The beautiful people convened last Thursday at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris for a press conference to present the Orient Express Team challenge which will represent France at the 37th America’s Cup in September 2024 in Barcelona. Tip & Shaft tells us the story of how this project which has been initiated by Stéphane Kandler and Bruno Dubois and supported by the Accor group, has achieved lift off.
In fact it all started during the 36th America’s Cup. In front of his television, Stéphane Kandler who had launched K-Challenge in 2001 which went in to be a challenger at the 2007 America’s Cup (under the name of ‘Areva Challenge), found it hard to contain his excitement: “I said to myself then while watching the racing that we had the potential in France and above all the means to do at least as well as Team New Zealand.”
His activity then on social networks aroused interest and in particular that of Bruno Dubois, team manager of the last French challenge in 2017, Groupama Team France and now at the head of the French SailGP team. “We know each other well. I know Stéphane because I had previously worked with him on several projects, notably within the Areva Challenge in 2007. I called him and told him that it had been a long time since I had seen him so excited by the Cup. He said he wanted to get back into it. As it was also my feeling we started discussing the project.”
At the beginning of the summer of 2021, Stéphane Kandler launched but with a non negotiable “sine qua non condition” that of “being sure to have a good boat”. He recalls: “I called Team New Zealand, with whom I had kept good contacts, to find out if they would agree to help us. Immediately they were very receptive. I also spoke a lot with Guillaume Verdier [member of the Kiwis design team, editor’s note] whom I had worked on the Cup in 2007. He gave me his vision of things and put me in contact with Benjamin Muyl.”
The team gets to work in March 2022
Muyl has collaborated on numerous projects with Guillaume Verdier. He had just finished four years with the British challenge Ineos Team UK. He reports: “I had just finished my fifth Cup, I don’t didn’t really want to do it again unless it was a French project.“ In the Autumn Franck Cammas, who had shown interest, was also approached as was Dimitri Despierres, an engineer with Cup experience who had then just resigned from American Magic. He was offered a position as technical director. On the sailing side, Bruno Dubois raised the subject a few months later with Quentin Delapierre, who took the helm of the F50 of the French SailGP team.
But of course the major issue, the biggest of all was funding Stéphane Kandler was actively looking for partners. In early 2022, he began “advanced discussions with a private investor who has agreed to advance us the funds until we find the partners”. Kandler and Dubois then officially launched K-Challenge Team France, in which they are co-owners with equal shares. It was set up at the beginning of March around Benjamin Muyl, Franck Cammas, Dimitri Despierres,, Francis Hueber, that is a team of around twenty people whose salaries are guaranteed, pending the money promised by the investor, by Stéphane Kandler’s own funds and the arrival of a first partner, K-Way.
The one key priority was to acquire the design package of the AC75 from Team New Zealand. “We considered everything, including designing our boat ourselves, but as time passed and funding was slow to arrive, this solution became obvious,” says Benjamin Muyl. “Especially since they had just won two cups in a row!” The contract with the Kiwis was signed at the end of June, at the same time as the French challenge was officially submitted to the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, the Defenders Team New Zealand’s yacht club.
An investor leaves, a partner arrives
But barely two weeks later, the rug was pulled from under them when when the invesor announced to Stéphane Kandler that he was pulling out! “We were contractually committed to a lot of people, but we didn’t have enough to pay them, we had to ask them to last for two, three or four months, it was really tough. I asked myself a lot of questions but I hadn’t completely lost hope because I knew Stéphane, I knew he wouldn’t let go”, says Dubois. The two men must therefore resolve to end the contracts at the end of September. Several of them left the team, some for other challenges, such as Dimitri Despierres, Laurent Chatillon and Antoine Connan (American Magic) or Sebastian Zarate (Ineos Britannia).
A month later, a new twist, as Stéphane Kandler explains: “Olivier Pécout, who I worked to convince partners, had the opportunity to speak with Sébastien Bazin. And so he put me in touch.” Sébastien, who is no more than the CEO of the Accor group, a global hotel giant, continues: “We were with Olivier Pécout on the train to Saint-Malo to go to the Route du Rhum, he talked about the America’s Cup project, I said to him: « Introduce me to Stéphane. »”
Bazin, who has already been approached before the 35th Cup by the Franck Cammas-Michel Desjoyeaux-Olivier de Kersauson trio – “it was not the right time” -, sees this as ‘right place right time’ for the partnership, especially as a few months earlier, the group had placed an order with Chantiers de l’Atlantique, under their Orient Express brand, for two giant luxury sailing cruise liners (Silenseas), which will be delivered in 2026 and 2027.
“Having this brand, Orient Express, it becomes legitimate in the world of the sea and with these projects, there is the international side of the America’s Cup, its return to Europe, the opening up of the Cup to women and young people” convinced the boss of the Accor group to give his go ahead, just a month after hearing about the project on the train to Saint-Malo. “I was at the Yacht Racing Forum in Malta (end of November) when Stéphane called me asking me if I was available the next day for a video meeting with him and Sébastien Bazin. A week later we met in Paris and it was good! It was done very simply, a little old style,” smiles Bruno Dubois.
SailGP France also supported by Accor
The registration fees finally paid, the Orient Express Team – the official name of the challenge which is under the flag of the Société Nautique de Saint-Tropez – is officially accepted by the defender, while the phones start to heat up again to reconstitute a team. That team under the Kandler-Dubois duo, has Benjamin Muyl, head of the design team, Franck Cammas, in charge of performance, and Quentin Delapierre, confirmed as skipper. Louis Viat has been recruited as head of operations, Antoine Carraz, who comes from MerConcept, as technical director (he will begin at the end of February), Thierry Douillard as coach, the long-term objective being to set up a team of around 70 people, according to Stéphane Kandler.
There is no hanging around waiting for the construction of the future AC75. It will begin in May, entrusted to Multiplast (hull), CDK Technologies (masts), while MerConcept will be called in and the sails will be manufactured by North Sails. This unique AC75 will be launched in May 2024, until then the French team hopes to charter a boat from the last Cup to sail in the winter of 2023-2024. They will also receive their AC40 next summer, on which they can start training and that will be the boat for the Women’s and Youth America’s Cup, two competitions in which each registered challenge must participate.
These two programs are delegated to the Team France association, the women’s challenge will revolve around Aloïse Retornaz, 470 bronze medalist in Tokyo, and Paola Amar, also a 470 specialist. Announcements are expected very soon on the participation of crews under the Orient Express Team banner in flying circuits, ETF26 Series, GC32 Racing Tour or 69F Cup. Quentin Delapierre will continue to lead the French SailGP team now also supported by the Accor group under the brand of its loyalty program, All.com. “With the arrival of Accor, which is a tier 2 partner on this project, and others like ICM.com, we have about half of the team’s sponsorship,” explains Bruno Dubois.
So what is the budget of the Cup project? “We are not talking about figures.” says Dubois. Also questioned on the subject, Sébastien Bazin is also evasive: “We are dropping the partnership with PSG and it is far less than that!” Does he intend to invest long term, one of the major handicaps for French projects over the past thirty years? “If we start to go a long way together there is no reason to stop,” replies the boss of the Accor group.
Photo: Orient Express Team