A record fleet of seven J Class yachts in Bermuda represented the purer form of the sport for many America’s Cup fans. Toby Hodges reports.
Inviting the J Class fleet to sail in Bermuda during the America’s Cup finals was one of the smartest decisions made by Russell Coutts and the organisers of the event. The largest J fleet to ever assemble in the 88-year history of the class put on a true yachting spectacle – sailing at its finest.
The America’s Cup catamarans divide opinion sharply among long-term sailing fans. For all those who love the high speed, high adrenaline format, it appears to repel at least an equal number. Hosting the J Class in Bermuda proved the ultimate foil to the foilers. It was an exhibition of timeless design and sail handling skill that the modern Cup lacked.
When five Js raced for the first time in 2012, it signalled the true renaissance of this incomparable class. But the sight of seven Js on a startline, racing over the calm, turquoise waters of Bermuda was sensational. It was the picture-perfect showcase for these graceful 1930s designs and a demonstration of the precise choreography of the large teams of skilled hands needed to get them safely and speedily around a race course.
All nine existing Js are in prime condition, upgraded and optimised to the nth degree (although both Rainbow and Endeavour are for sale and were not competing). The seven-strong racing fleet carries carbon sails, for example, as used by grand prix race yachts. The sight of these black sails on classic yachts made for a strange sight as they cast dark shadows over the clear water.
Lionheart, a 2010-built Hoek design that is taken from one of the lines plans made for the Ranger syndicate in 1936, proved the star performer. She won both the Superyacht Regatta, which comprised six Js and 14 superyachts, and the seven-strong J Class Regatta.
But the latter was only decided in the final stages of the final race (more on that later). As with most J Class racing in recent years, places were often separated by mere seconds on the water.
JK3 Shamrock V, the oldest J and the first built for the America’s Cup in 1929, changed hands last year and underwent a refit to get her race-ready for this season. Her teak planked construction means she can’t take the high rig loads of the other steel and aluminium Js. She is shorter and around ten per cent slower so can only compete on handicap.
JS1 Svea, the newest and longest J, is the polar opposite. Her blend of J Class lines and maxi class technology makes her one of the most exceptional new yachts of modern times. Impressively, she got a 3rd place on her first ever race, and a 1st on the second – a phenomenal achievement for a virtually brand new yacht.
Ultimate exhibition of sail
The Js held their own regatta either side of the first weekend of the America’s Cup finals and an armada of local and visiting boats followed the fleet out to the racecourse.
Those ashore were given the chance to see the fleet in action too. The shallow waters of the Great Sound are too restrictive to set proper courses for the J Class, hence the races were held off the north coast of the island. On the day of the first America’s Cup match, however, the Js performed an exhibition race that saw them set off at 30-second intervals on the Cup course on the Great Sound.
The footage and live commentary was beamed to the big screens and watched by thousands of fans assembled in the America’s Cup village. It created a carnival atmosphere and a tangible link to the history of sport’s oldest trophy.
The J Class were originally designed and raced for the America’s Cup during the 1930s. Sir Thomas Lipton commissioned the first J Class yacht, Shamrock V, for his fifth challenge for the Auld Mug. The Js signalled the change from the big boat class, to one where the size and displacement of the yachts were controlled for more even racing. Fittingly, it was the adoption of the Bermudan rig that enabled Js to carry their vast sail plans.
Just three of the ten J Class yachts originally built survive today – the rest are replicas or new builds of original designs. It still requires around 30 race crew to get these 180-tonne yachts around the marks, just as it did during the 1930s.
“You only have to look at the start sequence, with everyone within a second of the gun, it’s very close,” said Shamrock’s skipper Simon Lacey. “It’s vital to have the skill set to sail these boats safely at this level.”
Cup sailors on ex-Cup yachts
The huge pool of decorated sailing talent aboard the J Class yachts in Bermuda made for a stark contrast to the modern America’s Cup format, where sailing roles are limited. The Js need the pros and the pros increasingly need the Js.
The pit and forward ends feature serious muscle power, ex-grinders with nicknames like ‘Meat’, ‘Animal’ and ‘the Tractor’. A glance at the afterguards shows that this class holds the cream of collective experience and provides longevity to the careers of some of the sport’s greatest sailors.
The crew of Ranger, for example, under long-term helmsman Erle Williams, included four times America’s Cup winner Brad Butterworth calling tactics. Tony Rae, manning the mainsheet, is a seven-time Cup veteran who sailed in every Team New Zealand line-up from 1987 until 2013.
“For me there is no sailing role now for a 55-year-old,” Rae explained. “It has all changed and that is one of the reasons we have so many ex-America’s Cup sailors on these J Class yachts. “
Hanuman is helmed by ex-Puma skipper Ken Read, who is supported by his Volvo Ocean Race navigator Stan Honey and eight-time America’s Cup sailor Warwick Fleury trimming.
Svea’s strategist is North Sails CEO Tom Whidden, a three-time Cup winner, sailing with navigator Peter Isler, his fellow crewmember from Stars & Stripes. Andrew Taylor is the crew boss, a powerhouse who has won the America’s Cup three times – twice for Team New Zealand and in 2010 with Oracle Team USA.
The pros are used in pivotal positions on Js and the other crew and permanent hands absorb their knowledge and experience. Lionheart’s Bouwe Bekking, a seven-time Volvo Ocean Race veteran, stressed that although the pros are vital, every hand is really important. “One of the strong points of Lionheart is that we have been sailing together for four years.”
Velsheda’s crew has sailed together for a decade and includes top Kiwi pros such as Tom Dodson as tactician, Campbell Field navigating and Carsten Schon trimming. Mainsheet trimmer Don Cowie made the point that it is actually difficult to find younger crew these days who are used to racing on yachts with such phenomenal loads.
Stu Bannatyne, Shamrock’s helmsman and a three-time winner of the Volvo Ocean Race, doesn’t think that there is a danger of these skilled roles dying out however. “Who knows what will happen with the next round of the AC? It may revert to boats that do require a little bit of sail handling – I think that would be nice.”
Shamrock’s crew included Olympic and Volvo sailor Chris Nicholson on tactics and four crew from three current Cup teams.
Seven J Class yachts race
On the first day that all seven Js actually raced, Shamrock’s skipper Simon Lacey, the only person to have skippered all three original Js, invited me to join Shamrock’s crew.
At the start, we were the only boat to cross the line on port tack – a tactical decision to take the transoms of the fleet and keep out of their dirty air. Shamrock is smaller than the other Js and restricted by her older systems and rig, so has to sail her own race. “We have 30 per cent less stability and 200sq m less sail area for the same weight as Hanuman,” says Jeroen de Vos of Dykstra Naval Architects, who was trimming.
De Vos has worked on the design and optimisation of six of the Js over the last 20 years, including Hanuman, Ranger and Shamrock last year. Hanuman and Lionheart in particular underwent extensive work that specifically targeted the light winds of Bermuda.
De Vos said that ten tonnes was stripped out of Hanuman and that the forestay was moved forward – a rigging change that was also made to Ranger. Hanuman also has a furling forestay and is the only J to use a snuffer on the kite to allow for late drops and quicker mark roundings.
Shamrock’s size difference is certainly noticeable on deck and below. While she was clearly slower and less agile around the track – the upside of which, for me at least, was a prime view of the mark roundings of six other Js ahead – Shamrock was still expertly handled during the windward-leeward races that day.
During the first beat our crew boss Andy McLean, a Kiwi sailor who worked on the control systems for Land Rover BAR, admitted that he hadn’t sailed with a spinnaker pole since the 2007 Cup.
As we approached the top mark, however, the bear-away set he oversaw was a lesson in clockwork efficiency. Eight crew manhandled the spinnaker pole into place, while two more set the jockey pole. As we powered around the offset buoy, the sheets were eased, before the spinnaker rocketed aloft and burst open. Crew then scurried to the foredeck to grapple down the genoa, the kite was trimmed and calm restored.
Unfortunately the sight of all seven Js racing together only lasted for one and a half races. While coming into the top mark during the second race, the top fitting of Svea’s headstay furler parted with a frightening bang. The genoa dropped instantly to the water and, were it not for quick crew work, they could have dismasted.
The runners and sheet were immediately eased and halyards cranked onto the foredeck. No one was hurt and Svea made it back to dock safely for her official christening party that evening. But it was a crushing blow for Svea’s crew, who had worked so hard over the last two years to get her ready for this summer’s J events.
Svea is a remarkably stiff yacht with carbon sails and rigging that directly transmit the wind’s force through the boat. An astonishing 35 tonnes of load can be cranked onto the forestay. That this failure happened in 11 knots of wind and flat water, at less than half the safe working load of the fitting (55 tonnes), is highly concerning. Captain Paul Kelly says the rig will be inspected in Newport and that they hope to be back racing in time for the inaugural J Class Worlds in August.
The Js may sail at a pedestrian pace compared to the America’s Cup foiling catamarans, but as this fleet increases in size, so too does the potential for drama and position changes. One bad layline call, one poor gybe, or a mistimed entry to the windward mark – even by a few seconds – and the race positions get shaken up.
This was proven during the final races, when Hanuman and Ranger went into the last day sharing the lead but finished 3rd and 4th. Lionheart had a poor final start and was in last place going up the first beat – it looked like Hanuman’s regatta was sealed.
But when a penalty was issued to Hanuman for a rule infringement on a port approach to the last windward mark and Lionheart then managed to pass Topaz on the downwind leg, Lionheart snatched the regatta win in the final moments.
The crew were ecstatic. On receiving the trophy, Lionheart’s owner said the crew had been gearing up for this event for over two years. That both Lionheart and 2nd-placed Velsheda have owner-drivers is also good for the future appeal of the class.
The future of the J Class and the Cup
Might such an event happen again or was it a once in a lifetime? And will the Js continue this formal link to the America’s Cup?
The Js are all private yachts used for racing and cruising, so such a decision lies squarely with each owner. But would the owners be keen on going to New Zealand for the next Cup for example?
“Yes, I would say so,” says J Class Association secretary Louise Morton. “Certainly the invitation was there.”
It is very unusual (and expensive) for the class to do standalone events – yet recently they have competed in Falmouth, Bermuda and their first worlds will be in Newport in August. Next year the class plans to attend the St Barths Bucket and three key Med superyacht regattas.
The success of this Bermuda event also begs the question of whether we will ever see more than seven Js race? If Endeavour and Rainbow change hands it is certainly possible. And there are still a number of original lines plans that could be commissioned as new builds.
“It’s in the hands of the owners to maintain the longevity of the class,” says Dykstra designer Jeroen de Vos. “Now the class is growing it will only appeal more to potential owners.”
Whatever becomes of the America’s Cup racing class in the next edition of the Cup, it would be a prudent decision for the new defenders to get an early invitation in to the J Class fleet to join in. That’s how to guarantee a spectacle.