Currents, wind shifts, major draught constraints and oblivious cruisers make J Class Solent racing special

It’s the penultimate day of the J Class regatta in the Solent and a day out for some of Team Yachting World. We’ve been enjoying the view from the vantage point of the steam ship Shieldhall, as historic a vessel in her way as the magnificent Js and with a considerable following of her own.

(She’s a cargo steamship built on the Clyde in 1955 and can make 13 knots courtesy of two Scotch boilers.)

But back to the Js, which were racing in the western Solent in ideal conditions, with the south-westerly sea breeze building to around 15 knots. The four: Lionheart; Rainbow; Ranger; and Velsheda are so evenly matched that watching them is at times like observing an overgrown dinghy race.

Their scale is so large and so proportionate that at a distance it’s easy to forget what big yachts these are, especially when they cross tacks. Then, when you get closer and can see the bowman or the number of crew on the rail it brings the enormity of the physical challenge out in a way that no stills photos entirely manage.

The two Scotch boilers in the Shieldhall’s engine room

Diced at various times by a large spectator fleet, Lionheart appeared to cross tacks with a varnished clinker Folkboat from Germany that had doughtily but vainly been trying to tag along. Besides these giants, the little Folkboat looked exactly as if it was a model yacht.

I won’t try to describe the racing today, for two reasons. One, my colleague Toby Hodges was aboard and can do a much better, more informed job from the front line.

Two, there are so many invisible factors in the Solent that affect decisions on board. The extent to which tacks and their timings are influenced by draught constraints (a 5m draught puts an awful lot of Solent water out of bounds), wind shifts off the land and strong tides is something at which a distant observer can really only guess.

These factors put special pressure on navigation and crew manoeuvres in a way that their more usual open water courses in the Med, the Caribbean and even recently in Falmouth do not.

The trickiness of these waters is one reason why sailing the historic courses here is a bit special. And perhaps mastery of these very peculiar and local conditions was a factor in the decisive win today (and of the regatta overall) by Velsheda.

Three of the Yachting World ad team on the SS Shieldhall (left to right): Jay Nolan, Alan Warren and Simon Spong

Despite the fame and glory of the Js, though, the Solent still largely goes about its usual business. The accompanying fleet of yachts and RIBs today probably numbered about 60-80, but it was plain that the majority of crews out on the water were doing their own thing. The 8-Metre World Championships are running from Cowes and they were racing to the east.

And there have been lots of cruising yachts out and about, some apparently oblivious not only to the Js, but to other vessels in general. The Shieldhall nearly had to throw out the anchors to avoid a Heavenly Twins catamaran that had pootled across the second windward leg – it altered course at the last moment by the unconventional tactic of going languidly into irons and lying hove-to for a few minutes before resuming.

No-one was visible or ever came on deck throughout: our ad manager Alan reckons the skipper was below with his girlfriend, having disappeared when it was all quiet and will be blissfully unaware of any of the drama when he comes back up for a smoke.

No matter what anyone may say about the weather, the rain or the temperature in the Solent, the variables of the sailing challenges, the patina of history and the many-faceted strands of sailing activity makes it one of the most intriguing places to compete.

Here, the Js are stars of a show that frames them in perfect context: a recreation of history right in the middle of sailing in all its multicoloured variety in 2012.