'Mythical' St .Tropez race pits classic yachts against modern rocketships

    Mariska, built in 1908, was found converted into a houseboat on a Dutch canal, complete with piano.

    Story highlights

    • 268 boats compete in Giraglia Rolex Cup
    • Race goes from St. Tropez to Genoa via the Giraglia rock off Corsica
    • Marsika, built in 1908 and fully restored, competes for first time
    • Defending champion is 100ft maxi Magic Carpet 3

    (CNN)Her wooden spars gleam in the St. Tropez sunshine and water laps gently at her classic curves -- a far cry from her life as a houseboat on a Dutch canal.

    Alongside her, lining the pretty French Rivieria quayside, sits millions of pounds worth of state-of-the-art, stripped-out carbon racers.
      The slick-looking sleds and racy rocketships are all head turners in their own way, but amid the thicket of masts and rigging, eyes are drawn back to Mariska, a 90ft gaff-rigged cutter.
      This classic 15 meter class yacht, built in Scotland in 1908, has been rescued from an idle retirement as a mastless floating home complete with onboard piano and restored to her former glory.
      Now, like a thoroughbred racehorse waiting patiently in the stable, she is set to take on some of the Med's meanest in the famous Giraglia Rolex Cup race from St. Tropez to Genoa, via Corsica.
      Mariska had effectively become "lost" to Lloyd's Register, the ship certification body, but in 2006 Swiss property magnate Christian Niels learnt of her whereabouts and made some enquiries.
      "Most of these boats were destroyed during the war, or, like other precious objects such as paintings, taken up north," Niels' son Axel tells CNN as his crew makes her ready to go racing.

      'Quite a ride'

      "The owner knew the history but it was just too big a project for him. We were looking for a classic boat and it was interesting, but it was going to be quite a challenge. I was slightly against it. I said, 'Forget it, we don't have the time.' My father went to see the guy and half an hour later they shook hands."
      The boat was taken to Marseille and underwent a three-year renovation, with 40 people bringing it back to life, piece by piece using original mahogany, teak and iroko wood. She is now one of four sisterships back on the classic circuit, including Tuiga, owned by Prince Albert of Monaco.
      "The objective was to bring the boat back to its original state, not make a copy," added Axel.
      "We changed rotten pieces of wood but it's still the same wood they used in 1908. We finished the restoration in time for Monaco Classic week in 2009 and sailed it there through one of the biggest storms I've ever seen. Since then it's been quite a ride."
      The French Rivieira resort of St. Tropez hosts the Giraglia Rolex Cup.
      The Giraglia race is one of the most famous big-boat events in the Mediterranean -- a must for the sailing glitterati and their scores of itinerant crew, professional and amateur alike.
      It was dreamed up in a Parisian cafe in 1952 by Frenchman René Levainville and Italians Franco Gavagnin and Beppe Croce as an effort to improve Franco-Italian relations at the end of World War II. It begins with feeder races from Genoa and Marseille into the glamorous Riviera resort made famous by screen siren Bridget Bardot in the 50s.
      Three days of inshore racing and living the good life in "St. Trop" precede the main event, a two or three-day dash east around the Giraglia rock off the northern tip of Corsica and back up to Genoa in Italy, a voyage of about 240 nautical miles.
      More than 260 yachts will take part, from cruiser racers with amateur crews to giant maxi yachts with professional hired hands.
      The defending champion on corrected time is the 100ft Wally yacht Magic Carpet Cubed, a muscular carbon-composite racer owned by the former head of French cosmetics firm L'Oreal, Briton Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones.
      The beamy blue bullet, which is capable of planing downwind at 25 knots, won line honors in 2013 and exudes confidence as she bobs just down the quay from Mariska.
      Magic Carpet Cubed is a state-of-the art 100ft Wally yacht.

      'Beautiful sight'

      Owen-Jones, who has a house in St.Tropez, has been competing in the race for more than 20 years and says rounding "La Giraglia" is a thrill he never tires of.
      "The best moment is when it coincides with dawn, with the sun coming up and it's just extraordinarily beautiful," he tells CNN's Mainsail.
      "Sailors are sensitive to the aesthetics of it just like everybody else. Theoretically you're looking at your instruments but everybody loves a beautiful setting and the north of Corsica is one of the most beautiful, lonely sights you can think of. I don't know anybody's heart that doesn't go a little bit faster when you get to the Giraglia."
      Magic Carpet boasts a crew of 26 -- including Olympic medalist and Volvo Ocean Race veteran Ian Walker and expert navigator Marcel van Triest. On the first evening of the Giraglia race they will split into two watches, working three hours on, three hours off -- but it will be all hands on deck for a sail change.
      "In light winds there are a lot of sail changes, it takes eight people to move the Code Zero, which weighs 280kgs. It's a big sail," says crewman Simon Lee of Dorset, England.
      Magic Carpet, owned by Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones, rounds the Giraglia rock off Corsica's north coast.
      For Mariska this is a race in uncharted territory, although many of her "professional amateur" crew have done it before on other boats. They know that in terms of pure speed they can't compete with the modern yachts, but Axel says it was "quite a moment" when they first discovered they can "more than hold their own" on handicap and in certain conditions.
      "It's a legendary race, one of the most famous races of the season, but it's not known for classic boats," says Axel. "We wanted to show it's still possible.
      "These boats are from another era, when winches didn't exist so we've got pulleys instead. It's about brute strength and strategy. You get very wet, you get hurt, but it's all part of the fun.
      "What's great about sailing, especially these classic boats, is it is always a very human experience. We estimate it will take two or three days and you are digging into the limits of your capacity."
      Mariska is a restored 15m Rule yacht built in 1908.
      The Giraglia has been called a "mythical race" by Carlo Croce, president of sailing's governing body World Sailing and son of Beppe Croce.
      "The attraction comes from a central spirit which has set it apart from other races since the beginning," he told CNN Mainsail. "Top professionals racing against Corinthians; different types of boat and each with a chance to win."
      After three days of inshore and coastal racing under warm sunny skies the fleet set sail in light winds and rain on Wednesday lunchtime bound for Italy, via Corsica.
      Owen-Jones got his morning view of the rock as Magic Carpet rounded first at 0816 on Thursday morning and in building winds they won the dash to Genoa to cross the line in 26 hours 48 minutes and 56 seconds.
      They kept the lead for nine hours until later-finishing boats started to topple them on corrected time.
      "We're delighted Marcel and Ian made the right choices. Every single move we made happened to take us to where there was wind, maximising the speed of the boat," said Owen-Jones.
      Jethou crossed the line second in Genoa in the Giraglia Rolex Cup race.
      Sir Peter Ogden's jet-black Jethou, a 72ft maxi named after the English Channel Island leased by Ogden, was second over the line, six hours adrift.
      Mariska finished in a very respectable 39 hours 30 minutes, not far behind the eventual winner on handicap, Tip, a 36fter crewed by six amateurs.
      "After the Giraglia the wind increased suddenly to a challenging 30-40 knots," said Christian Niels. "It became difficult to handle the boat, and we finished with just the jib. It was absolutely fantastic to finish the race against the modern yachts. For sure we are coming again."
        Boats approach the Italian coast in the latter stages of the 2016 Giraglia Rolex Cup race.
        "It's about brute strength and strategy. You get wet, you get hurt, but it's all part of the fun" - Axel Niels.