As a little kid, cutting my sailing teeth during Irish summer holidays racing a Mirror dinghy built by my parents and learning to swear a lot (my slightly older sister was crew..), winters were invariably spent leafing through the handful of old Beken of Cowes hardback picture books that littered our drafty Vicarage.
And really there was only ever one class that I would stare at endlessly – the J Class yachts of the 1930s which raced for the mystique and grandeur of the America’s Cup under Nathaniel Herreshoff’s Universal Rule, with a tangible feeling of sadness that I would never see these things in the flesh, long consigned as they were at that time to history.
Not so.. .In 1984, the American Elizabeth Meyer bought and restored the J Class Endeavour built by Camper & Nicholson in 1934 for the aviator Thomas Sopwith. She had lain in a mud berth on the Medina River in Cowes before being sold for 10 quid to another dreamer and a new berth at Calshot Spit, before Meyer decided to take her on.
Endeavour had come closest than any other yacht had to lifting the ‘Auld Mug’ from where it had remained bolted in residence since 1851 in the New York Yacht Club, until Alan Bond arrived with his golden spanner and the wing-keeled Australia II to take away the oldest trophy in sport and one that had remained in the same hands for 132 years.
In a contentious 1934 America’s Cup campaign (little changes there then..), Endeavour won the first two races against the US yacht Rainbow, in spite of her regular race crew having gone on strike beforehand, leaving the overall defeat to spirited amateurs and in the meantime, gifting us the phrase ‘Britannia rules the waves, America waives the rules’..
Meyer described the restoration of Endeavour as an “urge inherent in the human nature”, before quickly realizing the enormity of this task. Selling real estate investments to fund the restoration, Endeavour was chartered throughout Meyer’s entire ownership.
But what she did achieve was to bring life back into a class of yacht that remains perhaps the most iconic, majestic and beautiful that has ever raced – a legacy for which we should always be grateful and must never become blasé.
A further two originals – Velsheda and Shamrock V – were subsequently restored (although Shamrock V remains the only J to never fall into complete dereliction) and to date, a further six have been built from original drawings, some of which are reproductions of yachts that have long since been scrapped and others that had been drawn but had never had their keels laid. It seems scarcely believable that we now have nine of these spectacular yachts in existence.
The first of these new builds was Ranger, a replica of the original Ranger ‘Hull 77-C’ designed by Burgess and Stephens for Harold Vanderbilt to defend the last ever America’s Cup sailed in J Class yachts in 1937 before the sanguineous WW2 , when she beat Sopwith’s new Endeavour II (now rebuilt as Hanuman) by a resounding 4-0.
Referred to as the ‘Super J’, Ranger received a rating at the maximum allowed whilst still adhering to the dimensional constraints of the Universal Rule. After the war, J Class yachts remained the default class for the Cup, but post-war economic realities meant that no-one could afford to challenge in this hugely expensive class. Regardless of this, the original Ranger was scrapped at some stage during the war and the Cup eventually returned in 1956 under the much more affordable 12m Rule.
Today’s Ranger was completed at Danish Yachts at Skagen, Denmark in 2003 for John Williams – founder of an American Real Estate Investment house who sold her on to the current owner in 2019 as his first vessel – quite an entrance into super yachting..
With Covid sweeping the globe and after a major refit at the Vitters yard in Holland, it wasn’t until this year’s St Barths Bucket that the new owner finally had his first opportunity of racing her against other J Class yachts in Hanuman and Velsheda – and promptly won.
For the first time since 2014, this year’s Palma Superyacht Cup had its own J Class fleet – including Ranger – and that swearing kid with the Mirror dinghy finally got the chance to get out sailing on a J through pestering a kind invitation out of Capt Tom Aiken and Ranger’s manager, Greg Sloat.
Some figures first. She is 41.6m long with a beam of 6.4m and in race mode, has a crew of 28 including the permanent members of the crew. Helming her for the Palma Superyacht Cup was Ed Baird, coach of the 1995 America’s Cup-winning Team New Zealand and a helmsman for the 2007 Cup-winning Alinghi syndicate, although a level-ish playing field against the drivers of other Js in the fleet, Bouwe Bekking and John Kostecki amongst them.
Amongst our crew were a quantity of some of the very best sailors around – Olympic and World Champions, Volvo Ocean Race and America Cup veterans, otherwise busy on the international regatta circuit in anything from TP52s to maxis and classics.
I will leave the race report to elsewhere in this magazine but safe to say that although an experienced and qualified sailor, my only option as a guest was to keep out of the way as much as possible and enjoy the experience of these powerful and magnificent yachts. I’d like to say that I was at least up there in this exalted company with my chammy leather when back at the dock…
Thank you again Tom and Greg for a fantastic day. It was the greatest privilege to be on board amongst the most spectacularly beautiful fleet that our sport can offer.
Hamish Goddard – e3 Systems
+34 686 634 038
Photographs – Christopher Scholey, Oriol Esteve( photo Nautic) & Beken of Cowes
Click here to read more of our Special Features