The Enduring Class of J Class Yachts

What gentleman doesn’t spend his winter daydreaming of spending the coming summer aboard a classic yacht, stood at the wheel with the wind on your face?  And, if you were asked to describe that yacht, the chances are that you would end up describing the classic lines of a J Class rather than a tub with a heli-pad on the roof.  With only three of the original J Class yachts remaining, and a grand total of just eight in existence today (the other five being replicas, with a six currently being completed) however, you need very deep pockets indeed to own one and therefore mere mortals without €20m to spare have to settle for enjoying the spectacle of these yachts racing at regattas.

a j class yacht sailing off the coast of cornwall near falmouth

Dating back over eighty years with their origins of the oldest sporting race in the world, the America’s Cup, the first J Class yacht was commissioned by Sir Thomas Lipton (of Lipton Tea) in 1929 to challenge the Americans who currently held the cup.  Shamrock V was designed to conform to the Universal Rule that was to be introduced in 1930, which was a formula to control the size and displacement of new yachts to allow more evenly matched racing - the J Class was for single masted yachts with a waterline length of between 75 and 87 feet.  The Americans built four J Class yachts from which they would select one to defend the cup against Shamrock V; Enterprise, Whirlwind, Yankee and Weetamoe.  Enterprise successfully defended the America’s Cup off Newport, Rhode Island in 1930, and the 1930s represent the “Golden Years” for J Class yachts.  Valsheda was built in the UK in 1933 (the only original J Class not built for an America’s Cup), followed by Endeavour and Rainbow in 1934, which were designed and built to contest the 1934 America’s Cup.  The following year, both Enterprise and Whirlwind were scrapped, whilst Yankee was scrapped in 1941.  1937 saw this Golden Era come to a close with the launching of the last two original J Class boats, Ranger (USA) and Enterprise II (GB) and the last America’s Cup for twenty one years; the end of big yacht racing and the Second World War caused many of the original Js to be scrapped or sold-off.  All of the American yachts had been scrapped for their metal as part of the war effort by the end of 1941, leaving just three examples – Endeavour and Velsheda became houseboats sat in the mud of the River Hamble on the south coast of England whilst Shamrock V had been sold to Italian senator and publisher Mario Crespi who had changed her name and hidden her in a barn during the war years.  Through the 1970s and 80s the three remaining yachts were recovered and slowly restored, refitted and relaunched in a revival led by American Elizabeth Meyer. 

j class yacht rainbow sailing off the coast of cornwall near falmouth

“We love them because they are sublimely beautiful, utterly impractical and fiendishly demanding.”
Elizabeth Meyer 

In 1998 the three surviving J Class yachts raced against each other in Antigua Classic Week, after which the owners met in England in 2000 to form the J Class Association and in 2001 they returned to the Isle of Wight to compete in the Round the Island Race.  Since then a number of replicas have been commissioned and launched, and there are now eight competing J Class yachts with a ninth expected to launch next year, just in time for the showcase regatta that will form part of the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda in 2017.  This year yachts from the J Class fleet will meet and race at the following events, and will be well worth watching should their visit coincide with your summer travel plans: 

  • 28-31 July                                 Candy Store Cup, Newport, Rhode Island, USA

  • 4-10 September                        Rolex Cup, Porto Cervo, Sardinia, Italy

  • 25 September – 2 October       Voiles de Saint-Tropez, France

These boats require huge investment, a full-time crew of around fifteen sailors (although that can double for races), and can be notoriously difficult to sail, however the sight of just one J Class (let alone several, racing each other) at sea is a sight to behold.  They are graceful, elegant yachts with a rich heritage that are very evenly matched when racing, making for a marvelous spectacle should you be fortunate to see them under full sail.

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