Say “Corsica” and you probably think of mountains, brigands, earthy food and Napoleon. Nothing wrong with that – this towering “French island basking in the Italian sun”, as Balzac put it, is indeed home to the toughest long-distance walking trail in Europe, the GR20, and its residents were once so inclined to bloody feuding that they gave the world “vendetta”, an Italian word that was hijacked by these islanders who have a mixed linguistic history. Village markets offer a feast of wild-boar sausages, piquant cheeses, thick maquis honeys and robust wines, while the souvenir shops in the capital, Ajaccio, won’t let you forget that it was the birthplace of that little man with big ambitions for an empire.
How strange, then, that the Corsica I’m visiting is nothing like this. I look south over a blue sea dotted in yachts, the coastal road adorned with umbrella pines and views to Sardinia. Sandy coves are speckled with well-turned-out families in straw hats and espadrilles enjoying the sunshine and hypnotically clear waters.
Shaped like a bunch of grapes, Corsica is a fruit that British travellers have been strangely reluctant to taste – and that’s our loss. But there is one social set – the yachties – who have wised up to the charms of “L’Ile de Beauté”. Every year a substantial British contingent takes part in a glorious 15-day jamboree of racing and partying known as the Corsica Classic. Started in 2010, this regatta hops around the coast from Ajaccio on the west coast to Saint-Florent in the north, in a fabulous flotilla of heritage sailing yachts. Last year the 28 entrants included several vessels more than a century old, such as the graceful teak-decked 55ft schooner Morwenna, which was built in Sussex in 1914. Every one of these nautical jewels has a story to tell – with owners such as Louis Renault, Jascha Heifitz and Pierre Cointreau, and a guest list including Humphrey Bogart and John F Kennedy.
Despite the aura of wealth and pedigree, the mood here is not elitist. Billionaire or bowman, both are united in a shared enthusiasm for the thrills of ocean-racing aboard these immaculately restored craft. In fact, there’s no charge for yachts to enter, while each member of crew pays a £130 registration fee. I catch up with the regatta in the harbour at Porto-Vecchio (known as the “St-Tropez” of Corsica) and have my first glimpse of these vintage vessels with their varnished woods, leather details and polished metalwork. Moored beside them are garish modern-day gin palaces as bright as a supermarket freezer with potted orchids and purple lighting. I know which deck I’d rather be on.
“This is one of the best classic regattas in the season,” explains the French art dealer Alain Moatti, who sails the 62ft sloop, Serenade, which was built in California in 1938. “The weather and coastline of Corsica are both so beautiful.” And, of course, there are the parties – where rosé flows beside quayside tables piled high with fritelli and other local pastries, while a trio of Michelin-starred chefs from the island cook up a gourmet dinner in Saint-Florent.
One night there’s a party at the secluded Balistra Beach (a great spot for wind- and kite-surfing), where they’re spit-roasting for nine hours a whole veal calf over a wood fire. I’m sitting on the sand with Tara Getty, grandson of the American oil baron Jean Paul Getty, who’s competing here for the third year with his 53ft Skylark, a deliriously beautiful yawl designed by Olin Stephens in 1937. “Well, you’ve got to use it,” he says with a grin. Getty takes part in some eight regattas a year but relishes this one because, he says, you get to stay somewhere different every night. “But, of course, the best part is when you’re out at sea, racing a steady 10 knots on a beam reach with all sails set.” And maybe winning, too – on all three occasions Skylark has come first in the Marconi A class.
It has been known for experienced sailors to turn up on the dockside and get taken on but, generally, if you want to join this maritime carnival you need to have, or make, some connections. I am one of the hangers-on – quite literally when the deck is tilting at 45 degrees and the captain’s yelling unprintable words at the trimmers struggling to keep the sails in shape.
My baptism is aboard the 81ft Hallowe’en, built in 1926 by the revered Scots naval architect William Fife III and still “a joy to sail”, according to its laconic, roll-up-smoking Kiwi skipper, Iñigo Strez. In his view, “a good start is 20 per cent of the race”, so at noon, while the rest of France sits down to lunch, we all go haring off across the brilliant blue waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea. On this 28-nautical-mile leg, which curls around Corsica’s southeastern tip, the winds are light and everyone gets scattered about like a white paper trail, allowing us time to admire the coastline with its hidden beaches and islands, and Genoan watchtowers rising up like chess-piece castles.
The next day is very different, with 20 knots forecast and a growing excitement at the briefing for the Bonifacio Trophée de la Ville race over 13 nautical miles. “The officials have set a very interesting course,” Hugh Morrison says, gleefully, as the British entrepreneur welcomes me aboard his yacht, the 90ft Savannah, for a day’s sailing with his partner, the fashion designer Amanda Wakeley, and his three children.
Built in 1996 and competing in the Esprit de Tradition category, this modern classic unites the aesthetics of 1930s racing yachts with the pleasures and efficiencies of modern technology, which include a lightweight 98ft carbon-fibre mast. Although that weightsaving might be offset by the roll-top bath and a wood-burning stove below deck.
“Savannah races like a thoroughbred,” Morrison explains, which is good news given there are only eight of us to crew (although we do have on board the expertise of the yacht’s resident French captain and his partner). A full complement can be double that – well drilled and dressed in matching uniform – but some teams (often the Brits) take a more casual approach, with a roster of chums helping out. Moments of high drama are inevitable, such as when an order to bring down and stow our massive spinnaker doesn’t go smoothly. Standard racing practice is to stuff this down the hatch as fast as possible, which is a bit like trying to pack an avalanche into a cardboard box. I watch Morrison’s eldest son thrashing around inside a blizzard of sail, sympathising that it must be a mixed blessing to be part of a family that’s so fanatical about sailing.
On the upside, when everything goes right and we’re belting along at a very jaunty angle, I find myself breaking into a broad smile. Besides trying to get the edge on your rivals, the great joy of racing in a classic regatta is speeding over the waves with another 20 or so similar yachts, our brightly coloured spinnakers straining in the wind.
After four exhilarating hours on the ocean waves, Savannah returns to the tiny harbour in Bonifacio, which must be one of the most extraordinary anchorages in the Mediterranean: it is tucked away half a mile inland at the end of a fjord-like channel of whipped-up limestone cliffs. Mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, the distinctly Italianate Bonifacio, with its ninth-century citadel, has been home to Greeks, Romans, Pisans, Genoese, Turks and, more recently, the French Foreign Legion. Now it is invaded by our 220-strong boat show festooned with flags and handsome officials sporting chic polo shirts and multicoloured deck shoes. While the elegant quay has plenty of smart restaurants and bars, we all picnic on deck – a very superyacht repast of baguettes, Puligny-Montrachet and Magnum ice creams. Later it is announced that we’ve won, and in a record time, and the Morrison children pick up the trophy.
But little is made of the award. Prizes aren’t the point of the Corsica Classic; they’re only a way to close a week of messing about in boats – albeit a fleet of superlative classic yachts – with an affable bunch of yachties, round after round of parties, irrepressible Mediterranean sunshine and the stunning coastline of an island that still feels barely discovered.