The second day of J-Class racing delivered another spectacle, with Velsheda snatching victory by seconds

Today, Thursday July 19, saw an action-packed day of racing for the four magnificent J-Class yachts racing in the Solent and I was crewing onboard Velsheda to witness it in all its fast-paced glory. A force five to six, plenty of drama and, unbelievably, some sunshine proved the perfect stage-setting for the spectator boats that had gathered in hundreds to watch. And they were treated to a humdinger: early starts, broken sheets, protests, positional interchanges, mere seconds deciding the win and even a grounding – it had the works.
15 minutes before the intended start-time, the mighty white Ranger went hard aground on the ledge off the island side near Thorness – it was the start to a day that clearly wasn’t to be theirs, as, once finally free ten minutes later, they were early for the start that was postponed for them, and then protested by Lionheart whilst trying to get back to the line.
Similar to yesterday’s race it was two windward-leeward legs, starting opposite Beaulieu River, and the second leg a longer one going up to a Lymington top-mark before finishing off Gurnard Ledge, treating the assembled crowds shore-side on The Green. With the breeze in the high teens before the start, but gusting in the early 20’s under the dark clouds that passed through with the westerlies, it was No.2 genoas all-round. Where the other modern Js have blackened 3Di sails, the only original J here sailing, Velsheda, carries the more ‘conventional’ 3DL laminate sails as her deck is not strong enough to take the increased loads these new sails present.

With two minutes to go to the gun we were early and needed to stall badly, but so too were Ranger to windward of us, who crossed our bows but couldn’t point up in time, missing the committee boat end. But Velsheda’s bows went down a little early and we were half a length over at the start, leaving the gate wide open for the new black Dutch boats Lionheart and Rainbow. These races can be lost by a bad start, so Ranger and Velsheda had to really get their heads down and move if they were to catch the Hoek-designed Lionheart and Dykstra-drawn Rainbow. The latter forced Lionheart into the island shore, buying us a little time, which, combined with a tight but spot-on layline top mark call from Tom Dodson on Velsheda’s afterguard, brought us back into contention with the front runners.
Ranger had made a big gain up the island side and hung off our coat tails for the downwind leg. I missed seeing them peeling off at the bottom gate mark and taking the extra breeze and tide to the right (mainland) side, as I was busy helping on the foredeck trying to wrestle the ridiculously large asymmetric A4 spinnaker into the bag. But it meant we were in a tacking duel with the white-hulled old rival during the second beat, lee-bowing them nicely to sneak back ahead.
As we approached the final weather mark off Lymington, one of the mainsheet blocks ripped out and Velsheda was relying on a single sheet purchase to get her the final five minutes up that beat. “Don’t look back boys, it doesn’t matter, keep sailing the boat,” said our calm crew boss Justin Clougher to those of us lying on the weather deck around the mast, “we’ve just got to get around the mark.” At that moment the cover on the genoa sheet split losing tension in the working sheet. “The old girl’s giving up” said Southern Spars Richard Searle, but everyone remained calm and focused and she made it round that weather mark still ahead of Ranger – and from my point of view that’s where having such a gelled, veteran crew really won the day. (See picture above of Barney Henshaw Depledge re-leading a jury sheet off the boom end after the mainsheet went completely on the final run).

That final spinnaker leg was quite simply incredible sailing. We hunted down Rainbow, and, to my surprise as the newest J has been looking seriously slippery, gradually reeled them in and overhauled them in hugging the mainland side to escape the tide along with Lionheart, while Ranger chanced their arm down the island side (it didn’t pay). While manning the spinnaker sheet tweaker (barber), I had an awesome view of Rainbow, inside a boatlength of us, as we both made 12-13 knots through the wind against tide overfalls (main picture). Rainbow tried snaking across our stern a couple of times, within metres of Velsheda’s transom trying to snatch some wind, but ‘the old girl’ was in her element, with North Sails Italia’s Gigio Russo making a fine job of keeping the big A4 trimmed and powered.

Lionheart, the largest J, which thrives in the breezy conditions, sailed another exemplary race, owner-driver helmed under the watchful eye of Bouwe Bekking, and we couldn’t catch her. But crossing the line only half a length ahead of Rainbow, and what seemed half a minute or so behind Lionheart, had we done enough to win on corrected time?
Yes – by five seconds! It was an ecstatic end to a superb day, and one that really sets this enthralling regatta up for a finale tomorrow. Although the four Js race on Saturday (around the island if there’s wind) for the Hundred Guinea Cup, these first three days are in competition for the prestigious Queen’s Cup – and with Lionheart now holding just a solitary point lead with Velsheda and Ranger tied in second, Friday will be a crunch race.