Making waves

    21 September 2013

    Shaq looked lackadaisical; but really he was very precise. Action betrayed him. He tightened the toggle on his old straw hat. He put his feet on the bar under the driver’s seat, and inched them into the right position. He placed his left hand on the steering wheel. He paused to examine the controls. Transformed from Caribbean cabin boy into Captain Shaq, he fired the speedboat’s engine. It was in rude health. Shaq smiled as he listened to its cadence. ‘Cooper Island,’ he said. He didn’t wait for my response, but signalled the dock hand to slip the rope. And off we went, drawing out into Sir Francis Drake Channel.

    Drake, I imagined to myself in jet-lagged reverie, would recognise the British Virgin Islands today. Townships dot the coastline but for the most part the islands are dominated by scrubby mangroves that roll into the sea. A smattering of villas suggests luxury but, other than that, the Virgins remain as pure as Columbus found them in 1493. Odd how a place that bears little mark of history can exude such a sense of the past. My guidebooks said that Drake left nothing here when he navigated this channel in 1585, on his way to biff some Spaniards at nearby Santa Domingo. The rocks, though, seemed to have long memories. The sun certainly connected us through time. After five minutes on the open sea, my neck had burnt to Englishman’s Pink. What I would have given for Shaq’s silly hat.

    My visit coincided with Spring Break; the water was full of American students messing about in their parents’ boats. These gilded, badly dressed libertines were of little interest to us. Somewhere in this archipelago, sailors were racing the world’s best super-yachts, courtesy of the Italian clothier Loro Piana.

    What’s the connection between a sixth-generation Italian fashion house specialising in cashmere and a Caribbean regatta? The family business started as a wool merchants in the 1800s; in 1924 the ‘modern’ company was founded by Pietro Loro Piana, and in the 1940s it moved into international fashion. In July of this year it sold an 80 per cent stake to LVMH for €2 billion, but the company will still be overseen by the Loro Piana brothers, Sergio and Pier Luigi. And it is these brothers whose marketing philosophy is to nurture their relationship with their clients by holding a regatta on the other side of the world. How better to get a feel for a princess’s tastes than to invite her to the Virgin Islands? Away from the thrill of the race, she might peruse the array of clothes and fabrics that lie about the place, and imagine them in her home.

    Loro Piana manufactures weird and wonderful cloths: the finest cashmeres from Outer Mongolia, rare vicuna from Peru, lotus-flower fibres from Burma. That the company does business in these awkward climes is testament to its diplomacy and it’s justly proud of its hardest fought success: the decade it took to convince Hircus goat breeders in Mongolia and China to provide enough yarn for a line in coveted baby cashmere.

    These delicate materials must withstand the salt of the sea and the soot of the city. An elegant shawl of Merino wool from Down Under is not much use if it disintegrates in steady Milanese drizzle. The brothers think that the events they sponsor must allow them to enhance their textiles. They say that ‘bombers, vests, jackets, trousers, shirts and polo shirts’ have stemmed from experiments in the great outdoors. So there we were, tearing around the Virgin Islands in pursuit of Cape Arrow, the yacht chartered by Pier Luigi for the occasion, all in the name of science. Vest technology aside, Pier Luigi’s love of sailing was obvious when he was at the helm of Cape Arrow. It is a classic yacht — tall masts, navy blue hull and varnished decks. It spent most of the race in second place. Hunter and hunted, it was the best boat to watch.

    Up close, a yacht is a machine that responds to each action of the crew. To stand on deck as Cape Arrow turned about, the wind beating at your back, was a unique sensation. The acceleration was as fierce as that of a high-performance car, but smoother.

    From a distance, yachts look ethereal — a cloud of canvas guided by invisible hands. On the final afternoon of the race, I stood on top of an island where the placid Caribbean meets the rough Atlantic. The racing flotilla rounded the headland several hundred feet below me and a mile out to sea, beyond the surf that suggested rocks lay beneath. The skippers unfurled their spinnakers, the giant sails at the front of the boat. This manoeuvre would decide the race. The yachts tore across the ocean, far away into the haze to the south-east. They were soon out of sight, but not out of mind. Drake’s ships would have been similarly dazzling.