With the J's racing in Falmouth and the Solent this summer, we look at what makes them so special...
J class regatta history
A J Class yacht at full speed, her bow slicing through the waves, water boiling over her lee gunwales, is a bewitching sight. But if you go to Falmouth at the end of June, or the Solent at the end of July, we can promise you a sight you’ve never seen before: up to five Js racing in UK waters for the first time since the 1930s.
These glorious yachts race at 10 knots upwind and down, can be pigs to sail and need an army of crew, yet with three new launches in three years and more to come, interest in J Class yachts is greater now than at any time in their 80-year history. Their mystique remains, largely for their breathtaking grace and stately beauty, as well as their intriguing history.
But perhaps their appeal is best described by the woman credited with initiating their resurgence in the 1980s, Elizabeth Meyer: “We love them because they are sublimely beautiful, utterly impractical and fiendishly demanding.”
History of the J class
The history of the Js is directly intertwined with the America’s Cup. Between 1929 and 1937 20 J Class yachts were designed, ten were built and six of those raced in a Cup Match. Sir Thomas Lipton challenged with Shamrock V in 1930 and Sir Thomas Sopwith in 1934 and ’37 with his two Endeavours. Defender Harold Vanderbilt remained unbeaten in the three yachts he commissioned, Enterprise, Rainbow and Ranger.
Just three originals survive today: Endeavour, Shamrock V and Velsheda. Restorations began in the 1980s when Elizabeth Meyer, an American writer, yachtswoman and property
entrepreneur, discovered Endeavour on the hard at Calshot Spit and determined to bring her back to life. All three raced together in 1999 and 2001, and when Ranger was re-created in 2003, three became four. Now there are seven Js sailing and five more are in design or build.
Today’s fleet is governed by the J Class Association. To be a true J, the design must come from original lines – not necessarily a yacht that was actually built – but can use the most modern materials and techniques. The Netherlands has been the crucible of J Class revival. Since Endeavour went to the Royal Huisman yard in the 1990s, Dutch designers Gerard Dykstra and André Hoek have dominated the modern J Class.
Elite racing in the first 30 years of the 20th Century was in the Big Class – including Cambria, Britannia and Lulworth. But as these yachts kept growing, along with the crews and budgets needed to manage them, the Universal Rule was developed in America effectively to limit size and displacement.
And it was to this rule that Sir Thomas Lipton mounted his final Challenge on the America’s Cup in 1930 and built the first J Class, Shamrock V. When the New York Yacht Club (NYYC) agreed to race in J Class it heralded an incredible thirst for innovation in yachting, which is only equalled perhaps today.The Americans won that Match – and 1934 and ’37 – principally because they were more innovative, threw a lot more time, energy and money into the competition and used multiple designers to the UK’s one (Charles Nicholson).
But aircraft manufacturer Sir T. O. M Sopwith represented a new era of British big boat owners, a competent helmsman who applied science and technology to his yachts, producing threatening Challengers in Endeavour in 1934 (which was narrowly beaten by Rainbow – the replica of which has just launched) and Endeavour II in 1937 (the replica of which is Hanuman), beaten by Ranger.
While 1934 was considered the zenith of J Class racing, the 1937 campaign and the appearance of a contender with the longest waterline possible under the rule – a so-called ‘Super J’ – showed just how much performance could be gleaned from a purposefully restrictive rule. With the intervention of World War II, this was the last America’s Cup for 21 years and, together with the death of keen yachtsman King George V, it spelt the demise of Big Class racing.
The American Js were all scrapped during the war for their valuable materials. In the UK Shamrock went to Italy, while the English mud saved Endeavour and Velsheda, preserving them until a new breed of J Class enthusiast came to the rescue.