Helen Fretter races aboard the J Class Velsheda where classic yacht fantasy meets racing practicality.

It is hard to be a show-stopper in St Tropez, yet the two J Class yachts competing this year were undoubtedly the biggest crowd pleasers. I was lucky enough to step aboard Velsheda for a day, which feels a lot like being invited backstage at the Oscars as you push through the crowds to reach the passerelle marked ‘K7’.

Velsheda was racing – at her owner’s request – in IRC A against a mixed fleet that included Rambler 88, Leopard, Spectre, and the giant My Song. They were joined by the sole other J competing this year, Lionheart, while the class also calculated results under its own rating system.

“We had to make the choice of whether we just had two boats on the startline match racing each other, or whether we threw in another 16,” explains Velsheda’s tactician, Tom Dodson. “The owner seems to like that pressure. And it gives us a good chance to get a jump on Lionheart, which we sometimes need, just to get some traffic in between us.”

On the day I joined them, the traffic counted against Velsheda, with the 60ft WallyNo, looking positively petite compared to the rest of the field, dialling down inside Velsheda and allowing Lionheart to get away on the reaching, port-tack start.

This type of nip-and-tuck scenario is particularly challenging for Velsheda’s team, with the 1933 design’s ‘double doghouse’ making visibility from the helm limited, compared to their open-decked rivals.

J Class yacht Lionheart featuring the flat, clear deck. Photo Maria Muina.

J Class yacht Lionheart featuring the flat, clear deck. Photo Maria Muina.

Tactician Tom Dodson explains: “It basically means we talk to each other on comms [microphones and headsets], which is OK, but you have a terrible view which makes for very hard mark roundings and lee bow tacking on anybody.” The team has discussed moving the wheel forward, but a yacht like Velsheda is not one you take a chainsaw to lightly. “I mean you could turn this into a flush deck boat and it’d be a lot easier to sail, and faster, but where do you stop?” muses Dodson.

Instead, the communications loops are key – not only because of the visibility, but also the sheer distance between each working area on the boat, and the incredible noise the J Class yachts generate as the loads build – somewhere between a purr and a growl. At least until the breeze really comes on, “Then she starts barking at you,” jokes navigator Campbell Field.

During the prestart the owner talks directly to the bowman, Jeff Reynolds, of whom Dodson says: “Ronald [de Waal, Velsheda’s owner] doesn’t like to start the boat unless Jeff’s on the bow. He’s got balls of steel! He gets us really close to the line, we’ve got the box [race computer] going as well, but in the end we look at him too.”

Reynolds, meanwhile, is listening to the navigator. After the start the loop switches to include the helmsman and trimmers, with Dodson adding his input. “I’m also on open mic, so ‘Juggy’ [crew boss Justin Clougher] can almost hear what I’m thinking. If I’m saying, ‘Oh I think this could be a problem’, Juggy can start thinking ahead for that without even having the conversation.”

The sixth-sense communication is bolstered by the fact that the crew has sailed together consistently over many years. “I think the strength with us is our boat-handling,” says Dodson, who called for two ‘Mexican’ gybe-drops during Wednesday’s race, which the team executed flawlessly. “We were the only one in our fleet who were pulling those manoeuvres off,” he adds.

“The guys have been together a long time – some were on it when the boat was first launched, and some of us have been here for 15–16 years, and we don’t tend to change people too often.”

A Velsheda masterclass – pictures and highlights from J Class regatta, Falmouth, 2015

Another challenge for the Velsheda bow team is that the enormous spinnakers are dropped directly onto the foredeck. “We have a bit more on because we don’t have a forward hatch for sail handling so everything stays on deck,” explains Dodson. The kites are then passed back along the side decks for the army of crew and guests to roll and zip – a satisfying modern take on a very traditional routine. In big breezes wrestling the spinnakers under control on deck must become gladiatorial.

Sail changes are avoided unless critical. Navigator Campbell Field explains: “St Tropez is a tricky place to race, you really need to get a good grip on the weather because at that time of year you’ve got some gradient winds which are very slightly influenced by sea breezes, so you need to understand how to manage those transitions.

“You definitely have to be constantly changing modes. Unfortunately that’s a little bit more difficult in a J Class boat because it’s not simple to change a jib – it’s a 15-minute exercise for 20 guys working flat out.”

For the first leg of Wednesday’s race the team considered a change of kite as Velsheda shuddered her way through a choppy seaway, but opted instead to sail high of the rhumb line to power up. Then there it was – that delicious soaring movement as the J’s long bow lifts, before dipping to send a pluming bow wave out of our way, and a prickle up the back of my neck.

For the rest of the week, Velsheda had the upper hand, adding two more wins to take the J Class regatta win. For IRC A overall, Mike Slade’s Leopard took the class overall, just one point ahead of Velsheda, with Lionheart in 4th.

The scene along the waterfront at St Tropez.

The scene along the waterfront at St Tropez.

Double the fleet

Big fleet racing is something the J Class fleet is preparing to get used to as the class prepares to see seven or even eight Js lining up against one another in Bermuda in 2017.

10 facts you may not know about the J Class

“One of the challenges in St Tropez was that we were starting against a very wide variety of boats, most of them a lot more manoeuvrable than your average J Class boat. And a lot of them didn’t always seem that sure of what they were doing!” says Velsheda navigator Campbell Field.

“But in a fleet of seven or eight Js all the guys in charge of these boats are highly skilled, and they understand the limits and constraints of all the other boats. It’ll be aggressive racing, but it will also be done with a great deal of respect for what the boats are capable of.”

“2017 will be the J Class year,” he adds. “Everybody’s raising their game.”