25 knots and ‘proper’ Solent conditions for the first race of the Solent J-Class regatta, as YW sail aboard Velsheda

I can’t quite believe it. Whilst still drying off, rubbing salt from my eyes and appreciating the fact that not only did I realize a long-term dream of sailing aboard the iconic J-Class Velsheda today, but I did so in the thick of it, up the working end of the boat in a solid six gusting seven racing against three other Js – and the last time the Solent saw that was over 75 years ago!
The forecast had warned for a breeze-on day for this, the first of four days racing, but following a cancellation in Falmouth when winds were in the early to mid twenties a couple of weeks ago, on heading out round Calshot Spit this morning there was a real will-they, won’t-they feeling amongst the crews. But credit to both the Royal Southampton YC, and the owners of the four Js, Velsheda, Ranger, Lionheart and Rainbow, the windward-leeward course was set for the Western Solent and the race was run in full-bore conditions.

Aboard Velsheda, the only original J here competing (after Endeavour disappointingly pulled out last month), I was surrounded by a grizzly, hardened and multinational crew, the majority of who have raced this boat for years (three of them for the 15 years since her restoration in 1997). They know the boat like the back of their Gore-Tex hands, nethertheless this was not the conditions for the old blue Nicholson-designed JK7. She proved in Falmouth she’s still got the legs to frighten her young rivals in 10-20 knots, but the extra teeth in the wind today, plus up to 3.5 knots of ebbing spring tide kicking up a sharp chop meant these Js would be fully loaded – and with the other three modern Js being stiffer, higher, longer or all three, Velsheda would have her work cut out.
Compared with the brand new Dykstra-designed J Rainbow which I sailed aboard yesterday (see here) which has an ultra-clean Maxi-style deck, Velsheda’s deck is still a busy, complicated affair with double the number of winches two sets of runners and the wheel right aft – hence staying out of the way of tailing lines, loaded winches and around 15 fellow crew fighting for space around the mast and pointy end proved a task in itself.

Between trying to see what the three other Js were up to between the squalls of driving rain, a sizable and brave spectator fleet surrounding us, whilst helping with sail drops on the foredeck, staying out of the way, and trying not falling overboard doing 11 knots upwind, it was certainly a busy couple hours racing, and difficult to digest it all. But as we found our slots in the pre-start, tacked onto starboard and then hit the pin-end to weather of Ranger right on the gun, the adrenaline kicked in and remained for those two hours of windward-leeward action. Lionheart were slightly behind and to weather, with Rainbow a few lengths back. Lionheart, a Hoek-designed replica of a Ranger design that was never built, soon showed her superior size, using her mighty freeboard to advantage in these conditions and crossed ahead of us on the first tack, where they’d stay for the race. Fellow Super-J design Ranger got boxed in to the island side, but came out smelling of roses towards the top mark off Yarmouth. She took a good lift and favourable tide to make sure she was first around that mark and stayed so for the rest of the race.

Meanwhile aboard Velsheda, crew boss Justin ‘Juggy’ Clougher kept us constantly in the know up forward – calls like “7 and 10 to gybe set” referring to tack times to the windward mark and the spinnaker set decision. Rounding the mark third, the four Js were still seemingly attached by bungy-chord in close succession. Once again it was Rainbow who showed threatening potential, despite a shaky start, she looked very slippery going both ways.

What happened at the bottom gate was a blur, as a small army of us gathered on the foredeck to drop the A2. There’s no fancy below-deck drops on Velsheda – with jib hoisted and pole-dropped, it was a case of arm-over-arming handfuls of spinnaker cloth – it keeps coming and coming, acres of nylon trying to escape the boat with a countless arms manically working like traction engines to get it into the bag. Returning to lie flat on the weather deck and recuperate, I was at least warm again, but I couldn’t help wondering how the crews used to manage these sail areas so effectively in the 30’s without the technology and hydraulics we now take for granted.

With the wind steady in the late sixes and the tide in full flow, the Js were rails-in going to weather. Ranger and Lionheart thrive in these conditions, but the smaller Js Rainbow and Velsheda looked more pressed – certainly our trimmer Carston Schon, formerly Team NZ, spent a fair portion of the upwind legs manning his primary winch half underwater on the leeward deck (see picture). We had a couple of close crosses with Rainbow, with the new boat making a particularly ballsy call to cross our bows on port within half a length towards the top mark (again, see picture). But they got the better of us and we rounded in fourth place with Ranger over a minute ahead in the lead, with all four Js performed very tidy gybe-sets despite the true wind.

Doing 12.5 knots back up the Solent hit home when I looked back and saw a standing, breaking wave forming off our stern quarter (once more, picture above). I have never seen a stern wave like it – and even the skipper James King remarked afterwards how unusual it was to see (at one stage) the whole deck completely immersed in the Solent’s green water.
Level-pegging with Rainbow, during a gybe the spinnaker sheet got caught around the bow, costing us around 30s in time having to gybe back and sort out the twist that formed in the process. Crew-work is Velsheda’s forte so it was surprising to see them lose out in this way, but it was corrected as quickly and fuss-freely as possible, and made me think how the other three crews deserve praise for keeping it so tidy in such boisterous conditions.

All four boats finished within two minutes of each other, with the positions of Ranger, Lionheart, Rainbow and Velsheda remaining unchanged on corrected time.
But with the wind due to drop all week, the regatta is still very much open, with the four Js all having their preferred strengths as they compete for the Queen’s Cup, due to be presented by HRH Prince Michael of Kent GCVO, Admiral of RSYC.