A record fleet of six J Class yachts are in the throes of their final tuning and training sessions in preparation for racing at the Saint Barths Bucket regatta starting on Thursday.
The chic Caribbean Superyacht regatta is well known for its heady blend of hard, but fun racing, encompassing a diet of passages around the marks and rocky islets which surround Saint Barthelemy, and the sophisticated apres racing social scene.
But as the six J Class crews assembled in St Barths anticipate the historic, competitive season ahead, working up towards the twin peaks represented by the J Class America's Cup regatta in Bermuda in June and the J Class World Championship in Newport Rhode Island, there will be a significant extra edge evident over the four days of competition.
Seven J Class yachts are expected to line up on the start lines in Bermuda and in Newport. Six, Hanuman, Lionheart, Ranger, Shamrock, Topaz and Velsheda, are starting their race season in Saint Barths and will race a special programme consisting of three windward-leewards and two round the island style passage races.
"This is set to be a very exciting season, writing another new chapter in the long and storied history of the J Class. This is our first real glimpse of the fleet and it will be wonderful to see six boats racing hard around these beautiful waters. It is pleasing to see the class in such good health and that is thanks to our very committed owners who share the same passion." Said Louise Morton, J Class Secretary.
Saint Barth's hosted five J Class yachts in 2013 when Hanuman completed a clean sweep, winning every race. Five yachts also raced at the 2014 Superyacht Cup Palma in Mallorca when Lionheart won.
Following a refit which includes a new rig this will be the first regatta since 2014 for Hanuman which has Ken Read as skipper-helm and a crew which includes Stan Honey as navigator. Bouwe Bekking leads the Lionheart crew which has raced and trained consistently at the main European regattas to keep making improvements towards Bermuda.
"We are a little rusty." Admits Hanuman's Read. "The boat is in great shape. Greg Sloat, the boat captain, took a pretty substantial list about a year and a half ago and has pulled it all off. The mast and boom are the big ticket items which we hope will make a difference. But the rest of it is a million little things. You are not trying to hit a home run, but a whole bunch of singles. The boat is going well but we have not raced in a long while and so that is why we are here to practice."
"Jim and Kristy (the owners Jim and Kristy Clark) are the two most competitive people I have ever met in my life. They never do things half assed, they do things to succeed and that spreads down the hierarchy of the program. So we are hoping for success."
"These boats are beasts to get around the race course." Read highlights, "We are looking to the podium and then go from there. We are lacking sailing time."
"This season is historic. It is going to be great for sailing. It will be historic to get these six boats on the start line."
"We are trying to increase participation and at the same make sure the owners have a lot of fun doing it. It us up to all of us to make sure the owners have fun." Concludes Read.
Explains Lionheart's Bekking:
"We are excited because we have made some big changes to the sail area and the displacement." "So we will be interested to see how that plays out for us. "The good thing is Hanuman has done the same kind of thing. We will see. All the crews are so good here I think any boat can win here."
Ranger, skippered and steered by Erle Williams, raced at regattas on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years as has Velsheda which has Tom Dodson as tactician. These two tied on points on the same waters round the purely coastal courses when three boats raced at the Saint Barths Bucket one year ago, Velsheda taking the overall honours only on countback.
"We have been modifying a few things. We are really targeting Bermuda and Newport. We have increased our sail area. We put the forestay forward and the boat feels better. I hope it makes it a little bit faster too. The boat feels good round the course but we have not had a chance to really test against other boats and so this week will be interesting. Others have gone lighter, dropped their stability and their rating and so it is going to be fascinating to see how it plays out this week. We have a good team. We can be good in the up down races but the 'ocean' races are where we might struggle more." Says Erle Williams of Ranger, the longest and heaviest of the J Class yachts racing.
Campbell Field, navigator on Velsheda adds:
"We are itching to go racing. The boat's in good shape. The team's in good shape. We have some new sails which we are looking forwards to using. Our objectives this week are to sail the very best we can and see how we line up against this fleet of six boats. Our real focus is Newport and the World Championship. We are chomping at the bit to get going."
Topaz, the newest in the fleet, made her debut in Saint Barths last year and had a week of practices in August. Peter Holmberg is steering Topaz this season with Ross MacDonald as tactician.
"We are not at the level of Hanuman and Lionheart and these guys in terms of prep and practice times. So we are just trying to set our training in line with our goals and timeline. This is a new team and we are only just starting to push things a little now. But it is all good. The boat feels nice." Said Holmberg, who steered Ranger some years ago when she was just launched.
Shamrock has a new set of Doyle Sails and has Stu Bannatyne steering this season with Chris Nicholson as tactician. Mike Sanderson will join the crew for the Bermuda regatta.
Simon Lacey, Shamrock's boat captain, said:
"Our expectation here is to work the boat up. We have a lot of experience on board and here we are looking to put the work in place to learn as much as we can as there is still a lot of unknowns. I think we are about 60 per cent there in terms of our learning curve but I am confident the experience is there now to perform."
Anticipating light to moderate airs in Bermuda and Newport, several boats – most notably Hanuman and Lionheart – have optimised accordingly, reducing their all up weight by as much as ten tonnes. Now set up in something closer to the lighter airs modes, performance in the usually stronger trade winds conditions of this showcase Caribbean regatta might not be representative of the season's pinnacle events, but this is an important chance to crews to up their game in a most competitive environment.
The five race no-discard series comprises two windward-leeward races Thursday and Friday when the J Class fleet race on their own course area. Saturday and Sunday the J Class join the Superyacht fleet for the Round the Islands courses but have their own start.