Too bad if your yacht's too big for Villefranche

One of the world’s most beautiful bays is right here on our Riviera: Villefranche, with its historical old town and waterfront, classy boutiques and restaurants, military citadel (now serving as the mairie and housing an open-air cinema plus three museums) and the stylish villas on the hillsides. For thousands of years, Cap Ferrat has sheltered the bay from the easterly winds and it has been a deep-water anchorage for fleets of warships, either friendly or bent on attacking Nice, long before that city had its own harbour. Nowadays the Rade de Villefranche is popular for visiting yachtsmen, and a summer Sunday afternoon will see hundreds of boats anchored for swimming and relaxing. Eateries, bars and shops derive much benefit from these nautical visitors, along with cruise ship passengers.

La Rade de VillefrancheRade de Villefranche
Photo: Broenberr

But one category of yachtsman is virtually excluded from spending his time and money along the waterfront. He is the owner of a mega-yacht over 50-metres long, and he suffers from French laws which make it compulsory for vessels over 50m (165 ft) to take a pilot to enter Villefranche Bay. Pre-war there were very few mega-yachts, and the race to 50 metres was “won” only in the Eighties. Pilots for Villefranche come from Nice, and close-quarters manoeuvring in Nice Port may well justify a pilot onboard the larger ships. But the huge Bay of Villefranche is much easier, yachts are very manoeuvrable and their captains usually excellent ship-handlers. Cargo ships are used to waiting for a pilot, but a busy charter yacht may suddenly have a last-minute demand from the guests to dine ashore at La Mère Germaine or elsewhere. Guests who have paid a very large charter fee do not appreciate the captain telling them that a pilot is needed but not instantly available – they want to move NOW. The expense of the pilot is not an issue – it is the unavailability of a service they could enjoy if their yacht were smaller. No wonder so many large yachts declare their overall length to be 49.9m!

According to Boat International, worldwide there are some 620 yachts over 50 metres, with another 55 under construction. Of these (from the 180m giga-yachts Azzam and Eclipse down) 95% will sometime cruise our coast, which is very short of berthing space for them particularly in the summer cruise liner and ferry season; they will regret missing out on Villefranche. Meanwhile the other losers are the town’s restaurateurs, bars, taxis and shops, much of the business going to Beaulieu and St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, accessible by tender from the open roadstead between these towns. Even here restrictions are placed on them, mainly by ecologists, such as wanting to forbid anchoring in less than 35 metres of water, to protect the Posidonia sea-grass. Garbage and waste liquids may of course not be dumped overboard; the port of Beaulieu charges €30 per boatload of rubbish (SJCF is €20). The French Coastguard Semaphore on Cap-Ferrat is supposed to accord permission for vessels over 1600 tons to anchor, but there is little enforcement by the patrol boats of the Douanes, Affaires Maritimes, Police Municipale or gendarmerie.

One reason for going yachting is to escape the increasing number and complexity of restrictions affecting us all ashore; professional crew of the big yachts have the burden of compliance with all the new regulations, yet their main brief from their paymasters is to make sure the owners and guests have fun, here in the sun!