Photos — Paul Ripke Date — 1 January, 2010
Hardly any mode of transport exerts such an enduring fascination as the ocean-going sailing yacht. Sailing means freedom, dynamism, enjoying life, being at one with nature, with the heaving sea. Ever since storytelling began, myths and legends have grown up surrounding sailing and the sea, and most have an adventurous flavour. And navigation, in turn, is the soul of sailing.
Patrice Quesnel loves the ocean. But if there is one thing the 64-year-old skipper loves even more, it is boats. He has been going to sea for 40 years. He is a four-time member of the French America’s Cup crew. He was commander of the famous two-master, the Antarctica, the world’s largest lifting keel yacht. Now he sails the seven seas on behalf of the Cousteau Foundation in France, as captain of the world’s only turbosail ship, the Alcyone. He is also in charge of the restoration of the Calypso, the ship that made history as the research vessel of that legendary pioneer of the seas, Jacques-Yves Cousteau. If the late oceanographer’s widow has her wish, the Calypso should soon be off on voyages around the world again, as an ambassador for the seas and oceans. IWC is sponsoring this project.
Talking of voyages: in some years Quesnel spends more time afloat than on land. Even then, he never gets bored. “I can look at the water for two hours without losing interest in what I see. Sometimes dolphins skip across our path. Or I may study the sky, and the colour of the sea.” No matter what his last trip was, he always takes the best memories home with him. “Ultimately, I am a person who lives for the moment.”
When Patrice Quesnel came down to Monte Carlo at the invitation of IWC Schaffhausen, he instantly realized that the seagoing yacht waiting for him in the harbour far outshone all the other luxury boats gently swaying near it on the limpid water. This is a sloop in a class of its own, with sleek, slender lines, polished to a gleaming finish, and fitted with unique custom equipment. Normally imperturbable, the sailor recollects: “I was totally speechless. Despite all the nautical miles I have notched up, I had never set sail in a luxury sports yacht of such perfect dynamics, so simple and yet so beautiful.”
As a skipper with the Cousteau Foundation, Patrice Quesnel knows the sea and ships like the back of his hand
She is the Moonbird, designed by Dubois Naval Architects. The British yacht designers have ranked among the world’s finest and most innovative for more than three decades. Their vessels satisfy the most demanding marine specifications. Success has always been the prime motivator for Dubois Naval Architects. “Our aim is to build yachts which fulfil their task perfectly,” is how company founder Ed Dubois summarizes the firm’s mission.
The ocean-going yacht Moonbird was built in New Zealand by the renowned superyacht construction company Fitzroy Yachts. The vessel set new standards in both form and function. 37.1 metres long, 8.38 metres wide, with a draught of 3.99 metres, the Moonbird accommodates up to eight passengers and boasts three luxurious cabins.
Patrice Quesnel is an experienced skipper. While sailing the world’s seas, he has been out of sight of land for as long as 42 days. On one North Atlantic expedition, he was hit by two cyclones in quick succession. When he took the Moonbird out on a six-day trial run off the Côte d’Azur, something happened to him which he would not have thought possible (at his time of life): a totally new navigation experience. “We were incredibly lucky,” he relates. “The weather kept changing, giving us constantly changing prevailing conditions: sunshine, calm, but also strong gale-force winds of up to 80 kilometres per hour.” What impressed the skipper most, on this highly varied sailing trip, was how easy the boat was to control, despite the very wide range of conditions.
Anyone at the helm of a sailing yacht faces the challenge of maintaining the optimum sheeting angle while compensating for heeling. But the Moonbird more or less sails herself. “I just had to press a couple of buttons, and the desired sail manoeuvres were carried out automatically. For an old sea dog like me, there was something dreamlike about all this,” reports Quesnel. For him, another dreamlike quality was the perfect sailing that was possible on the automatic setting. There was no sharp heeling, even sailing close to the wind.
As a rule, every seagoing vessel needs a complement of sailing skill and specialist nautical knowledge on board to stay on course at sea and anticipate and overcome the dangers. “Navigation as I know it,” notes Quesnel, “is sheer, hard graft.” Technical instrumentation, proven to function reliably beyond a shadow of doubt, guarantees the utmost safety on board the Moonbird – in every situation. “The comprehensive system monitoring gives me all the important data I need as skipper: details of the various manoeuvres, electronic charts and information on the current weather situation.”
Despite all the high-tech instruments, a sextant still travels on board the ocean-going sailing yacht. Not only has this been the most important navigation instrument for generations of seafarers; it is also a legal requirement to this day. In the rare case of an electronic failure, the sextant is indispensable as a time-honoured method of finding a safe haven.
In fact, the new technical gadgetry on the Moonbird makes sailing trips possible that would have been completely unthinkable just a few short years ago. “In the past, anyone striking out to sea in a sailing yacht of this size would rely on having plenty of manpower and an experienced crew on board. Now, with all this new technology and a seasoned six-man crew – who do a splendid job, incidentally – the Moonbird is the perfect vessel for cruises with family and friends,” claims the French skipper.
At home both on hi-tech yachts and expedition ships, this captain will never forget his brief days on board the Moonbird. “The trip was sheer relaxation – a wonderful experience.” The navigation expert is equally thrilled at the luxury sailing yacht’s external appearance. “Ropes and lines are mostly hidden on the Moonbird. The view forward from the helm is unobstructed. Even the winches respond to a simple push of a button.”
The much-travelled captain is able to give a succinct explanation why, throughout his long seafaring career, he has never had a specific favourite ship, and never will have. “I love all ships, because each has its own character. A ship is like a friend. Sometimes a ‘he’, sometimes a ‘she’.”
So how would he sum up the qualities of the craft after his six-day sailing cruise on the Moonbird? The skipper reflects for a while, gazing at the picture of the Moonbird gliding majestically over the sea, amid white spray and with her sails perfectly trimmed. Then he gives his considered opinion. “The Moonbird is a vessel that radiates an irresistible charm, with an absolutely gorgeous silhouette. Just look at this photo. You can also trust her. She guarantees safety – you can rely on her at all times. And that is far and away the most important quality any vessel can have on the high seas.”
Patrice Quesnel will be skippering his next expedition to the Mediterranean region aboard the Alcyone. A genuine sea dog, as he points out, is always happy to leave land and put out to sea. By the same token, he is always relieved when he guides his ship safely into harbour. “We might feel better at sea, but we need our families too.”
The Moonbird is a vessel that radiates an irresistible charm, with an absolutely gorgeous silhouette