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A French island's summer regatta is back in full this year

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Atlantic coast of France is known for great sailing. Now, COVID had put a damper on traditional summer regattas these last two years. They were hugely scaled back. But this year, the sailboat races are back in full. Lucky Eleanor Beardsley sends this postcard from the island of Noirmoutier.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CALLING)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Locals say the regatta was born on this windy island at the end of the 19th century, when seaside resorts became popular and people began sailing for pleasure. The month of August brings competitors to Noirmoutier for its classic and vintage regattas.

So we're going down into this boat.

Father-daughter team Antoine and Eleonore Ogereau show me their 45-foot yacht, Enchantement, built and maintained according to its 1923 design.

Six people it sleeps. Wow.

Eleonore says the regatta may have been scaled back last year, but the winds weren't. She recalls when their mast snapped.

ELEONORE OGEREAU: It was so loud. So much things happened at the same time. But I just turned around. My dad was in the water. There was no mast. I'm like, oops. Something happened (laughter).

BEARDSLEY: Antoine says there was no question of replacing it with a modern, metal one.

ANTOINE OGERAU: I don't want to sail this kind of boat with the modern equipments. It's really crazy to consider that you can sail a one-centenary boat with the same spirit of competition than 100 years before.

DAVID MYERS: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Skipper David Myers is slurping oysters and white wine at a regatta reception. Myers is from the British island of Jersey. He wasn't able to compete last year because of COVID travel restrictions.

MYERS: The welcome they give us here is superb - good French food and sunshine. And there's very good winds for sailing, so it couldn't be better, really.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The three days of racing kick off in a brisk wind. I have the chance to join a three-person crew for one of the days. We sail a 27-foot dragon designed in 1929.

PHILIPPE GIBERT: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Skipper Philippe Gibert spends much of his time yelling instructions to his inexperienced crew. There are three sails to raise, lower and trim, controlled by a dozen different lines, each with a different name. Everything is manual. Just when I think we're getting the hang of it...

GIBERT: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Man overboard.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIFE VEST INFLATING)

BEARDSLEY: A crew member is knocked off the boat. Luckily, his life vest inflates as it should when he hits the water. Gibert hoists him back onboard. Shaking his head, he says he's not aiming high this year.

GIBERT: Oh, my goal is that we don't broken anything, neither the boat, neither the men. That's my only aim.

(APPLAUSE)

BEARDSLEY: At the awards ceremony, winning boat Illya Bella has several young people on its crew, a rarity these days.

AURELIEN LEVET: Aurelien Levet.

CYRIAC LEVET: Cyriac Levet. He's my brother.

LADISLAS LEVET: Ladislas Levet.

C LEVET: He's my cousin.

BEARDSLEY: Cyriac Levet, who's 25, explains what it takes to win.

C LEVET: You need to pay a lot of attention about what you are doing and also about what other people are doing so you get synchronized because if some - just one guy mess around, then the whole team is slowed down.

BEARDSLEY: Regatta organizer Jean-Francois Thau says COVID was not sailing's biggest crisis, but becoming a niche, old man's sport is. He says attracting young people is now a main goal of these summer regattas.

JEAN-FRANCOIS THAU: What we have seen - each guys that has been in touch with the values of the sea will smoke less, work more and, at the end of the day, will probably get something more successful in term of building his life.

BEARDSLEY: Those important values of the sea and sailing - teamwork, solidarity, equality and healthy sea air. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Noirmoutier, France.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.