A smaller fleet at this year’s Superyacht Cup Palma produced some well-matched pairings and tight racing. Elaine Bunting reports

Lying beneath the limestone mountains of Mallorca, the Bay of Palma draws in a sea breeze almost every afternoon in summer. It builds lazily through the morning and peters away in the late afternoon. But it has its idiosyncrasies, as any racing tactician or a race organiser will know. Sometimes it can be patchy across the course, or streaky, or have dead zones, or even be very breezy.

What it will do is give a sailing crew a quiet morning ashore followed by a sporting afternoon’s racing – with a dash of uncertainty. Palma is always a favourite venue for sailing.

Nevertheless, the Superyacht Cup Palma, the longest running big boat regatta in Europe and now in its 27th year, was a slimmed down event in June 2023. With just nine entries it was still feeling the pandemic’s disruptive effects. So this year’s fleet was split into two classes, which lent themselves to a subdivision of rivalries that organiser Kate Branagh called ‘dance partners’.

Comparable yachts such as the two 33m Vitters-built Malcolm McKeon designs Ribelle and Pattoo raced with an eye on each other. A pair of older 36m Dubois designs, Miss Silver and Lady M, which have enjoyed a career of cruising, mustered crews of friends and experienced pros for another amicable clash. A match also developed between the 24m Farr-designed Wally Rose (formerly Tango) versus Swan 100 Onyx and Swan 80 Umiko.

Foredeck crew grapple with a headsail on Rose. Photo: sailing Energy/The superyacht cup

Getting the advantage

Setting courses for such a diverse fleet is a testing exercise. The mighty J Class yachts are in their element on windward-leeward courses. Beamy, lighter designs such as the Swans and McKeon designs are powered-up reaching machines. Everyone is looking for a course that gives them a fair crack.

Together with the Real Club Náutico de Palma’s race management, the organisers have a way of giving every crew a first taste of advantage: a staggered start order each day. “On day one, the start order is based on racing handicap, and each boat’s start is followed by a two-minute gap, so the slower boats benefit from clear air. On day two, we take the results and reverse the order so the first is last, and vice versa,” explains Kate Branagh. “That way everyone has a go at having the advantage and can sail to their best performance.”

Aboard the Wally 80 Rose, tactician Jesper Radich was among many who found the opening day taxing. Conditions made it, he said, “hard to decide on the right call. It was shifty and really challenging. You had to make the right decisions on every leg.”

The beautiful 33m carbon composite Pattoo on a reaching leg. Photo: sailing Energy/The superyacht cup

For the owner of Rose, an experienced and lifelong sailor, and captain Ben Potter, the Superyacht Cup was to be a proving ground. The Farr-designed yacht, launched as Tango in 2006, had originally been aggressively and successfully raced, but lay dormant before being sold a few years ago.

Rose is based in Palma and her first regatta under new ownership was the Superyacht Cup last year. A propulsion issue on day one led to a DNS they could not recover from. This time, they wanted to show what a comparatively older boat could do with some upgrades and well-practised crew work.

Their win over Swan 100 Onyx, whose afterguard included match racing champion and America’s Cup sailor Gavin Brady, amounted to only five seconds in the final race after two hours of racing, and gave them an unblemished score.

They finished with three 1sts, after some very tight racing. “It was amazing: windy, sunny and shifty – really challenging,” commented tactician Jesper Radich.

Rose’s captain Ben Potter said: “There were some lighter breezes, which suit the boat. We can sail into the dying breeze in the afternoon to the finish. And we made the right decision about the sails.”

Regatta rules say each yacht is allowed to register two spinnakers in advance and will take a percentage penalty for each additional flying sail they carry; Rose’s crew opted for the minimum.

Lady M in full flight. Photo: sailing Energy/The superyacht cup

A brace of J-Class yachts

The supermodels of the event are the magnificent J Class yachts. Their immense power and adversarial style of racing are heart-thumping. Just as in their 1930s heyday, the Js are owned by captains of industry, raced by the best sailors in the world, and minutely prepared with no expense spared.

With only two, Velsheda and Svea, racing this year, it was not possible to have a separate J Class, so they were placed in Class A with Ribelle and Pattoo.

A full house on the J Class Velsheda. Photo: sailing Energy/The superyacht cup

JS1, Svea, has new syndicate owners from Sweden who have deep racing experience; particularly Niklas Zennström. The Skype founder has sailed since childhood and made his mark in Mini Maxis and TP52s – he is a double Maxi World Champion. “If I get into something, I get drawn into it and get pretty addicted,” he has said.

In opposition, Velsheda, JK7, recently emerged from an eight-and-a-half month refit, “a full cosmetic refit of the boat, a new deck, paintwork, a topsides and rig paint, full varnish re-do, and a lot of things to juggle,” says skipper Barney Henshaw-Depledge.

In preparation for their world championships in Barcelona next year, most of the J Class teams have been looking at how to play with their ratings. A focus has been put on reducing waterline length. Velsheda’s keel and hull have been re-faired and some 2.6 tonnes of ballast removed. According to the rumour mill, even more has been stripped from Svea, making her much quicker downwind.

But it doesn’t always work out.

A skilled job at the sharp end of Svea. Photo: sailing Energy/The superyacht cup

“With the two minute gaps in starts, sometimes you were sailing in a completely different breeze,” says Svea’s captain, Paul Kelly. “We were up against Ribelle and Pattoo and at a couple of marks we were getting rolled. Ribelle was sailing higher and faster. They can sit on top of you and go over you going 2-3 knots faster.

“From a racing point of view that can be very frustrating but from a perspective of training and crew work and owners’ driving, it was time on the water, which counts for everything. You need to be minimising mistakes so it was invaluable.”

Velsheda claimed victory with two race wins, finishing a point ahead of 2nd placed Svea and the McKeon designs Ribelle and Pattoo.

Owners like to return to the Superyacht Cup because the racing is in earnest but the vibe is friendly, and the city has every yachting facility one could want, at hand.

Ribelle, the 33m Malcolm McKeon design, gliding along under A-sail. Photo: sailing Energy/The superyacht cup

“In other places of the world you might have one or two days when you are not racing, with either no wind or too much breeze, whereas here you have guaranteed racing,” says Bouwe Bekking. “The level of racing on some boats is really high end with a lot of professionals aboard, then there are cruiser-racers with owners who want to compete. You can sail against similar types of boats and if you do a good job you can win.”

“It is the first time I’ve done one of these types of events,” comments Gavin Brady. “It’s very neat. It’s not often that we all get together – there isn’t often a chance to mingle in events like the TP52s. This is competitive but it’s also very social.”

The 24m Wally Rose had a close battle with Swan 100 Onyx in Class B. Photo: sailing Energy/The superyacht cup

The lure of the Cup

Next year’s Superyacht Cup may be back to full strength as yachts that have been off cruising or stayed close to their home base migrate to the Med and the gatherings planned around the 37th America’s Cup in October.

“Next year is looking really big again. Many yachts have been in the Pacific or the US, and are coming for the Cup,” comments organiser Branagh. “Already 17 have expressed an interest – we have never had this number so far out. The new Nilaya [a 47m Reichel/Pugh design launched this winter from Royal Huisman] is keen and there are several other new builds, and others that are going to be out of big refits.

“I think people are back to planning long term and it could be a bumper year.”

J-Class developments

In the rarefied world of the J Class, a little more speed costs a huge amount of money and demands the highest degree of expertise. Almost 100 years on from their origin, the Js still extract near America’s Cup levels of development, and huge refit programmes are undertaken to gain fractions of speed.

Sails are a perennial area of development. The class favour North 3Di sails, but strict firewalls keep individual build details a closely guarded secret. “Sail development is very, very expensive, so we certainly keep our cards close to our chest; we are in it to win it,” says Paul Kelly, captain of Svea.

Photo: sailing Energy/The superyacht cup

Deck chutes have been in development since Bouwe Bekking introduced the idea to Lionheart a few years ago. He is now tactician on Svea, which was using one at the Superyacht Cup for the first time. Chute retrieves have slashed the time it takes to douse the gargantuan spinnakers by as much as a minute. “You can pretty much carry them right to the mark,” says Steve Branagh of RSB Rigging, who was crewing on Velsheda.

“You also haven’t got 15 people on the foredeck doing it, which presents its own problems as you round the mark and is extra weight,” adds Svea’s Paul Kelly. “When it all goes to plan it’s amazing how quick it is. But you do also have to be aware it mightn’t go to plan and you could hear the dreaded words ‘Manual drop!’”

Power and hydraulic systems are critical for driving winches with ultra-rapid line speeds. “For a heavy air gybe-set we have everything going. If we have hydraulic failure it is race ending; top-handling winches is over,” says Kelly.

Photo: sailing Energy/The superyacht cup

Every spectator and every cameraman loves the sporting action of the racing Js, the foredeck crew in helmets being doused by bow waves. Each yacht races with over 30 people – 34 on Svea, including owners. “We have seven or eight on the foredeck, four on the winches at mast base, four on pit. People can’t believe 34 people have a job but it is a fact,” says Kelly. “You still need six guys to move the spinnaker pole because it’s 100kg and 16m long.”

This year is effectively a work-up to the peak of racing activity, the J Class World Championships held during the America’s Cup in Barcelona in 2024. Besides Velsheda and Svea, the soon to-be-relaunched Rainbow should be there, plus Topaz and Shamrock, currently being refitted in the UK.

The coolest thing about the Js, though, are what they can do when you don’t see them. After racing they may go off low-key cruising with their owners. Following the Superyacht Cup, Svea was converted to cruising mode and set sail for Naples. With a comfortable interior that can sleep 11, she, like her rivals, is far more bluewater capable than you might imagine.

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