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The sea and the Belle Epoque

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Is it the economic crisis that’s inspired this nostalgia for times of opulence and happiness? There’s no doubt that the coming summer will be dominated by memories of a distant, more optimistic period - the Belle Epoque. The climax will be a busy September in the principality of Monaco, one of the glitzy settings for the good life of those years and a cradle of yachting. I think, then, it’s right for this magazine to commemorate the era, as it’s inspired by maritime traditions.

The optimism of the Belle Epoque, defined by historians as the period between 1861 and 1914, when it was swept away by the outbreak of the First World War, was the result of a long period of relative peace. It was an age of scientific and technological progress that saw the development of electrical power, cars, aircraft and the great Atlantic liners, underpinned by an industrial boom. Money spread from the aristocracy to the middle classes. It was time for the rich to have fun and live well, and they were eagerly served by cafés-chantant, the can-can, the cinema, casinos, Pullman trains and grand hotels. Britain was the greatest world power, queen of the seas and home of the world’s largest pleasure boat and luxury yacht fleets. The Belle Epoque made Cowes and the Royal Yacht Club regattas the most exclusive international backdrop for the yachting world. It was soon joined by other locations like Kiel and Le Havre in northern Europe and Nice and Monte Carlo in the Mediterranean.

The exclusive yacht clubs became social gathering places, and many were founded during these golden years. The Squadron had already been in existence for several decades, alongside the New York Yacht Club across the pond. The Yacht Club de France came into being in 1867, the Kieler Yacht Club in 1887, and the Yacht Club Italiano, the Mediterranean’s’ oldest, in 1879. In Monaco the Société des Bains de Mer, still famous for its large hotels and casino, took on the role of regatta organiser and host for celebrities and lovers of yachting. And we can never forget that today’s most important yachting event began then - the America’s Cup. The opening shots were fired in the summer of 1851, when an American schooner thrashed the powerful British fleet in its own back yard at Cowes, winning an ugly silver jug that was to become a legend. 12 challenges were thrown down by British yacht clubs during those years, and all were fought out between 1870 and 1902 in American waters, in an attempt to bring the “auld mug” home. The last three saw the participation of a legendary character, a symbol of the Belle Epoque - Sir Thomas Lipton, the tea king. It was Lipton that Kaiser Wilhelm was referring to when he snobbishly said that his cousin, King Edward VII, was “boating with his grocer”.

This was when the modern figures of the yachtsman and yachtswoman, with their special outfits and customs, first appeared. Here’s how French historian Jean-Michel Barrault described them. “The clothes personify this luxury yachting. The men wear white trousers, club ties, stiff collars and white caps. The women, when they are allowed on board, are equally elegant - spotless long flannel dresses with narrow stripes, blouses with starched cuffs and collars, navy blue redingotes and smart little hats. A parasol protects their fragile make-up”. How many yachting personalities took to the stage during the Belle Epoque! Take, for example, the New York Yacht Club’s most famous commodore, John Pierpoint Morgan, a constant presence with his 91 Metre Corsair at Cowes, Kiel and Monte Carlo. In 1902 a certain Henry Clay Pierce, obviously a very rich man, asked him how much it cost to maintain a yacht. Morgan replied, “If you’re asking me how much it costs to keep it up then you have no right to own one.”

Another legendary figure was Prince Albert I of Monaco, who went to Cowes in 1873 in search of his first yacht. He fell in love with a 31-metre schooner by Camper & Nicholsons. He wrote in his diary, “She looked to me like jewel of the sea, wonderfully framed by the images reflected on the water. She was a new reality in my life, among all the illusions, and she immediately appealed to my deepest yachting instincts”. He named her Hirondelle, and she became the first in a long line of acquisitions, each larger than the last, allowing him to indulge his great passion for oceanography. Next September his descendent, Albert II, will celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of Tuiga, his own “jewel of the sea”, a few metres shorter. Craft like these have the power to evoke the Belle Epoque. We’ll see it at again at the Monte Carlo Classic Week, and the Règates Royales of Cannes for the Panerai Trophy, and in numerous other events where our thirst for nostalgia will finally be satisfied.

These occasions will also be a chance to rediscover what a great yachtswoman, Lady Brassey, wrote in 1877. “If you pass downwind of one of these yachts, you’ll smell the a mixture of fresh varnish, linseed oil, leather polish, Havana cigars and champagne, all combined with the aroma of teak and other exotic woods”. But the Belle Epoque wasn’t just about sail craft, even though the Royal Yacht Squadron’s rulebook stated, “Any member who mounts a steam engine on his yacht will be expelled”. A few years later this was amended to allow steam propulsion, with the curious rider, “...on the condition that the owner personally consumes the smoke he produces.” Soon the internal combustion engine arrived on the scene, and once again Monte Carlo added glitter to the first races between these motorboats called canot automobiles. Every summer from 1905 onwards these noisy craft drew crowds of fans, while a competition along the coastal route between Monaco and Nice was launched.

This was also the time when the Russian aristocracy made its appearance in the Mediterranean, and Tsar Nicholas and his family made the trip to Cowes in one of the largest steam yachts of the time, the 126-metre Standart. She was joined by the 87-metre Giralda, owned by the King of Spain Alfonso XIII, Kaiser Wilhelm’s 115-metre Hohenzoller and the 56-metre U1 carrying archduke Stephen Hapsburg. They were, however, all overshadowed by the 130-metre yacht owned by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and later by Edward VII. Now we talk about megayachts, and we think of large pleasure craft as a recent phenomenon but, in fact, it dates back to the Belle Epoque, when apart from a few American financial moguls, the biggest players were Old World monarchs. It’s a world that’s almost disappeared, but it’s destined to come to life again at Monte Carlo. As Prince Albert II wrote, “Our principality looks outwards to the sea, and it has close links with yachting, the expression of a most elegant art of living”.

Vincenzo Zaccagnino

(Yacht Digest, n. 153)

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