J Class, Velsheda, Topaz, Svea Line Up in St Barths
A fleet of three J Class yachts including the oldest and most storied, J K7 Velsheda, and the newest, potentially most powerful ever, J S1 Svea, will line up over the coming days to compete at what promises to be an enthralling St Barths Bucket Regatta.
Velsheda is renowned as the most established class act, blessed with the most experience in the fleet and, correspondingly, a long list of honours in the J Class. The solid, unchanged team which races the original J that this year celebrates her 85th birthday, had a great regatta in St Barths last year. They finished tied with overall winner Hanuman on points and only lost out on countback.
At this 31st edition of the Caribbean favourite, Velsheda face up to the highly tipped Svea, which was only launched last year and made her race debut in Bermuda and Newport. They have increased their sail area slightly since last year and have fitted a keel shoe in order to address a lee helm handling issue.
Topaz returns to 'The Bucket' where they made their maiden race outing as a relatively green, inexperienced crew back in 2016.
Last year Topaz really started to highlight her potential as one of the fastest J Class yachts on the water, leading the last contest in Bermuda before a mechanical failure cost them the race victory and then winning two races at the J Class World Championship in Newport, RI.
The brisk trade winds conditions are a significant appeal to the J Class, placing an extra premium on boat handling and speed in the often lumpy, bumpy Caribbean waters. This will be Svea's first Caribbean regatta, Topaz's third while Velsheda finished third on the Class's first visit in 2013 and won on countback in 2016, the last time there were three J Class yachts racing here.
The J Class will kick off the St Barths Bucket on Thursday with two standalone windward leeward races. Friday and Sunday they compete on round the island races – clockwise Friday and counterclockwise Sunday with a 'wiggly' round the buoys passage Saturday.
Svea find themselves starting slightly on the back foot. Although they had five days of race training planned, a problem with the delivery of their shipping containers – which contain all of their essential race hardware including sails, has scuppered these plans. Svea had to make an early morning dash yesterday to nearby Saint Martin to finally rendezvous with their equipment.
"Our containers did not show up. Last week when they arrived, there was too much of a swell to land them." Explains Charlie Ogletree, the Svea project manager and tactician, "Yesterday we managed to unload them by eight o'clock last night, and so now we have enough equipment to race but have not practiced."
"After last year the debrief was positive." Ogletree, "We made some changes to the boat, changing the keel and putting on a longer boom with a bigger main and smaller jibs, and that should help. We had one day of sea trials in fog and 40 degrees Fahrenheit in Newport. Nonetheless, it is what it is. This is my first Bucket and the boat's first Bucket and we are all looking forward to it."
"We have never sailed a J in the upper wind strengths and certainly not in a sea, so that is a goal in itself this week." Ogletree continues.
"There are three boats and they are all competitive. Velsheda is the benchmark having sailed here longest and have the most consistent team on board. Topaz have been practising in Antigua for a week, so they are polished and ready."
Topaz's tactician Ross MacDonald remains typically conservative in his outlook for the team which made big strides last season, "For us, we are on the right trajectory. The level of the fleet is so high and the boats are quick. We have conditions where we are most competitive, light to moderate. And so this could be good for us. We don't anticipate a very windy Bucket, probably 10 to 15 knots for most of the time, maybe 16 to 17. We have stuck with the same line up and kept Tony Rey after Newport. He sails with Peter (Holmberg, helm) on the TP52 and he really knows the superyacht dynamic with 20 plus crew."
MacDonald contends, "It will be hard to keep Velsheda behind us in the breeze, and if it is light then Svea is good too. Those are the wild cards and we are the constant in the middle. For us it will be about executing a good game plan and getting off the line well, good crew work. I think we are in good shape now. We have spent enough time as a group sailing the boat now and so we know our limitations and that really helps us. We are not as slick as the guys who have been doing this for close to a decade but we are getting there and that is what we strive for."
Meanwhile Velsheda remain quietly confident, back in their preferred conditions after a disappointing final outcome at the J Class World Championship. Tom Dodson, the long serving Velsheda tactician comments, "The boat is in good shape. It has been cruising for a while and so everything has been on board for a while. We had some good training yesterday and so are really ready to go. We have the same team and stick with that and everything is the same with the boat. We like the windier regattas. We are the benchmark boat and always have been. Hopefully the other two are not going too much faster!
The owner really likes to have the same faces, the same people on board. After Newport I did ask if he wanted to make any changes, referring to myself, but he wants to stick by us and likes to have the same guys. We are happy with the change to how the ratings are applied across the whole wind range as we did fall foul of that a few times last year."
When previously the ratings were applied across three discrete wind bands – light, medium and heavy air – as of this regatta, each yacht is rated with a TCF (time correction factor) for every single knot from seven to 20 knots.
"Previously there were significant 'cliffs' on the curve for some yachts, occurring for them where the change from one wind band to another occurred. Now this should be smoothed out for everyone." Explains Andrew Yates, the J Class Measurer.
The class continues to invest in on the water umpiring, which has proven successful since first being introduced in Falmouth in 2015. There has not been a protest hearing since.
"At the beginning we were really just making calls on the water but increasingly we have strived more and more interactive with the afterguards, and the crews appreciate that. Obviously we are looking to avoid dangerous situations and by being open and proactive in our communication, I believe we do that" explains Alfredo Ricci, the J Class Chief Umpire.