Toby Hodges on the 2017 renaissance of the giant J Class yachts
The Dutch design edge
The nine current Js have all been redesigned by Dutch design firms, most have been built or rebuilt in Dutch shipyards at some stage and multiple owners are or have been Dutch.
Jeroen de Vos from top design firm Dykstra has been kept very busy recently updating their existing fleet of J Class – which is basically all bar the three modern Hoek Design reconfigured yachts.
“We look at what we can tweak before every regatta. We just did major jobs on Hanuman, Ranger and Shamrock,” said de Vos.
Those in the current racing fleet are all looking at rating and the best way to close the gap on the others. “Do you want to come out with a clean start, or do you want a low rating?”
De Vos makes the point that, as the fleet increases in size, it becomes harder to get a good start. “When you start on a J you pick your lane and you are committed – you can’t throw it around like a Laser. And who wins the start and clean air often wins.”
Dykstra helped develop the rule of the class for the AC Jubilee in 2001. Now it’s in the hands of the rating experts at Southampton University’s Wolfson Unit, who, together with the J Class Association, ensure the class rule is continually developed to ensure close racing.
“You want to make sure that yesterday’s boat can still win tomorrow,” says de Vos. “That’s the key to the longevity of the class.” That, he says, and ensuring that owners don’t have to cut their boats apart to stay competitive.
The lengths owners are prepared to go to optimise the boats today is no less than any race boat programme, it’s just on an astronomically different scale. From constant sail, rigging, hardware and hydraulic upgrades down to fairing the hull, some have even gone to the extent of 3D mapping the hull to check it’s symmetrical before wet sanding beneath the waterline!
Equipping today’s J Class yacht
The J Class has always been a test bed and proving ground for leading edge equipment. Hydraulics revolutionised the cumbersome handling of these yachts. Hoisting and sheeting sails more quickly makes racing faster and safer.
Line speeds on J Class yachts are all upgraded to the fastest that tailers can manage – around 200m per min. Power take-offs (PTOs) fitted to engines and gensets channel the required power to hydraulic pumps that can spin the winches at such speed.
Harken’s Mark Gardner says that the main difference between J Class yachts and modern superyachts that race is that they use deck top winches with hands-on control rather than vast captive reel winches that are hidden beneath decks.
The loads incurred are phenomenal – up to 13 tonnes on a primary winch and over 30 tonnes on the headstay. “It’s not the max pull load that is the problem,” says Gardner. “It is the dynamic loads the winches and hardware will see when 190 tonnes of yacht falls off a wave, for example.”
The recent introduction of a backwind functionality to these large winches helps to ease rope loads safely.
The J Class and their menacing black sails
These dynamic loads, together with the sheer size of the craft, mean that J Class yachts are a test for sails and rigging too. Sail choice makes for a big aesthetic impact.
Over the last two decades the racing fleet has gone from white sails to string sails/3DL, and, in recent years, North’s grey 3Di.
Black is the vogue for 2017, as racing J Class yachts now start to sport the 3Di raw sails that the likes of the TP52 and mini maxi classes use. These sails lack the durable outer skin, hence they are the colour of the dominant carbon and Aramid fibre tapes.
Black sails on dark new boats such as Lionheart, Hanuman and Svea will be a menacing sight.
But why follow grand prix trends? Weight-saving is the simple answer.
North Sails’ Scott Zebny, who has made sails for Endeavour, Ranger, Hanuman, Rainbow and Lionheart over the past 18 years, says a J Class mainsail in 3Di raw is 30kg lighter.
“These are the biggest grand prix boats on the planet… From our side we’re trying to build these monster sails to be absolutely perfect like a TP52’s.
“They are just bigger and a lot harder, the loads are a lot higher and the overlapping headsails get the living poop kicked out of them every time they tack.”
But the right sail choice can still win a regatta. Four years ago North Sails President Ken Read unveiled a furling code sail for Hanuman, a secret weapon that helped them win the St Barth’s Bucket and Superyacht Cup. It was initially measured as a spinnaker, so the class changed the rule in order to prevent an arms race into furling sails.
Some J Class yachts are now using furling headstays this season, where genoas are hanked on to a torsional stay. Although this adds a little weight, the gains are speedier sets and furls with no trade-off in sail shape.
“From a technology point of view it [the J Class] pushes us as hard as you can possibly be pushed for sure,” said Zebny. “When we get it right, it’s pretty cool.”
Gearing up: from Shamrock to Svea
The gulf in size, speed, equipment and layout between the eldest and newest J Class yacht is wide. Simon Lacey is probably the only person to have worked aboard all original Js and certainly the only person to skipper all three.
He took over Shamrock V in October 2016. JK3 Shamrock changed hands last spring after a long period spent cruising and chartering and is now being modified to race this year.
An obvious hindrance is that Shamrock still sports an aluminium mast and nitronic rod rigging. Lacey reports that they have now stripped some weight out of the top section, but if future budget allows, a modern carbon rig package will be key to saving vital weight aloft.
Shamrock also still has twin engines and gensets, hence her engine room is very compact and lacks the space to fit PTO units.
“We’re not expecting to perform against the others in terms of boatspeed,” Lacey admits. “We have to get the best rating possible – one which takes into account twin props, increased rig weight and lack of stability and headstay tension.”
When you compare the winch littered decks of Shamrock (and Velsheda) against modern J Class yachts like Topaz and Svea, it’s extraordinary to think they will race in the same class.
Hoek Design did a lot of development with deck layout for Svea, which was focused on keeping the primaries and mainsheet winches grouped around the helm.
“I’ve always believed that the helm should be in contact with the mainsheet trimmer, jib trimmer and tactician and that the helm shouldn’t have a headset,” Andre Hoek told me as we visited Svea at Vitters shipyard in December.
On a long keeled boat like a Dragon, the helmsman also controls the main, Hoek reasons, because if you don’t ease the main the rudder won’t respond. So communication between the two on a J Class yacht is key.
Svea’s cockpit is particularly large, with the primary, runner and mainsheet winches located in one cockpit, allowing jib trimmer and runner crew to communicate. “When you have 35 tonnes on headstay and 11 tonnes on the winch and the trimmer wants more forestay tension, communication is important!” says Hoek.
The original lines for Svea were by Swede Tore Holm in 1937. She was the last J Class yacht designed, but never built. Hoek reconfigured the design, maintaining her impressively clean look.
Svea’s intimidating dark metallic grey topsides had just been freshly unveiled from protective plastic, having been top-coated the night before our visit. She looked as striking as an unfinished yacht in a shipyard can look.
A J Class yacht out of the water is especially impressive due to her wonderfully deep and long keel. Svea has a particularly smooth run from her bows sections into her keel. Around 10 tonnes of her 90 tonnes of ballast is moveable.
The late Pieter Beeldsnijder designed Svea’s dark walnut interior, featuring a particularly open saloon with a large serving hatch that links to the galley.
Unprecedented enduring appeal
Some J Class owners prefer to go cruising, others bide their time preparing for the big events. But this year is the biggest yet, perhaps the biggest ever. Will the J Class wave peak and slide away or will it keep growing?
Ultimately it’s not about what happens at the racing. It’s the unprecedented, enduring appeal of the class, its history and the racer-cruiser afterlife of the yachts that ensures the class is more popular and vibrant today than it has ever been.