Love at first sight
In August 2001, when learning to swim was still on my ‘to-do’ list and I had no interest in actually sailing, I’d taken up a friend’s offer to hang out on the Isle of Wight for a week. It happened to coincide with the end of the annual ‘Cowes Week’ regatta.
On the western edge of the island is Victoria Fort, a great vantage point to watch the racing yachts tack in to find the racing line to The Needles. Standing on the shore in front of The Boathouse, a coffee in hand, I was distracted by a vast sailing boat. It was like watching something from a bygone era, like something I’d seen in the window of Beken’s photography shop on the Birmingham Road in Cowes. I was transfixed by a simply colossal yacht moving with such grace and beauty. It had an ethereal quality to it. I lost interest in the racing fleet, beating into a stiff wind, captivated by the marvel that eased its way along the Solent.
I had fallen in love with a 130ft J-Class yacht, Endeavour. Even her name is musical.
A brief history of the J-Class
I had been right in my feeling. The J-Class yachts do herald from a different era, and are linked to the oldest international sporting race in the world, The America’s Cup. The first America’s Cup race took place in 1851, a race around the Isle of Wight. In 1929, Thomas Lipton (of tea-fame) made his fifth challenge for the America’s Cup, commissioning ShamrockV, to be built. ShamrockV was unsuccessful, but it was the birth of this gorgeous class of sailing boat. The 1930s were the Golden Age for the J-Class build, with ten being built for America’s Cup challenges during this period. However, the war years saw the decline of Big Yacht Racing, and the halt of the America’s Cup until 1959. Of the ten Js built, seven were scrapped, and only three remained. ShamrockV sailed for a while, but was then stored in a barn in Italy. Endeavour and Valsheda were laid up in the mud on the River Hamble (off Southampton Water) and used as house boats.
Revival of the J-Class
After restorations of the three remaining Js in the 1990s, the owners met in England in 2000 and formed the J-Class Association to protect the interests of the class. The first regatta took place in 2001 in Christchurch Bay, followed by The Jubilee Regatta in Cowes. This is where I re-join the story. I had witnessed the gathering of the J-Class yachts together in Britain for the first time, gathering for the commemoration of the birth of Big Yacht Racing.
A class above
The J-class represent the Formula One of yacht racing. There are now seven in the fleet. Each is privately owned (Endeavour is currently for sale at $20.6m, Ranger, a snip at $7.9m), with a crew of thirty-two needed to race them, and a racing budget of $1-2m per annum.
Since my first encounter, open-mouthed on a beach in the Isle of Wight, I’ve seen them race in a class regatta at Falmouth, and at Les Voiles, St Tropez. I’ve also been excited to spot one or other in beautiful locations – Arrecife (Lanzarote), Falmouth (Antigua), Cannes, and St Tropez. I could probably collect my J-class spotters badge.
Ring-side view of racing, Falmouth Regatta 2012
In lively winds and choppy seas, along with a flotilla of local boats, we followed the racing on Whinchat, our sailing boat. We watched them jostle for the best start before we positioned ourselves at the end of the upwind leg, so that we could watch the fleet race up towards us, before turning the buoy for the downwind leg. This marks one of my highlights in yacht racing. Lionheart, Rainbow, and Ranger raced towards us, heeled over, with crews acting as ballast (without any guard rails!) before leaping about to prepare for the sail change – to fly the spinnaker for the downwind leg. Lionheart was first around, and then Ranger, but something went wrong for Rainbow. It ploughed straight through the spectator boats, sending them scuttling for clear water. The mighty spinnaker was in the water. It cost them the race, as they had to cut the sail free, leaving it for the support crew to recover; tens of thousands of dollars-worth in the water.
Up close and personal in St Tropez
The last time I saw the J’s race was in 2013, Les Voiles. Unlike Falmouth, we were on-shore, watching with a chilled glass of white wine. Hanuman had joined the fleet, winning my vote for the most spectacular spinnaker (see header photo). Sipping the wine, I watched it fly past Valsheda, who I have a soft spot for, partly because her last refit took place here in Falmouth, at Pendennis Super Yachts.
The joy of St Tropez is that the super yachts moor up stern-to in the picturesque harbour at the end of racing. This gives you a sense of the sheer size of them, and an insight into crew-life. Lots of polishing! The photo below shows the crew of Lionheart, having a pep talk.
I know that I will never board, let alone race on a J-Class yacht, but there is something magical, timeless in watching these sailing boats carve through the water. Let us hope the class doesn’t fade again.