The return of the J-Boats
One of the more impressive sailing events I’ve ever witnessed happened at Castle Hill Lighthouse this past June. I happened to be going for a sail one day and saw the J-Class Boats Ranger and Valsheda preparing to begin racing out of Newport Harbor.
There was a sizable spectator fleet of perhaps 50 boats at the starting line. I decided to head out to the Castle Hill Lighthouse to get a better view of the race and dodge the crowds. Over the years, I’d seen the J Boats Shamrock and Endeavor sailing in Narragansett Bay; however, I’d never seen these amazing things racing. This day, I would see what these boats were designed to do.
The shorthand history of these boats is the J-Class was adopted in 1928 and the first Regatta was in 1930. Only 10 of these boats were designed and built for a race called The America’s Cup. At 140 feet with an enormous sail plan, these boats would require 30 professional crew members to sail them. This was a sport for people with very deep pockets; it still is today.
At Castle Hill Light I sat and waited for the boats. I calculated they would need to tack at this point and then head out of the bay. I thought I had the best seat in the house. The wind was blowing out of the southwest at about 10 to 15 knots. These were perfect conditions for any sailboat race. This however was not just any sailboat race. I heard the gun go off for the start and looked north toward the starting line near Fort Adams. Ranger and Valsheda were off and running.
As I said, I thought I had the best seat in the house, and as it turned out so did the entire spectator fleet, helicopters included. As I jockeyed my boat among the fast approaching armada of spectator craft, I saw the J-Boats on a port tack off Jamestown readying for a tack to starboard. Hiking out on the rails of both boats I saw at least 20 uniformed crews. The boats tacked and started across the bay toward Castle Hill. What took me off guard was how fast everything was now happening. As the boats sailed directly at the spectator fleet, they were escorted by several 20-foot inflatable powerboats with horns blasting and lights flashing to clear the way for the J-Boats. Suddenly, Ranger and Valsheda, sailing very close to each other, executed a precise port tack: crews scrambled, sails were sheeted and helmsmen and tacticians yelled commands. When the tack was completed, the crews took their places on the port rails and the boats continued out toward Beavertail. Just like that, in less than one minute, the boats were on their tack to windward. The display of engineering, muscle and teamwork was very impressive. But what struck me the most was the incredible visual aesthetic of these boats.
On the way back from sailing that day, I got to thinking how to get more people interested in this great sport. I thought back to the days of “Terrible Ted” Turner during the Twelve Meter America’s Cup days in Newport. Ted gave the sport Rock Star appeal. The “Mouth from the South” made the sport fun and people wanted to see this wild guy with the engineer’s cap, racing a sailboat and cockily talking at press conferences. Moreover, they wanted to perhaps see his wife Jane Fonda wandering around Bannister’s Wharf.
So, I thought, why not get real rock stars to be part of this J-Class resurgence? Can you imagine Keith Richards and Mick Jagger on opposing boats! Or for the ladies, how about Madonna and J-Lo competing; just imagine the photo opportunity! In all seriousness, these celebrities would no doubt draw attention to this amazing sport, and bring tourist dollars to several communities. Imagine a circuit of races including Block Island, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, and the interest it would draw and all who would benefit. For the sailing purists out there who think celebrities would detract from this great racing tradition, I say not to worry. From what I witnessed that day off Castle Hill, it would be hard for any one individual to upstage the power and beauty of these boats.