Toby Hodges on the 2017 renaissance of the giant J Class yachts

As the breeze freshens, we power up even more. We’re heeled to the gunwales now, our near 200 tonnes displacement creating a bow wave that sucks the water out from below us. White water engulfs the leeward decks like a tidal wave, the headsail trimmers lying waist deep at times as we thunder along at hullspeed.

Yacht brokers Edmiston created the opportunity to get us aboard Endeavour, which is currently for sale (see original blog and history here), the most beautiful of the J Class yachts and ranked among the most iconic yachts ever. Sailing simply doesn’t get any finer than this.

Compare all the J Class yachts with our pocket guide.

The word that kept entering my head and one that can be applied to all J Class yachts is ‘majestic’. They sail upwind at 10 knots and downwind at up to 13 knots – pedestrian by today’s planing and flying standards – and can be beasts to handle. But J Class yachts remain sensational to sail and mesmerising to watch.

The launch of the latest J Class yacht Svea this January takes the current fleet up to nine. That’s a collective weight of around 1,600 tonnes, with a sail area over 8,360m2 (90,000ft2).

Stack the J Class masts up end to end and they would reach the top of the Empire State Building. Their collective worth is over £100 million according to some camps – priceless in others.

When you consider that there were only ever ten J Class yachts built originally in the 1930s, a maximum of four of which sailed together at one time, and that all bar three were destroyed for scrap – the fact that five J Class yachts have launched in the last eight years is a pretty radical turnaround.

Six J Class yachts will race for the first time ever in St Barth this March. Eight out of the nine will then go to Bermuda for the America’s Cup showcase event in June (perhaps all nine if Endeavour sells before then), where a record seven will compete – a prospect that few people could ever have imagined before the recent resurgence of the class.

The J Class is unparalleled in any sport: historic yet cutting edge, competitive but also used for pleasure. They are the multimillionaire’s ultimate racer-cruiser.

Unlike maxi racing yachts, Js have fully fitted luxury interiors, a rule instigated by the class to ensure a multi-role yacht.

Endeavour’s finely appointed saloon.

Endeavour’s finely appointed saloon.

One of the charms of J Class yachts is that their size and shape can swallow these interiors without harming performance – long overhangs mean the accommodation and associated weight remains central. And unlike modern performance superyachts that occasionally race, J Class yachts are seaworthy racing machines that can be cruised and are united by an absorbing history.

J Class yachts have the best systems, hydraulics, deck gear, sails and rigging to take the highest dynamic loads, and are crewed by armies of the most experienced pros on the circuit. Most J Class owners still enjoy cruising too. Indeed, both the current owners of Endeavour and Rainbow choose only to cruise – and over the last three decades, Endeavour has sailed all over the world.

A turning point for the class

In the last 15 years we have seen J Class yachts evolve from exhibition yachts to cutting edge race boats. The designs range from the wood-composite 1930-built Shamrock V, at 120ft the smallest J afloat, to the newly launched 143ft Svea, an aluminium masterpiece.

Superyachts Palma J Class Lionheart J-H1. Photo Nico Martinez

The America’s Cup Jubilee regatta in Cowes in 2001 was a real turning point for the class. For the previous 20 years the three Js had only cruised or raced with Corinthian crew. But when Endeavour showed the difference that racing with professionals could make, things changed.

Many were against the introduction of pro crews, but it was a transition that was inevitable if the three-strong class was ever to grow. These 180-tonne yachts could not conceivably race safely with five or more on the startline today without pros in key positions.

Ranger entered the scene in 2004 and this increased the momentum in the class further. Together with Velsheda she has been a stalwart of the regatta scene since.

The owner-drivers have become confident and competent, particularly on Velsheda and Lionheart, and can regularly boss and win the prestart with the aid of their expert tacticians.

But with more Js on the line this summer, the experience of top helmsman such as Ken Read (Hanuman), Erle Williams (Ranger) and Peter Holmberg (Topaz) could be a deciding factor. Clear air will be gold.

I have been fortunate enough to race aboard several J Class yachts in big regattas during this modern era and it is always an electrifying experience. It requires around 30 crewmembers to race a J, which is more than most other large racing yachts, with a team of no fewer than eight required to handle the spinnaker pole.

“The excitement is the closeness of the racing and all the loads and the amount of effort it takes to coordinate all 30 guys to do something at once,” said North Sails Scott Zebny. “That’s the cool part.”

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. The Dutch design edge
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