The novel JPK 39 FC is a proper, serious cruising yacht –that also promises masses of fun. Rupert Holmes reports
I have long held that bluewater cruising yachts, especially those under 40ft, have much to gain from the way today’s smaller short-handed offshore raceboats are designed and set up and the new JPK 39FC looks set to prove that thesis.
Many of these smaller race boats are pushed hard in conditions that keep most cruisers in harbour, yet easy handling and utter reliability, even in properly testing conditions, are essential attributes.
But can a lightweight, powerful design really work as a serious cruising yacht? Traditionally key features for such boats include good directional stability and the ability to stand up to canvas in an increasing wind.
Dark squall clouds to the south-west of La Rochelle promised the perfect opportunity to test the JPK 39FC’s ability to stand up to full sail when close-hauled in a rising breeze.
Progressively flattening the mainsail was easy as the wind built ahead of the rain. The JPK 39FC is a world away from those boats with imprecise sail controls and sails that stretch dramatically in gusts, producing more drive and heel at the very moment you need to depower.
With the JPK it takes only seconds, and very little effort, to wind on extra halyard or Cunningham tension, apply maximum outhaul and whack on more backstay, via the 48:1 purchase. Equally, the headsail is easily depowered by tweaking the floating jib sheet fairlead inboard and easing the sheet a fraction to twist off the top of the sail. This boat engages you, encourages you to trim and actively sail it, and I was quickly hooked.
JPK 39FC – a stiff performer
I was alone on deck when the true wind peaked at 23 knots for a few minutes in driving rain, with the apparent wind nudging close to 30 knots. But that was no issue – there were no dramas with flogging sails and the rudder angle rarely exceeded 5°. The helm remained very light and, when I switched to the NKE pilot so I could keep a lookout behind the headsail, it steered with no hint of any issues.
What would happen if I turned the pilot off and let go of the helm with full sail up in that breeze? Once again, the boat continued on course, albeit very slowly rounding up into the wind. Marginally depowering the mainsail by easing the traveller or increasing twist helped maintain course for longer.
With today’s pilots it can be argued that directional stability is less important than in the past, but any yacht that’s sailed long distances may eventually encounter an issue that prevents the pilot working.
There are, of course, plenty of traditional style cruising yachts that meet American designer Chuck Paine’s 20/20 rule – that the boat should be able to carry full working sail to windward in 20 knots of true wind, with no more than 20° of heel. However, many do so at the expense of sail area and have excessive wetted surface area. This often means performance is dreadful in anything under 10 knots of breeze, so a lot of time is spent under engine.
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By contrast, the JPK 39FC is a beautiful boat to sail across a full range of conditions. Even broad-reaching with the asymmetric kite at a 140° true wind angle in 7 knots of breeze – and just 4 knots of apparent – boat speed remained above 5 knots.
The helm was finger light throughout the test and almost neutral upwind, but with just enough weather helm to give a positive feel. As wind speed and heel angles increase, the feel in the helm builds, but it’s never heavy on this tiller-steered boat of almost 40ft.
JPK’s founder, Jean-Pierre Kelbert, whose supremely successful short-handed race boats have won the Rolex Fastnet Race overall, started cruising 15 years ago. He quickly realised there were no boats with the combination of performance, deck layout and comfort that he’d like in a boat of his own.
This led to the JPK 38 FC, the company’s first cruising yacht, 10 years ago and it has since built 40 boats. The JPK 39FC is a second generation design, with a new hull shape and more spacious interior.
Before we set out to sail the JPK 39FC, Kelbert was quick to explain the decisions behind the compromises that are an unavoidable part of developing any new yacht. They worked very hard to keep weight down, while still creating a stiff structure that has ample reinforcement for keel and rig loads.
Everything is vacuum infused foam sandwich, right down to the folding bathing platform that weighs only 4.5kg, and bulkheads are bonded to the hull and deck.
At the same time there is more internal joinery than most others in this category, including proper doors with solid timber frames and eye-level lockers. This adds around 100kg to the total displacement, but the effect is impressive.
The saloon has the warm, welcoming feel of a heavier displacement quality cruising yacht, while still offering plenty of natural light.
The shallow forefoot and almost full length chine are by no means unusual today although, as ever, the detail is important. Hull shape is informed by different considerations to that of JPK’s racing boats, with the priority being good speed in all wind strengths and angles.
The boat is therefore not optimised to plane in the lightest breeze, but this is balanced by the more all-round performance profile. It’s also beamier than typical IRC designs of a similar size, but is not extreme and there’s no need for a lot of fore-and-aft rocker in the underwater shape to achieve respectable speeds in very light airs.
More room and stability
There’s also a lot more volume forward than the existing JPK 38. Two metres back from the stem beam is 30cm greater, which translates into both more accommodation volume and increased form stability. Another key difference with a racing yacht is that the hull shape is optimised for performance at the maximum payload, including domestic systems such as refrigeration, tools, spares, supplies and tankage.
Although it makes sense in some instances, I’m usually disappointed when I encounter a cruising yacht with pared down deck gear. On a properly set up boat it’s a joy to be able to stand almost in one place and effortlessly adjust any line, or carry out any manoeuvre. The idea that you might need to walk forward from the helm to ease the mainsheet, for instance, is anathema to me.
So it’s great to see the JPK 39FC is set up in the same way as the company’s race boats. It’s a well proven arrangement and will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has sailed a short-handed IRC race boat of the past 10 or 12 years. The main difference is that, while the traveller is still on the transom, a pair of winches is used to control the mainsheet.
Only one person is needed on deck to tack efficiently when using the pilot. Stand between the tillers, at the windward side of the aft end of the table, where both sheets can be handled. This places you near the new primary winch when it comes to winding in the final few inches of the sheet as the boat settles on the new tack.
The primary winches, which are also used for the asymmetric spinnakers, are positioned just ahead of where the helmsman sits, an ideal location for both short-handed and crewed sailing. The only downside is that sail trimming while on passage in inclement conditions can’t be done under the shelter of the sprayhood.
Everything other than halyards and mainsail reefing on the JPK 39FC is handled from the back of the cockpit. Although it wasn’t set up on our test boat, there’s an option for separate luff and leech pennants, which would make reefing the main a very quick and easy task for one person. This boat is also equipped with an optional textile removable inner forestay, and running backstays, for a hanked heavy weather jib. I’d be inclined to specify it with extra reinforcement and a slab reef that can be pulled down from the cockpit, enabling the sail to also be used as a storm jib in winds over 40 knots.
An alternative for boats with the optional carbon mast is a staysail on a furler with a halyard lock. However, experience from the JPK 38 suggests that most owners will go for a permanent inner stay with a conventional roller-furling staysail.
JPK has eschewed the trend towards backstayless rigs, preferring the control of mainsail shape that’s possible with an adjustable backstay and 9/10ths fractional rig. It also allows a smaller mast section to be used for this boat, which reduces weight aloft. The optional Axxon carbon mast of our test boat saves a further useful 40kg. A long masthead crane enables a big roach mainsail to be used, although owners can specify Class 40-style twin running backstays if they want a full square-top sail.
At 1.6m, the retractable bowsprit is longer than typical, which gives a more efficient separation between the forestay and asymmetric spinnakers. This also translates into easier inside gybes in light airs.
At the end of both test sails I had on the JPK 39FC we gybed repeatedly in a reducing breeze approaching La Rochelle. At 5.6 tonnes light displacement this boat is sufficiently light that loads are very manageable – it was easy for one person to handle the sail and sheet loads only build significantly when reaching in higher winds.
Of course, more controls means more rope, which creates the potential for the back of the cockpit to become like a snake pit. There are four rope bags, though I’d prefer to see a couple more and, even then, as on any boat with this style of deck layout, you need to keep on top of managing the tails and mind where you tread.
Moving around on deck is delightfully easy and secure thanks to excellent moulded non-slip. With the optional table fitted the cockpit feels secure, even at high angles of heel and it’s an easy step up onto the side decks. A deep chain locker forward houses the windlass and has space for a couple of fenders. There’s also a big lazarette, with room for liferaft, dinghy, fenders and more.
Three easy and secure steps lead down into the saloon. The area at the foot of the companionway is wide, but the interior has plenty of stainless steel handholds, plus a galley crash bar and deep, solid timber fiddles.
The distinctive coachroof shape is determined by a wish to balance natural light, and a great view of the outside world, with avoiding too much glazing, which heats the interior appreciably in Mediterranean or Caribbean sun. The forward face of the coachroof is therefore more vertical than most.
There’s a decent forward-facing navstation, the seat of which is configured to be comfortable when using the chart table as a desk, but also works when sitting athwartships to take a short nap.
On the opposite side is a generous set of lockers with double doors, giving a big hanging locker on the left and large shelves to the right. The heads and shower is be located here on three-cabin boats.
The linear galley forward of the nav station offers decent stowage for items that need to be accessed frequently, while bulk stowage of supplies for longer trips is easily accessed below the forward and aft transverse elements of the saloon seating opposite.
Aft of the navstation on two cabin boats is a well proportioned heads and behind that a large stowage area, accessed only from inside the boat. This will swallow sails, dinghies, paddleboards, spares and tools. It also gives access to the technical zone below the cockpit sole that houses most of the boat’s systems including inverter, chargers, calorifier and fuel tanks. As standard there’s a 90lt diesel tank, but capacity can be doubled to 180lt.
The aft cabin(s) are of a decent size, with five sources of natural light, including three opening ports, good stowage and an inviting large rectangular bed. A step down from the saloon into the forecabin means there’s standing headroom (just) under the forehatch, despite the short coachroof. This cabin also offers a generous 2.1m long double berth, big standing area and stowage in hanging lockers each side, deep fiddled shelves for phones, keys and so on, plus voluminous stowage under the head of the bed.
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A huge amount of effort, knowledge and experience has gone into developing this design and optimising the balances between performance and comfort. The result is a fast boat that’s beautiful to sail and well thought through in every respect. The JPK 39FC will be enormously appealing to anyone with a competitive sailing background who is accustomed to top-notch deck gear and equipment. At the same time it provides attractive accommodation with enough comfort to appeal to non-sailing guests and family members. The two-cabin version offers sufficient stowage, both on deck and below, to live on board in a civilised manner for extended periods. There’s an options list to tailor the boat to your own needs, but a downside to the JPK 39 FC is that it’s clearly not only me who likes this new design – lead times already extend to more than two years!