Elaine Bunting reports from on board Rainbow at the Superyacht Cup Palma regatta, as she experiences the thrill of sailing on a J Class yacht
Racing takes an icy nerve and innate ruthlessness. Describing the close parrying at the Superyacht Cup, Read recounts: “We had to dip behind Rainbow. The bowman gave me the thumbs down, but by that time it was too late to do anything. We missed [her stern] by 5ft.” It’s a chilling image, but Read continues cheerfully: “We had a tie in that race, so if we had dipped by another 20ft we would have lost.”
Although steering might occasionally be an act of faith, preserved by class rules, every other area of the Js is being modernised. One of the most impressive things, for me, was to see how quickly Rainbow’s spinnaker and headsails can be hoisted. Big hydraulics packages are standard and most can power winches to raise sails to full hoist in first gear. Toby Brand explains matter-of-factly: “We can do 220m of line per minute.”
The pace of evolution in the J Class can be directly attributed to the input of professional sailors, who have cross-pollinated technologies from other areas of sailing. Hanuman came to the Superyacht Cup with a new headsail, a so-called 3Di ‘raw’ sail with the same carbon structure as the 3Di sails now ubiquitous on top racing yachts, but covered by a thin paint spray rather than taffeta, and said to be a lot lighter. This year, Lionheart was sporting Carbo-Link standing rigging and had a fibre optic load sensor incorporated in the headstay to confirm design loads and analyse the load variation in head seas.
A great deal of work has been done on rope technology – the loads on the winches are so great that rope coverings can melt on the drums. Different mixes have been used to make sure sheets and halyards aren’t too slippery or too sticky.
Designer Jeroen de Vos from Dykstra Naval Architects worked on the plans for Ranger, Hanuman and Rainbow, as well as refits of Velsheda and Endeavour, and is one of the leading
J Class experts. He says: “These boats don’t follow the trends. Small-boat technology immediately comes into the class.”
According to Kenny Read, the biggest gains have been made by reducing rigging weight, making the boats more stable and allowing weight to be stripped out of the ends of the boats. Other incremental gains have been navigation software, says Read:
“Especially time and distance to the start line. That has narrowed the gap between the OK starters and the great starters. The Js are pushing every fashion of the marine industry as hard as any class has ever done. And it’s not about money, it’s about competitive advantage. That is why, for me, it’s so cool.”
The injection of new technology and skills that has propelled the Js to some of the most intensely close racing in their history is, in turn, casting a spell over new and potential owners. “These are exciting times for the class and what’s driving it, whether the boats are old or new, is that the speeds are the same,” says Toby Brand. “We are all fighting for very small gains and that’s
making it fun. On any day, any boat could win.”
As for costs, something that always fascinated the public about the Js, few want to talk money. One source estimates €50,000 a day for crew wages, travel, accommodation, food, etc, but not refit costs. On average, the Js race for 20-25 days a year.
Sponsorship plays almost no part in it. UBS has a minor, scarcely discernible arrangement that keeps the professional race management ticking along, but the Js float, as they always did, on private wealth. “Our guys are private guys. We don’t mention the owner, we don’t talk about owners. They’re just trying to go sailing like you and I would on J/24s,” I am told.