Last year saw the first competitive regatta since 1937 to muster five spectacular J Class yachts. This year, the Superyacht Cup in Palma will host what is probably the most competitive, closely matched fleet yet.
Hanuman, Lionheart, Ranger, Rainbow and Velsheda will race on Wednesday around a windward-leeward course for the historic King’s Hundred Guinea Cup which is a perpetual trophy for this race, before joining the 26 strong Superyacht Cup fleet for a schedule which includes one further windward-leeward and two coastal courses, Thursday to Saturday.
Winter refits which targeted extra speed have been completed – some more recently than others – and after last month’s Menorca Maxi regatta which attracted three boats, the stakes on the Bay of Palma and correspondingly the performance levels should be higher.
Menorca Maxi saw Lionheart dominate with a clean sweep of five wins. With a crew nucleus drawn from the current Dutch Volvo Ocean Race project Team Brunel including navigator Andrew Cape, under tactician Bouwe Bekking, they were unstoppable.
In Mahon last year’s Palma Superyacht Cup J Class winners Hanuman proved disappointed to end up in third. According to skipper-helm Ken Read their result was nothing short of a wake up call. But with three intervening weeks filled with hard work by sailmakers, boatbuilders and crew, Read believes they will be quicker, will sail better and so are in a stronger position to defend the J Class title they won here last year.
“Mahon was a real wake up call. We had not sailed in a long time and these boats are twitchy boats to sail. They are obviously monsters. And I don’t think I did a very good job sailing the boat. And we just had one of these regattas when we were out of sorts.” Read outlined aboard Hanuman on Palma’s STP shipyard dock this morning.
“Now, whenever you know there are going to be five J yachts on the start line that becomes your priority, you have to be here with your A Game. This regatta last year was spectacular. We pulled it out the bag last year and here we are. We have to defend.”
Around Europe’s J Class regattas last year honours were shared between Hanuman and Velsheda. The latter won in Saint Tropez and in Sardinia in 2013 and arrives in Palma very freshly prepared after a refit which started last November. Among the measures designed to increase all round potency Velsheda has had weight trimmed in various areas and added as keel ballast for an improved righting moment and they have upgraded hydraulic systems which deliver more power and faster line speeds to improve sail handling and trimming ability.
Velsheda’s long serving tactician, America’s Cup winning Kiwi Tom Dodson is passionate about J Class racing, enjoying being responsible for an historic racing yacht whilst at the same time rising to the constant challenge of making smart tactical decisions in a fleet which has grown, and races in ever closer contact, all the time requiring the careful management of more than 30 on board: “We start dividing up the roles. We have a command thing going back and forwards with Juggy (Justin Clougher crew boss) and when he makes a call you have 35 people spring into action”
“Hydraulic power is in, more and more again. It is phenomenal to see the sheet speeds with many winches running at the same time. So now we have gone from setting up for a bottom mark rounding three minutes out to under two minutes now. And everything has to come together for these roundings.”
“That keeps your tactical options open. But once these boats slow down it takes a lot of speeding up. In light to medium airs that can easily be giving you a couple of boat lengths because of the extra speed you are getting out of the bottom mark. For instance the genoa used to take about one minute to hoist and now it is about 12 seconds, bottom to top.”
“You can be coming into the bottom mark with four other boats. I think people would be amazed. They’d be sitting there going ‘get it down fellas, get it down fellas, get it down’….and it’ll be just pushed in there in seconds. Top marks and gybes are all pretty crisp when you consider what has to go on.”
Although he gruffly thinks others might see them as favourite here Dodson, like most around the J Class dock today, contends that this Palma Superyacht Cup regatta is wide open: “People are saying to me we could finish anywhere from first to fifth here and not have sail much different.”
“We are just expecting close racing. If it is anything like last year it will be so impressive. I hope we get a couple of turns at it.”
Naturally the talent and experience aboard each of the five yachts is as would be expected. Volvo and Whitbread round the world race sailors form the core of many teams. Indeed there are a reasonably sizeable contingent of Volvo and Whitbread alumni with five races under their belts.
Team Brunel’s Bekking has four of his Volvo crew on Lionheart. Read’s roster on Hanuman includes double Olympic 470 medallist Kevin Burnham, three times America’s Cup winner Warwick Fleury and Volvo and America’s Cup sailors like Kimo Worthington, Tony Mutter, Jerry Kirby, Robbie Naismith. Alongside Dodson on the owner driven Velsheda Olympic silver medallist Don Cowie trims mainsheet. Ranger has multiple Whitbread and Volvo racer Erle Williams as skipper with Finn, 49er and Laser helm Dan Slater steering, Mike Quilter navigating and Murray Jones as tactician. Rainbow have America’s Cup sailors Francesco de Angelis as Michele Ivaldi as tactician and navigator.
Racing is expected to encounter light winds on the first day with the sea breezes picking up over the subsequent days. Start sequences are scheduled at 1300hrs local time each day.
*Thumbnail image: Ian Roman, other images courtesy of Superyacht Cup.