All eyes on the sea for Martinique's Tour des Yoles race

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The wooden sailing vessel called a yole is the centerpiece of Martinique’s annual sailing regatta.
The wooden sailing vessel called a yole is the centerpiece of Martinique’s annual sailing regatta.

What started as a simple local event in Martinique in the 1940s has become the national sport of the French island as well as the centerpiece of its annual sailing regatta and its largest sporting event.

And it involves the yole, a sailing vessel design unique to the island.

It all began in the 1940s with a carpenter from France who was inspired both by Martinique's old fishing boats called gommiers, named after the gum tree from which they were built, and by the European yole, a small, open-water wooden sailing and fishing boat with a canoe-like hull of laminated wood and masts carved from the trunk of a tree.

The first yoles (pronounced "yol") created quite a stir on the island, and soon wild boat races were taking place on Sundays in the small towns of Le Francois, Robert and Vauclin.

The growing interest inspired the formation of the Society of Yoles and Gommiers in 1972, but in 1984 the gommiers separated from the yoles and La Societe des Yoles Rondes de la Martinique was born.

Each summer, the Tour des Yoles takes to the waters surrounding Martinique in a seven-stage race that encircles the island. This year's race, the 35th, kicks off July 28 in Francois on the east coast and winds up in the fishing village of Robert on Aug. 4.

There's no work that week. All Martinicans are excused from work, and the coastline will be lined with locals and tourists, who will gather to admire the colorful boats, cheer on the nautical teams and be entertained by musicians on the shoreline. It's a family-friendly event that combines tradition, sport, music, food and rum (in moderation!)

More than 300 private boats and yachts are expected to follow the race around the island, as well.

"The Tour des Yoles week is a moment of intense communion of emotion and fun, where all eyes are turned towards the horizon and our sails are deployed," said a spokesman for the event.

Although it may be too late to experience this year's event, yoles are available for rent year-round, with classes and instructors available if needed.

The Yole boat design is competing for the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage designation, and the verdict will be announced in 2020.

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