Elaine Bunting reports from on board Rainbow at the Superyacht Cup Palma regatta, as she experiences the thrill of sailing on a J Class yacht
I felt it for myself aboard Rainbow as we closed in on the start line at the Superyacht Cup in Palma. Hanuman was approaching on port and, at the last minute, tacked right below us. The two yachts loomed together and, for a moment, as Hanuman swung out to the turn, were pulled menacingly together as if gripped in some forcefield. Our helmsman, former Olympic racer Mark Neeleman, coolly feathered up then rode back over our rivals as if Rainbow were no more than a dinghy.
Once the fastest yachts of their size ever built, the Js seized the public’s imagination on both sides of the Atlantic in a short, but lively heyday between 1930 and 1937. Today they are comparatively pedestrian, pushed to make 11 knots upwind and 14 downwind. They are 180-tonne giants, slow to respond, labour-greedy and loaded like cannons.
Yet a great resurgence has been fermenting since the 1980s, slow at first, then steadily gaining momentum. Of seven existing Js, five were racing this season and last. Two more Js are being built and another is in the offing. Refits have got more exacting and elaborate, and this summer the yachts have had the closest and most exciting racing their crews have ever known.
The technology behind such a resurgence and the money being spent in the headlong chase for competitive advantage is a story for modern times.
In Palma Lionheart, Ranger, Hanuman, Velsheda and Rainbow are snugged up together stern-to at the dockside. The racing starts as late as 1400 after a long wait for the sea breeze to build, but the day’s routine begins early. This isn’t typical regatta racing, with most of the crew still shaking off a hangover at midday. By early morning a hard-core group of sailors, as well as some owners and guests, will already be out on road bikes, putting in the miles and comparing distances and times afterwards.
If you have a job on the Js, you are at the top of your game. The race crews are suffused with some of the biggest names in professional racing. Kenny Read, Volvo Ocean Race skipper and president of North Sails, helmed Hanuman; Ranger was steered by America’s Cup veteran Erle Williams, aided by four-times America’s Cup winner Murray Jones; Rainbow had Francesco de Angelis and Mark Neeleman; Tom Dodson was on Velsheda; and on Lionheart, helmed by her owner, Volvo Race skipper Bouwe Bekking was on hand with tactics and Andrew Cape with navigation.