The incomparable J Class returns to Med fleet racing for the Superyacht Cup Palma and beyond. Andi Robertson tracks their form as the class returns to active racing once more
The Superyacht Cup Palma has long proven one of the litmus test regattas in the modern generation of the J Class – a fleet popularly regarded as the finest in our sport. In 2013 and 2014 when five Js lined up on the Bay of Palma, the spirited, close and even fleet racing which was enjoyed by Ranger, Hanuman, Velsheda, Rainbow and Lionheart marked the start of the build up to 2017’s all time pinnacle events – Bermuda’s America’s Cup Invitational Regatta and the inaugural J Class World Championship in Newport, Rhode Island.
With an all time record sized fleet of seven boats racing in 2017, including the newest launches Svea and Topaz in the mix plus Rainbow (present but watching from the sidelines), Bermuda and Newport marked the twin peaks of recent J Class activity.
However, in the immediate aftermath there was a prolonged dip in racing activity and it’s only now that the fleet seems to be on the rebuild. That reduction in racing can be accounted for by a variety of reasons. Hanuman and Lionheart – arguably the top two, best resourced teams – put their programmes on ice and in Lionheart’s case, went cruising. And John Williams, the enthusiastic owner who commissioned and built Ranger in 1999, sadly passed away in 2018.
However, this spring and summer marks a very definite upturn in J Class racing activity. The St Barths Bucket in March saw the return to racing of Ranger, now in the ownership of a passionate young American. And then in April Svea passed into the well funded, safe hands of a syndicate of experienced Swedish owners.
So the Superyacht Cup Palma 2022 will now see its biggest fleet of Js in eight years, when Velsheda, Topaz, Ranger and Svea answer the starting guns. Also, the word from the J Class Association is that Rainbow looks set to change hands, likely to an owner who wants to go racing. Things are very definitely on the up.
Big changes in the J Class
Svea will start the Superyacht Cup on the strength of only a week’s practice in Palma, having sailed back to Europe in early May from the US. So the expectations of her team are firmly in check.
Completed in a record time of just 17 months in order to be ready for the 2017 Bermuda events, Svea has had multiple, successive changes since she was launched. She has not raced since a collision with Topaz in Antigua 2020. Alterations since then include moving the forestay aft to try and correct persistent, remaining lee helm and trim issues. That has also meant re-cutting headsails.
“We will certainly have some work to do in a short space of time but we are looking forward to being back out on the race course,” enthuses Paul ‘PK’ Kelly, who has been Svea’s boat captain since the yacht was in build.
“But we will have a completely new crew and the boat has changed hands. One of the issues for us has been that because we’ve made so many changes – from ballast to changing trim to adding jib tracks for example – we have very little in the way of base data from the same configurations and so we are aiming to achieve that.”
“Palma will be about learning as a team,” Kelly continues. “It will be awesome having Bouwe [Bekking] with us and one thing we learned from him and the Lionheart crew is that success is about consistency [Bekking was a long term tactician aboard Lionheart]. They won the worlds in Newport not winning a race but made as few crew changes as possible year-on-year. But right now it will be a huge learning curve.”
The new custodian of Ranger, meanwhile, a first-time big boat owner, enjoyed a dream racing debut at March’s St Barths Bucket.
With America’s Cup winner Ed Baird sailing and steering a J Class for his first time, and a crack crew including fellow Cup winners John Kostecki on tactics aided by Jordi Calafat, Ranger sailed a solid first outing to win on their competitive debut.
“They are amazing machines, and I can’t help wondering how on earth they did this 100 years ago?” Baird enthused in St Barth “They are so big and there are so many things to be coordinated.”
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J Class Ranger returns
As the slowest rated boat but with just a few days of crew practice, Ranger was able to hang on close enough in the brisk Caribbean tradewinds and lumpy seas to win overall. While she sailed smart and clean, there was a reminder that although these giants are often handled like modern inshore TP52s, pushing them too hard can result in costly penalties.
Team Hanuman, which has lost major regattas before because of rules transgressions, was given two penalties, for example, which effectively terminated their chances of a winning return.
Greg Sloat, who runs the Ranger programme was especially pleased to win off the bat in St Barth. “We wanted to put together a crew which got on with the job. It has never been about themselves but about the team and so it was not ‘shouty’.”
“Winning was a reward for three years of hard work, of long days and nights working on the boat. But we have a very happy owner. We worked a lot on the hydraulics so we have much more winch power than before.
“We worked on weight distribution and removed about six tonnes for the same righting moment. The main thing was to get weight forward as Ranger has always sat stern down, so with tankage, removing batteries and a lighter rudder we focused on weight out of the back.”
He believes the best of the updated Ranger is yet to come, perhaps ever more so on the flatter water and sea breezes of Palma. “St Barth conditions are not our best. We get slaughtered in the waves because we are so heavy and with the pitching moment. So I think we can do well in Palma in less swell.”
Ranger’s new owner was obviously delighted with the performance and recalls how he fell in love with the boat and the J Class history: “I saw Ranger first when the America’s Cup came through New York City. The previous owner did a wonderful job of building her and carrying on the historic tradition of (the original) Ranger and I followed and stalked her for years. When she became available we were able to navigate the purchase process. Then she went in for a long refit to really renew and refresh a lot of the infrastructure. It was a labour of love.
“It was a funny thing – very rarely do you get to match your aspirations and your passion with actual execution. This is one of these moments and I’m incredibly grateful for it. I love the history, the lines, the beauty, the tradition. It is about the special nature of the J Class and the special nature of Ranger.”
A new era
The tradewinds in St Barth were most often around 20 knots, the action spectacular, the racing close. There was a reminder, welcomed or not, of how physically tough and uncompromising these boats are to get around a windward-leeward race course.
The atmosphere ashore was encouraging, even if there was still some social distancing. And most importantly owners, crews, umpires and the J Class representatives led by new class secretary, Stuart Childerley, opened proper dialogues and talked of how to build a more sustainable, inclusive long term future for the class.
Managing owner expectation and satisfaction is key. After the high octane, high pressure 2017 season there was some burn out. The Lionheart programme under Bouwe Bekking won most consistently but they were a crew who practiced longest and hardest with pre-season sessions.
They were visibly well drilled, briefed and debriefed and were rewarded with the immense satisfaction of becoming world champions. However, Lionheart’s owner has since chosen to cruise with the boat extensively. Svea’s new syndicate of owners are reportedly looking forward to cruising her in the Med this year too.
The level of optimisation and the pressure that the rule was put under saw Lionheart and Svea retaining designer Juan Kouyoumdjian to help with optimisation, while Hanuman worked with Judel/Vrolijk. Certain modifications and choices patently designed to improve handicaps riled other owners whose disposition was aligned more to racing their J Class ‘as it comes’.
“Looking back I think the intensity was too much for some and it was not sustainable or enjoyed by everyone,” recalls the J Class Association’s long serving measurer, Andrew Yates. Lionheart set the bar high but that was partly because the goals of a world championship title and America’s Cup J Class title were heady ones.
Now, double Olympian, one design keelboat world champion and international race officer Stuart Childerley is determined to work with the owners, boat captains and afterguards to map out the itinerary through to 2026 and beyond. It looks very much like this will include a major event at the 37th America’s Cup in Barcelona, where the new class secretary reveals a vision of having all nine existing J Class yachts mustered there.
“I think the important thing is to avoid periods of no activity and to put in place some long range planning,” Childerley explains. “For example one thing on the table we are being asked about is 2026 when it will be the 150th anniversary of Cowes Week. They’d like to invite the J Class to be there.” The pinnacle event of this season will be the week-long Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup in September in Sardinia where the Js will race as a class.
Velsheda remains quietly consistent and within the fleet is widely considered to be the benchmark boat in terms of crew work and performance. They, and Topaz, have continued to race over the last couple of years.
Velsheda missed a number of key Kiwi crew due to travel restrictions – such as tactician Tom Dodson – but they are back in force this season and have retained British Olympian Andy Beadsworth in the afterguard to work alongside Dodson and navigator Campbell Field.
Since launching, Topaz has sought to keep a very consistent team under skipper-helm Peter Holmberg and has benefited by making steady incremental gains each season. They were crowned IRC class winners when racing at Voiles de St Tropez last year.
Fresh blood and wide-eyed enthusiasm is in rich supply right now. So many of the crew of Ranger and Svea in particular have sailed together or against each other week-in week-out on different grand prix boats. That alone should be a step towards the shared vision of competitive, fair racing on the water and shared ‘after work’ beers on the dock.
Another vital ingredient for the future is the new version of the J Class handicapping rule, which has been devised by guru Chris Todter, a leading America’s Cup design director. The task of fairly handicapping a small but diverse fleet, which ranges from the original 1933-designed Velsheda to the 2017-built Svea, has been problematic.
But Todter has fully revised a new Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD)-based VPP, which accounts for many more of the speed and drag producing elements of the hull and foil packages, and is now increasingly looking at seakeeping ability. It is thought that the CFD package produces a more accurate performance profile of each boat in different conditions. The results are computed by the analysis of successive six-minute strips of real time weather and performance data provided from each boat’s performance analysis systems.
Seconds have often divided this modern generation fleet of Js, so we will see what these handicapping updates mean in reality as the four line up in Palma at the end of June. As ever, when you get a collection of the world’s most iconic yachts together, it promises to be an unmissable spectacle.
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