Captains of Ships
Back in 1933, the owner of Woolworths, William Stephenson, commissioned the build of a 39 metre (130 foot) J-Class Velsheda, named after his three daughters Velma, Sheila and Daphne. With the most advanced design for spars, rigging and sails around, she went on to compete against the greatest names in classic yachting and in her second season won no fewer than 40 races.
Tragically, by 1937 Velsheda was laid up on a mud berth on the Hamble in Hampshire and became derelict – quietly rotting for almost 50 years. Not one single J-Class was now in seaworthy order and they faced extinction.
It wasn’t until scrap dealer Terry Brabant rescued her in 1984 and (economically) refitted her for charter work, that Velsheda set sail again yet, a mere decade later in 1995, she was laid up in Gosport facing abandonment once more.
Fortunately, a Dutch businessman came to Velsheda’s rescue in 1996 and undoubtedly spent a small fortune restoring the beautiful classic to 21st century glory. Complete with, what was at the time, the tallest one-piece carbon mast in the world and a set of racing sails developed through wind tunnel testing at Southampton University, she was relaunched in 1997 and has been continually optimised to compete in dozens of regattas across the world to great success – even winning the latest edition of The Superyacht Cup in Palma. Velsheda is in safe hands – hands that include a pair belonging to Barnaby Henshaw-Depledge (Barney to his friends).
Barney has been captain of Velsheda since 2013, when he was just 29 years of age. Yes, while most of us were still learning our craft, politely asking our bosses for a promotion, anxious for a pay rise, Barney was at the helm of a J-Class icon. How did he do it? I suspect much of it lies in a rather fortuitous gap year. But, as Lewis Carroll said, let’s begin at the beginning.
Born near Bath, to a mother who lectured and freelanced as a graphic designer and an artist father who also lectured in fine art and digital media, Barney remembers drawing yachts as a child and learning to sail on the lake in his village. In the summer, he would regularly be “palmed off” on some wonderful family friends in the Welsh coastal resort of Abersoch. They had various boats and a beach hut and Barney would hang around with their son Harry racing Mirror dinghies. He also had a first taster of keelboat sailing.
With A-Levels in Maths, Physics and Art under his belt, he decided to combine all three talents and pursue a Master’s degree in Naval Architecture at Southampton University. But first, the magical gap year, not that it started so magically.
“I took myself off to Gran Canaria to try and get on the annual ARC, the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, but after two weeks knocking on every hull I failed to get a boat and the race left without me. I rang my folks to tell them I was coming home but spotted a poster on the phone box asking for crew – preferably female – for a classic S&S Swan 48 called Zimbabalooba. I ripped down the poster, hotfooted it to the boat and begged for the job, saying I would wear a dress if necessary. We set off for Antigua and it turned out to be the best possible first Atlantic crossing you could wish for.”
This was when Barney met stellar superyacht captain Fred Acke who taught him a lot about seamanship and, by marching him in for an interview with ‘Auntie Rina’ (a revered crew agent of the time in Antigua), helped set Barney up with work and contacts in the business. It proved to be a fantastic year.
“I looked after six 19-year-old girls on Spring Break around St Barths, working alongside the captain and a chef-stewardess team, just the three of us – that was some experience. I also participated in the Antigua Round the Island Race aboard Zimbabalooba and, being the youngest, I had to wear a blonde wig and dress up as a girl for the themed party – I won second prize. During the Round the Island I met another renowned captain, Chris Sherlock, he was doing our tactics, and I would go on to work as a deckhand for him on 97ft Leopard of London each summer break from University. It was a spectacular gap year yachting apprenticeship, rounded off with a summer in the Balearics and France doing the classic regatta circuit with captain Mark Holt aboard the classic 12 metre Seven Seas.”
Having quietly rattled through his Yachtmaster Offshore, Barney left university in 2006 and completed a final summer season on Leopard of London before being loaned to Velsheda in the autumn. Meeting her in Sardinia for the Maxi Rolex Cup, Barney crewed for captain Adam Bateman aboard Velsheda until April when he left just as the America’s Cup started in Valencia. By this time, Leopard of London’s successor, 100ft luxury super maxi Leopard 3, had just been launched and Barney returned as a permanent crewmember.
“This was an incredible 18 months – we took a few hours off the Rolex Fastnet Race record in August 2007, competed in the Rolex Sydney Hobart in December, came fourth in our debut Antigua Sailing Week in May 2008 and then broke the Transatlantic Speed Sailing record for powered sailing systems in June – a great time and I made some lifelong friends.”
When Barney heard that the bosun job was up for grabs on Velsheda, he jumped ship from Leopard 3 in South Africa and re-joined his former crew. He was subsequently promoted to first mate, learning the ropes from America’s Cup and Whitbread/Volvo race legends on the bow. Barney stayed aboard for almost two years until he got struck down by the travel bug. He took a break for a few months and did everything from skiing in Japan to a kitesurfing tour of Western Australia in a purchased 4×4 van – the bug was cured.
“In April 2011 I heard of a job on 72ft mini maxi Rán 2, owned by Skype cofounder Niklas Zennström, and spent a year as shore crew travelling all round Antigua, Key West, Sweden and Malta. I finished in April 2012 to, bizarrely, organise a mate’s stag do in Mallorca, before promptly returning to Velsheda for a couple of months as race crew. By November I was working on 37 metre luxury sailing yacht Moonbird as a rotational first mate – although I never seemed to have the ‘off’ and was generally ‘on’. We did extensive Caribbean cruising and charter work interspersed with some crazy racing experiences including an unfortunate bow-to-bow crash with another J-Class Ranger in Antigua and the odd man-overboard. In fact, Moonbird provided me with the biggest shock of my career.”
“Just off the island of Canouan, the top third of Moonbird’s rig snapped off. I was at the helm and bits of shrapnel were flying down around me. The larger reaching sail was furled so we had to slice through it like peeling layers of an onion to get to the forestay and nitronic stainless steel rigging, then cut away the broken equipment to make it secure – all this with a choppy Caribbean sea. We went through around 15 diamond-tipped cutting discs on the grinder.”
Barney also told me about his self-titled ‘deadliest delivery’ from Antigua to New York on Leopard 3. Crossing the Gulf Stream with 45 knots of wind, gusting up to 65 or 70, the boat broached over and, despite being clipped on and hugging the winch for dear life, he nearly went off the back. Another winch on Barney’s first Leopard, Leopard of London, also saw the end of the tip of his finger. He watched the nail going around, trying his best not to get blood on the teak – a friend had to kick his foot off the button.
While onshore in Antigua, waiting for Moonbird to be collected and shipped back across the Atlantic, Barney received a visit from captain Lars Loftus. Lars used to run Velsheda, and more recently Bystander, and was interviewing for the newly-vacant Captain’s position. With the blessing of the Moonbird team, Barney interviewed and got the job. The 29 year old took up his first captaincy.
“It didn’t start brilliantly. As Velsheda only has five pretty small cabins, she comes with a faithful accomplice, 130 foot new-but-old Bystander, to provide more sleeping accommodation and entertainment space. We always park alongside. On my third park, in St Barths, with a full complement of race crew and guests, I miscalculated and t-boned Bystander causing a whole array of damage. Much respect to the owner as he’s never spoken of that day since.”
“In contrast it feels great when you get a good one, especially in the likes of St Tropez where three or four hundred people could be watching, photographing. In a very windy situation it can be very stressful, we have no bow thruster and it’s important to work closely with the first mate and deckhand in the tender, it’s enormously satisfying when we nail it.”
Very much a private boat, Velsheda attended the previous America’s Cup in Bermuda and participates in around four regattas a year (St Barths Bucket, The Superyacht Cup Palma, Sardinia Maxi Worlds, Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez and so on) interspersed with east coast USA, Mediterranean and Caribbean cruising. She has a full-time crew of seven but when Velsheda is racing there’s a crew of 35 plus ten or 12 guests. The race crew have largely been there for years, everyone knows their role making it much safer and the owner is a fair and passionate man who inspires great staff retention.
“Five years on, I am still really enjoying the challenge aboard Velsheda. Of course there are downsides, there is plenty of paperwork to get through and this year, with considerable time apart, I miss spending time with my Australian girlfriend Hayley who is based in Maine this summer working as the owner’s chef aboard 43 metre Rebecca. We are lucky to be based in so many wonderful places with yachts, it is hard to say where we’ll end up. Naturally, we have strong family ties in Australia and the UK, but we do love it here in Mallorca with the canyoning, mountain biking and kitesurfing. At the moment, we’re both enjoying our own challenges and making the best of the limited down time and holidays.”
“I find that some people become accustomed to the lifestyle and can get locked into yachting, doing their best to find a balance with family life – and I often believe it can be a struggle. I suspect I would prefer to stop if I had a family, maybe put my Naval Architecture degree to good use in yacht design or management. But, right now, my long-term plan is to take Velsheda down to the 2021 America’s Cup in New Zealand and ensure that this incredible 85-year-old lady can claim victories over the brand new fully-optimised J-Classes.”
By Sarah Forge