Toby Hodges sails the newest J Class yacht, Svea, and finds an elegant J crossed with a modern maxi grand prix yacht. Photos by Carlo Borlenghi
Svea, the newest addition to the now nine-strong J Class fleet, is one of the most outstanding new yachts of modern times – a harmonious meeting of historic and modern design; a blend of J Class lines and maxi grand prix yacht technology.
What follows will hopefully explain why she is the ultimate modern J; why her design and engineering had to be fast-tracked yet still produced such formidable results, and, crucially, why the other six Js and their 200 professional crewmembers racing in Bermuda this June were right to be worried about their new competition.
Svea’s build programme has been unrelenting since her American owner bought the bare aluminium hull two years ago. A serial yacht owner and experienced racer, his sights were firmly set on the J Class regatta in Bermuda.
This is the biggest year for the J Class since they raced for the America’s Cup in the 1930s.
The first time six Js raced together was in St Barth in March, but when Svea joins the fleet in Bermuda, it will be the first time seven have lined up. But for that to happen Svea had to take shape fast.
It was just 17 months from signing the contract to her delivery – a race-ready superyacht prepared to sail across the Atlantic to her first race, just as the original Js were designed to do.
Svea arrived in Palma in March to start sea trials and race training. I was invited aboard in late April for what turned out to be the last day of race training – and a day I shall never forget.
1930s lines, modern layout
All Js dazzle on the water, but Svea simply stops you in your tracks. Her lines and deck are kept spectacularly clean, thanks to the compact wheelhouse, sunken wheel and wonderfully low boom.
Her dark metallic grey hull and black and red sail wardrobe lend her timeless lines a slightly menacing appearance – a purposeful racing look that belies the luxurious interior below decks. The aggressive aesthetics are in keeping with her name, a Viking word (it means Swede).
The lines for Svea are from a Tore Holm design from 1937, the last J drawn but one that was never built. Holm was one of the most gifted Metre Class designers.
Andre Hoek reworked the design to make it competitive for modern day racing. This is his third J project in recent years following Lionheart and Topaz.
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Even compared to these ‘Super Js’, Svea is big. She is, by 15cm, the longest J overall at 43.6m /143.1ft LOA.
Think of classic J Class pictures from the 1930s and you picture a helmsman in a blazer and tie standing high on the aft deck battling a traditional wooden wheel. One of Svea’s striking features is her extra large wheel, nearly half of which vanishes into a well below decks.
Hoek encouraged the extra wide, sunken wheel, a feature that Frers favoured in the 1980s because it allowed the helmsman to sit out and see the telltales. Here it allows the helmsman, trimmers and afterguard to remain in close communication.
Svea’s deck layout is optimised for modern racing thanks to a large cockpit directly in front of the wheel from which the main, genoa and running backstays are all controlled. This means crew dealing with the runners and their fearsome loads are not on the aft deck and can safely operate the winches from a standing position.
The cockpit also doubles as a guest area when the yacht is in cruise mode, and there is removable seating and table.
I observed the action from the aft deck, in the company of Andre Hoek and the owner’s representatives and project managers Tako van Ineveld and Katie Beringer from Ineveld & Co. With its long overhangs a J’s ends are prone to pitching and as they are raced with no guardrails you need to be vigilant when the yacht is heeling.
Maxi grand-prix set-up with walnut interior
“Be careful on deck – we’re running big loads – up to 36 tonnes on the forestay,” Svea’s captain Paul ‘PK’ Kelly told us as we left Palma’s STP shipyard. That’s the weight of a 60ft cruising yacht, I thought!
“It’s a maxi grand prix set-up in every detail,” said Tako van Ineveld. “We will race it as a grand prix boat. The owner loves that, but he also loves his walnut interior.”
And that, I thought, in a nutshell, is what today’s J Class yacht is all about.
When I joined, the 24-strong race crew and six permanent crewmembers had been practising multiple pre-starts and two or three windward-leeward races a day. Granted, they had no competition, but I soon appreciated how getting the timing for the manoeuvres down and, crucially, knowing exactly how long each will take, is invaluable preparation.
As in a regatta, it takes a couple of hours between the time a J leaves the dock to the point at which it is fully prepared for the start. But when we were, and fully heeled over in full trim, sailing at 9.5 knots upwind in 9-9.5 TWS, the feeling was euphoric.
Svea’s immense black North 3Di RAW mainsail was allowed a little body to match the lighter conditions that morning. The sails are obviously big business on Js and Tom Whidden, North Sails’s CEO, was aboard for the day assisting the afterguard.
Furling headsails are a new addition this year for some of the newer Js. A crewmember needs to go aloft to attach the lashing to the head during the hoist, so it takes longer to swap headsails, but the advantage is a marked improvement in sail handling time.
The decision was taken early during Svea’s build to incorporate furling headsails, for which a Reckmann torque tube is installed on deck. “It’s a big help not having to drag headsails out of the water,” van Ineveld remarked.
A glance aloft shows a particularly aggressive Southern Spars rig design. Every bit of weight and windage was minimised, with no staysail halyard and only a single VHF aerial permitted from the mast top for example.
The Southern Spars boom is tapered at each end and the spinnaker pole is a novel triangular shape – which is promised to be lighter than an equivalent tube, if more vulnerable to impact.
During a couple of the upwind legs I sat forward of the wheelhouse, watching the choreography of the pit and foredeck. While the main and trimmers may be in better contact with the afterguard in their aft cockpit setup, it’s still a separate camp up here.
The wide, shallow pit serves a useful area to tidy the vast amount of tail ends for spinnaker sheets, inhaulers, barbers, etc and for storing sails or snaking the spinnaker when zipping it up.
When the wind died down to 8 knots there was talk of whether to lead the sheets for inside gybing on the downwind leg. It’s amazing to think that a 950sq m kite can be gybed inside these days, but it’s a call that needs to be made relatively early as it involves changing the tack strop and sheet leads.
It’s almost impossible to take in the flurry of activity that two thirds of the crew are involved with around the mast and foredeck during a hoist – that was governed by Team New Zealand veteran sailor Andrew ‘Meat’ Taylor, a crew boss whose physical presence immediately ensures respect.
The spectacular bright red kite went fizzing up and ballooned into life, filling out a symbol depicting an ancient Nordic compass rose.
When the wind increased to 12 knots for the second practice race that afternoon, everything felt a little more intense on board. The headstay load pin readout was up to 30 tonnes. There was more water coming over the deck, the stiff carbon sails snapped into place with a bang, when the runner was eased, the blocks sounded like a shotgun going off, shuddering a vibration through the aluminium deck.
We were making up to 10.2 knots upwind now. Francesco de Angelis, the ex-Luna Rossa skipper hired as owner’s coach, calmly steered sitting to windward, alongside the likes of Peter Isler navigating and the owner’s long-standing tactician and fleet manager Charlie Ogletree (an Olympic Tornado sailor).
We crossed the line within a second of the gun and Svea stepped out into her full graceful stride on another long leg.
As we rounded the top mark into the short reaching leg a late call is made for an ‘Indian’ – or gybe-set. It’s a test designed to time the crew response.
We gybed and the kite was hoisted in little more than a boatlength – I counted five seconds. There is a nod of approval from Tom Whidden, who comments: “That’ll allow you to go either way round the top mark – a pretty nice exit manoeuvre to have, especially if you’re in a train.”
I was astonished at the speed of the gybes. The boom is sheeted to two winches, both capable of spitting line out at 220m per minute. So even with the boom fully out when sailing downwind, it is centred in a couple of seconds.
The speed of the manoeuvres, especially after only three weeks’ training, was seriously impressive. I later learned that this was their best training day. Even so, it was remarkably quiet and well drilled.
Van Ineveld told me the crew was very pleased with how reliable all the systems have been, especially the hydraulics. He pointed out that Js have habitually suffered from hydraulic power failure, which is why they put the Power Take Off (PTO) on the main engine. “So far we’ve had no lack of hydraulic power and we’re only running at 70 per cent”.
The hydraulic pressure for Js is normally 220bar, but Svea has larger diameter pipes allowing more flow at 300bar. “Svea comes out of the box where others want to be,” says van Ineveld. “It’s where all the recent work to Lionheart and Hanuman has led – it’s the advantage of starting from scratch.”
Sailing Svea – the newest member of a revered class
During our final upwind leg, something happened that has changed my appreciation of sailing a J forever. Ogletree beckoned me to the wheel, mocking de Angelis by telling the elite helmsman: “You’re fired.”
My heart rate rocketed. I told myself to focus – I would only get a few taster seconds of the owner’s experience on the wheel. Sailing a J in race mode with race crew? More people have been to the moon.
But that ‘time’s up’ pat on the shoulder never came. The gargantuan wheel was entrusted to me for the rest of the upwind leg, the mark roundings, the spinnaker hoist and the downwind gybes all the way to the finish.
Focus, Toby! I asked de Angelis what sort of numbers we should be doing. “Just sail it to the telltales” was his refreshing answer – although in fact the genoa is professionally trimmed before I could even correct the wheel. The subsequent “9.8 knots target speed at 45º…” certainly helped.
Standing to leeward I was struck by the force of the wind slot between the sails and how hard it becomes to hear anything. As we tacked I bent for support to hand-over-hand the 8ft diameter carbon and teak wheel. Svea was back up to full speed. “You got the mark?” Ogletree asked. I nodded. “Over to you.”
Panic. Keep calm and don’t hit the buoy. I was aware of a flurry of activity on a foredeck far, far away. It helped make me appreciate just how focused the crew have to be on their role during a race. You have to be able to trust that everyone’s on it – I found it almost impossible to concentrate on anything other than pointing the boat from behind the wheel.
Turn the wheel and it’s still some moments (and distance) before the boat responds. It shows the value of anticipation.
We powered through a reach and bore away into a spinnaker set, at which point I went into a giddy trance, trying to mentally distill the moment while gybing Svea downwind. To drive the latest, most high-tech yacht in the most revered class in the world, with a full complement of rock stars and one of the world’s foremost sailors alongside coaching me through it… no, superlatives will never suffice.
“Well done everyone, that was a great day today,” said Ogletree in the debrief back on the dock, as my pulse began to settle. “The best we’ve sailed the boat and the best it’s gone.”
No room for delay
Svea’s deck is kept wonderfully clean. The original lines didn’t even have a deckhouse, something the class insisted upon, says Hoek, but Svea’s is kept low.
The furler and tensioner for the inner forestay are hidden under the deck. The anchor arm (removed for racing) rotates out of a locker and extends over the port bows. The chainplates with integrated turnbuckles are underdeck leaving just the ECsix rigging exposed.
It was eye-opening to see just how well Svea is finished below, particularly after visiting her in build at Vitters in December – at which time no cabin had yet been completed. Austrian company List pre-fabricated the interior entirely off site – a feat of 3D modelling and engineering.
The late Pieter Beeldsnijder (who worked on Athena, Hyperion, Hanuman, and Ethereal) designed an elegant interior that is timelessly finished by Michiel de Vos.
Raised and fielded panels are used together with both decorative and practical features such as curved handrails built into panels. These reflect the owner’s taste for millwork carpentry. His preference for an open grain to the Claro walnut helped produce a tactile finish.
The intricate design details and the complex build skills required are particularly impressive when you consider the time frame in which Svea was completed. Normally an interior is built in parallel with the hull, but in this case it was built and fitted during the 14-month Vitters yard period.
“There was no room for delays with the race programme for Bermuda,” said Tako van Ineveld.
A traditional skylight floods the saloon in natural light. A sliding hatch in the bulkhead between the saloon and the galley further forward helps open out this space and allows the owner to incorporate the compact galley into his living space. It’s a clever arrangement that also keeps the teak-finished crew area forward private.
The layout elsewhere is traditional for a J, with guest en-suite cabins (twin and double) each side of the companionway and the master stateroom aft. The saloon and cabins lacked a personal touch during our visit – the bulkheads were still bare – however 16 marquetry pieces inspired by classic Beken pictures were imminently due to be hung.
Beeldsnijder succeeded in pushing accommodation space to the maximum inside. This is evident in the aft cabin, where the longitudinal frames rise up towards the transom through the berth and sofas. The low wheelhouse squeezes the accommodation in the passageway aft, but this has been cleverly sculpted out at shoulder height.
The engine room, accessed from the passageway opposite the compact navstation or via the saloon sole, is particularly well laid out offering easy access to all the systems.
One to watch
The flurry of new Js and competitive regattas in the last decade has brought with it a chase to upgrade to the latest equipment. This is particularly the case with Hanuman and Lionheart. Svea, however, is today’s true answer to a race-ready J class.
“What an accomplishment it will be to make the start line at Bermuda, a year after going into Vitters,” said captain Paul Kelly. When I left, I was bowled over by this yacht, build and crew work and results so far have been very encouraging.
I am also now that bit closer to understanding the charms of the mercurial J from an owner’s point of view. To buy and helm a J Class yacht in a competitive race is the ultimate money-can-buy experience in sailing – and, arguably, in any sport.