Owing to their sleek lines, tall masts and decks gleaming with polished winches and varnished woodwork, the five attending J-Class boats catch many admiring glances on the docks of the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda. The America’s Cup boat of choice in the 1930s, victim of the steel shortage during World War 2 when a number of its kind were destroyed, has enjoyed a revival since the turn of the century. In 2000, the J-Class Association was formed encouraging the construction of replicas of the perished originals. Lionheart, Rainbow, Ranger, Shamrock V and Velsheda are the five J-Class boats on show in Porto Cervo for the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup. The former three are replicas of original designs; the latter two restorations. Graceful to watch, captivating and fun to sail, the Class is equally defined by the Corinthian spirit of its competition.
Jeroen de Vos designed the replica of the original Rainbow for Dykstra & Naval Architects. It was launched in 2012 after two years of intense work between the design studio and shipbuilders Holland Jachtbouw. The great challenge for a latter-day J-Class designer is creating a finished yacht which is aesthetically loyal to its original design, complies with class rules, includes a full, luxury interior and is capable of high performance.
In order to compete on racecourses as demanding as those at the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup, the contemporary take on the J-Class requires 21st century engineering musts. “We worked with the original line span from 1934 – it’s the one fixed factor in the design,” explains de Vos, “the boat now has an engine and there are an extra ten centimetres of freeboard to allow for all the systems and interior – all the stuff that they didn’t have in the ‘30s. Additionally, there are powered winches, there is a little deck house, the rig is taller and there is more sail area so while it looks the same from a distance, the way the boats are sailed is completely different from the old days.”
Bouwe Bekking is a professional sailor of considerable expertise, drawing on a career competing on boats as varied as Farr 40s, Volvo 70s and Supermaxis. At the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup, he is a key decision maker on Lionheart, a restoration completed in 2010. “I’ve been sailing with Lionheart for about three years,” explains Bekking. “All the boats are pretty similar that’s the nice thing about the J’s. Sailing them goes back to heritage of the America’s Cup, the roots of offshore racing, they are magnificent to view, great to sail.”
The similarities in design of the J-Class yachts ensures close competition in the Class, rewarding who sails best on a given day. They are challenging boats to manoeuvre – loads are enormous, they weigh in excess of 170 tonnes, the sail area can cover up to 1,000m². The crew of 35 skilled sailors onboard need to plan and execute manoeuvres effortlessly, communicate efficiently. “Every manoeuvre has its time and point to make a decision. The tactician and the navigator know those cut off times and they have to make a decision at a certain point,” explains de Vos. “We have departments onboard; the foredeck, mast, mid-deck and trimmers and back of the boat and a crew boss who needs to reach a couple of people. Then there are the radios, so communication is quick.” “It’s practice, practice, practice,” adds Bekking, “so you can get in a routine that allows the guys can do a good job. However, we approach it like sailing a Farr 40, sometimes jibing every 2-3 minutes. The pressure is on but its great fun when you can pull manoeuvres off in such short distances.”
In parallel with the yesteryear elegance is fierce competition and a will to win as intense as the all out racers contesting the Mini Maxi Rolex World Championship. “They all want to win, the owners are competitive, the atmosphere is nice. It’s great competition, everyone can win,” says Bekking.
Day 1 – On The Water
Velsheda is the defending J-Class champion, however today it was three-time Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup winner Ranger who claimed the first bullet. Defeating Rainbow by only five seconds on corrected time further demonstrates the close nature of the competition.