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Beautiful Brutes

J Class yachts thrill Newport just as they did in their 1930s glory days

Photos by Jody Dole

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We’re gathered in a small boat in Newport, R.I. — three photographers, Soundings editor Bill Sisson and I — for the J Class Regatta. It’s one of a series of international competitions organized by the J Class Association, representing owners of the legendary America’s Cup yachts that run to 140 feet and carry as much as 16,000 square feet of sail.

In their heyday, when they were sailed off Newport in the successful Cup defenses of 1930, 1934 and 1937, these powerful, graceful racehorses were the most advanced sailing yachts ever built. Aluminum masts, moveable spreaders, rod rigging, quadrilateral headsails, the “Mae West” spinnaker — these were just a few of the innovations we take for granted today.

Only 10 were built — six in the United States and four in England — and only three originals survive. There are six in the world today, two more are under construction, and the plans for two others have been approved for building. It’s a treat to watch a pair of them taking to the race course on the very waters on which they gained their fame.
The stars of today’s show are the English yacht Velsheda, designed by Charles Nicholson and built in 1933 by Camper & Nicholson as a private yacht, and Ranger, an American entry designed by Studio Scanu, Reichel-Pugh and Fred Elliott (working with the original lines) and built in Denmark. Launched in 2004, Ranger is a replica of Harold Vanderbilt’s three-time Cup winner of the same name, designed by the flamboyant Starling Burgess and a young, studious Olin Stephens in 1937. Ranger has been called the best of the J Class; to Vanderbilt, she was the “Super J.”

Walking down the dock at Newport Shipyard, I am stunned by the sheer size of the yachts, by the number of crewmembers it takes to sail them, the enormous sails and the beautiful brightwork. But this is just backstage stuff; the real show is soon to begin. I got to see up close two of the five races in the June 15-19 series, which Ranger eventually won.
We board a 26-foot Contender driven by Michael DuPont and take our place among the variegated spectator fleet streaming into lower Narragansett Bay. Race preparations begin in unsettled weather. The competitors come out under tow. Ranger is accompanied by the vintage tender Bystander, which led the original Ranger out on these same waters 74 years ago. Then, like a theater curtain, a bank of Rhode Island fog descends. Castle Hill disappears, the Newport Bridge fades away, and Ranger and Velsheda, which have just cast off their tows, are swallowed up.
There’s an expectant pause and a good deal of weather speculation and peering into the haze. Then a vision of a sailing vessel emerges from the soup. With an actor’s sense of timing, Ranger comes ghost-like onto the stage — a long, lean hull from a different age dwarfed by a tall mast hung with a great triangle of canvas, gently curving away and holding the shape of the wind. Heads turn and hearts swell. I can feel everyone in the harbor rising as one to drink in the moment.

It’s like that all day. On leg after leg, DuPont puts our photo boat close to the action, under the shadow of the spinnakers at times. I am left gaping, speechless, shaking my head at the power and scale, the grace and balance of these yachts.
The Newport J Class Regatta brought a crowd of people to the waterfront for a view of history, as represented by the 80-year-old Velsheda, and a look at the future of the class, which is embodied in Ranger. What is it that draws us to these fantastic creations of metal, wood, sailcloth and human endeavor?
Tradition? A respect for the past? An appreciation for things that are the best and biggest and brightest of their kind? Perhaps it is all of these.

This article originally appeared in the Setpember 2011 issuel