a lot and at the same time our guests have to be able to drink from long stemmed champagne glasses. Then again our rigging is very well distributed with the four masts and our rudder is amidships so she is actually quite easy to sail. But I think her magic is the fact that she is a very special boat and that is what everyone loves about her. She is a legend! There are many people who would love to work on her just to get to know her a little better. That is why we are here!”

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