Witnessing five J-Class yachts on the starting line off Palma in 2014 was breathtaking. It was the first time that so many of the elegant thoroughbreds had been seen together since the originals competed back in 1930’s.
And yet here I was riding the swell off the sophisticated Caribbean island of St Barths; in anticipation of the great display of six stunning J-Class in all their glory – Velsheda, Ranger, Lionheart, Hanuman, Shamrock V and Topaz.
St Barths Bucket set the stage for some exhilarating J-Class racing this season. Thirty eight yachts including the Js competed in the Superyacht opener of the year. A must-do on the calendar the regatta boasts a Who’s Who of sailors. New and refurbished head-turners were showcased across six classes over three days. The J-Class started the show with two windward/leeward races a day prior the full fleet hoisting their sails.
In a year that promises the inaugural J-Class World Championship in Newport, RI and the racing at the America’s Cup in Bermuda, the annual Bucket regatta in St Barths was a shake-down for this class. Following refits and modifications the fleet invested in two practice days. Big breeze and testing conditions led to long nights in the North repair loft.
Two miles south of Gustavia the start line was drawn. Two windward/leeward formats kicked off the opening day in a building 18 knot breeze. On-the-water spectators drew breath as each boat pounded through the waves pinging the line in preparation for the first start. The thrill as the six hovered was palpable. For a moment Shamrock V was in the same frame. Having not raced in the same class for years the green hull is under new ownership with legend Stu Bannatyne at the helm and Chris Nicholson calling tactics.
With Lionheart and Hanuman already optimized for the lighter Bermudan conditions the big seaway and high double-figured wind strength proved crucial on the sail wardrobe choice.
Velsheda, with a polished team led off the start line. Aware of Hanuman’s clean-sweep of results in St Barths four years prior the team was not prepared to give any slack and stamped their dominance early on leading around every mark. The only one of six yachts flying a symmetrical spinnaker meant that Hanuman with her asymmetric gained on the runs. It concluded with a dead heat on corrected time in the first race. Palma regular and America’s Cup skipper Peter Holmberg steered Topaz, the latest J-Class on the racing scene, to a well-earned third. The versatile Holmberg, who had helmed the TP52 Provezza to third at the Miami Royal Cup the week before, appeared at ease behind the wheel. Conversely on the initial countdown a failed jib halyard strop proved Lionheart’s downfall. She limped across the start to uphold the historic six star line-up before peeling off to establish a repair.
Velsheda nailed start two and extended a strong lead around the track to claim the Kings Hundred Guinea Cup with one point to spare. Lionheart fouled Hanuman just prior to the start and swallowed a penalty turn. Finishing in third and fourth respectively Ranger and Lionheart were also decided on a tie-break. From a spectator standpoint it was exhilarating to watch six 130 plus foot sleek sloops slice through the waves, throwing in tacks as they converged at the marks as if they were Lasers.
While the Superyacht classes got underway on the Friday in a counter-clockwise circumnavigation of St Barthelemy the J-Class continued a 2.2 mile W/L course south of Gustavia. The Caribbean breeze topping 26 knots saw Velsheda capitalize on her previous day’s lead completing a hat-trick of wins.
For the 3rd and 4th days the Js joined the Superyacht fleets in around the island courses. Velsheda incurred a penalty on morning three after fouling Hanuman shortly after the gun was fired in a downwind start. It was impressive to watch the team execute their 360 degree penalty turn spun practically on a dime. This resulted in loosening their grip on the trophy.
Scanning the cumulative results the night prior to the final race Velsheda had to drop to fourth on the course with Hanuman nailing a win to take the crown. After the former’s dominance thus far it seemed a hard one. But I spoke too soon as on the 21 nm clockwise race around the island the 42M Royal Huisman built Hanuman pulled something good out of the hat. In true match-race style Ken Read covered Velsheda, sailing her off the course and allowing the remaining boats to add distance on the leaderboard. It was reminiscent of the infamous Ben Ainslie/Rob Scheidt Olympic Laser duel. Place changes occurred during the 21 nm circumnavigation with three different leaders in LIonheart, Ranger and the American team at various stages.
The Js had a final 2.5 mile downwind leg allowing for thrilling contest. Velsheda gave it one last push gybing into clearer air to claw back room on Ranger and clinch the title but it was not enough. Hanuman’s spinnaker cleared the finished line a mere 23 seconds ahead of Lionheart’s in a dramatic procession. Two minutes separated the top four boats after almost two and a half hours of racing.
Hanuman and Velsheda were tied on points but on count-back a sweet victory was handed to Hanuman; competing at the first regatta since her emphatic win at the 2014 Palma Superyacht Cup. Despite that the Velsheda crew should be proud of their early domination. And for all the boats it was good opportunity to test modifications ahead of the worlds.
Meanwhile seasoned Bucketeers competed across five other classes: the Gazelles, Elegantes, Mademoiselles des Mer, Grand Dames and the latest Corinthian class addition Les Voiles Blanche. The infamous Bucket Trophy for best overall performance went to SPIIP, the former Unfurled which had previously claimed overall winner at Palma’s Superyacht Cup two seasons earlier. The on-the-water action was matched by chic nightly parties and the popular yacht hop. In all a winning formula for the jewel of the Caribbean regatta crown as marked by its 30th anniversary.
The fleet now shifts to Bermuda for two more showcase events – the Superyacht Cup and the J-Class regatta which run between the semis and finals of the America’s Cup. Watch this space for coverage and photos of an anticipated seven-strong line up as the recently launched super J Svea joins the fraternity.
More photos and Limited Edition hand prints of the J-Class in action can be enjoyed at: www.ingridabery.com