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Donkin on Sailing

September 2009 - Rise of the J Class

Joining the crew of a classic sailing yacht is like stepping back in time to the great age of sail. You can almost smell the mahogany on Hetairos, a 42-metres-long ketch built by the German yard, Abeking and Rasmussen. Inside the saloon there is a piano and a wood burning stove. It looks like the kind of boat that Phileas Fogg would have used to win his round-the-world-in-80 days wager.

Yet Hetairos is a modern classic, designed by Bruce King and launched in 1992. It represents a vogue for combining classic-style sailing with all the comforts of a modern superyacht. Guests are entertained to candlelit suppers at an elegant wooden table with crystal glasses and monogrammed chairs.

Jens Cornelsen, the yacht's project manager points out intricate features such as prism windows set in to the deck to shed light below. "The people who knew how to build this boat have since retired so you're looking at the last of its kind," he says.

As traditional skills become hard to find, however, it has not deterred a growing number of superyacht owners from exploring the classic marques, and few designs have attracted more attention in recent years than the J Class yachts.

Revival of the J Class has been a sailing phenomenon not unlike the success of the Goodwood Festival of Speed, the classic car meeting that has become an annual fixture on the sporting calendar.

The marque was saved from almost terminal decay by a handful of enthusiasts who began to take an interest in surviving yachts about 30 years ago. Yachts that had been developed to contest America's cup between the wars, owned originally by wealthy sailing luminaries such as Sir Thomas Lipton, Sir Thomas Sopwith and William Lawrence Stephenson, were abandoned or scrapped during the Second World War and a few surviving hulks spent most the of the 1950s and 1960s sitting on mud flats up the River Hamble in the UK.

Meanwhile the orginal lines-plans and documents covering the British yachts had been destroyed in a WW II air raid on Gosport . "We had surviving examples of British yachts and surviving lines plans of US yachts. So were able to put them together like building a jig-saw puzzle," says Gerard Dykstra, the naval architect who has worked on a number of restoration and replica projects.

Gerard Dykstra and Partrners were responsible for the latest J Class build, Hanaman, a replica of Sopwith's Endeavour II, launched at the Royal Huisman shipyard in the Netherlands in March.

The new yacht, owned by Jim Clark, founder of Silcon Graphics and Netscape, was raced against another J Class yacht, Velsheda, owned by Dutch businessman Ronald de Waal, off Newport in July. "That's typical of J Class racing. These are privately owned racing toys for rich businessmen. The owners will get together and race each other for a bottle of champagne," says David Pitman who runs the J Class Association.*

"In their era these were high tech boats, the equivalent of formula one racing cars and today the principle behind their build is just the same. They're using carbon masts and carbon rigging at the cutting edge of technology.

"The hydraulic winching systems on board would make your eyes water. It used to take three minutes to hoist the spinnaker to the top of the mast. Now it takes 45 seconds."

The association has identified and ratified lines-plans for 14 yachts with another set - made up of the fore and aft ends of two different yachts - under consideration of approval. The lines-plans are for yachts previously designed or built. A   Swedish yacht, Svea, for example, is known to have been under build in 1937 but was never completed due to the outbreak of war. Today the yacht is under build again, making it one of the world's longest yacht construction projects - 74 years from design to its projected launch in 2011.

The next yacht in the rebuild and replica series, due to appear next year is Lionheart, while building work on another - Atlantis - has been suspended for the time being. Within a few years, however, the J Class series of modern replicas and reconstructed yachts should be complete representing a remarkable come-back for some of the most exciting racing yachts ever sailed.

"When Velsheda was refitted in 1997 we didn't know how to sail her. There were no manuals so we had to learn from scratch. But today, under racing sails, she is capable of matching many modern performance superyachts," says Mr Pitman.   

  Hitherto the J Class yachts have had to content themselves with the occasional duel or in sailing against modern yachts in series such as the Rolex Maxi Cup, but plans are in the pipeline, says Mr Pitman, to seek sponsors for a stand-alone J Class event or series. "It's an exciting time for these classic racing yachts."

See also: The super yacht business

*http://www.jclassyachts.com

   
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