The new Js are beautiful and fast, but they're not classics

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It was a gray day off California. Under a thinning blanket of fog, the Pacific was yawning and stretching to wake up, its surface barely rippled. But aboard the J Class yacht Endeavour, a 130-foot steel colossus with a displacement of 160 tons, the rhythmic up and down of the residual swell was noticeable.

The replica of Ranger, the 1937 America’s Cup winner designed by Starling Burgess, is a member of the new J Class.

Spreading every ounce of her giant canvas to capture what little breeze there was, Endeavour was making just enough way to cut a fizzy bow wave with her long, slender hull. The mood among the guests on deck was relaxed. It was their first time on a J Class, and they quickly adjusted to the taste of champagne sailing, even though most of them were, quite frankly, on a beer budget.

These yachts with endless bow and stern overhangs once represented the pinnacle of sailboat racing and were the weapons of choice — only 10 were built — for three America’s Cups in the 1930s. They are a sight to behold, their sleek hulls driven at heel in any appreciable breeze. That’s wet for the crew but gobs of fun for spectators.

However, owning and operating J Class yachts always has been an affair for one-percenters, aristocrats and self-made millionaires, such as Sir Thomas Lipton and Sir Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith, who duked it out in the ’30s with Harold S. Vanderbilt. Today, you’d find chief executives such as James Clark (Netscape) or Ronald de Waal (Saks, The Body Shop) at the helm of a J. Former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski once owned Endeavour but had to sell it to help pay court-ordered restitution when he was convicted of looting nearly $100 million from Tyco, for which he served six and a half years in prison.

A rescue with consequences

Sailing a J doesn’t happen to mere mortals all that often, so those moments on board Endeavour remain etched in my memory two decades after the fact. That yacht always was the belle of the ball, no matter where she showed her flag. She is one of three J Class yachts that survived from the 1930s — along with Shamrock V and Velsheda — owing her rescue to a stroke of luck.

She’d been on the skids for a while, mired in the muck of the Hamble River in southern England, when she was discovered in 1984 by Elizabeth Meyer, a young and affluent American who was nuts about sailing and elegant yachts. She bought the carcass and had it patched up and carted to Holland, where it was restored to the nines at the Royal Huisman yard. The project was considered the big bang for the restoration boom that followed. Meyer, founder of the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, Rhode Island, became the patron saint of yacht renovation and conservation.

Today, seven J Class yachts are sailing: the three originals that were restored; the replicas Ranger, Rainbow and Endeavour II, which originally were built for the Cup but were broken up afterward; and Lionheart, a “new” J that was designed in the 1930s but never built. An eighth yacht, J8, which like Lionheart was designed in the ’30s but never built, is being commissioned in Holland. It’s quite a development, though not without controversy because the class now permits hull alterations — for example, increasing the freeboard — and the use of modern materials.

Except for the three legacy yachts and the Ranger replica, which have either wooden or steel hulls, J Class yachts are now built from aluminum and have carbon masts, synthetic rigging and laminate sails. They have exquisite interiors, engines, gensets and a lot of other kit that increases displacement by 30 or 40 tons. And yet they also are optimized for racing — and winning. The America’s Cup is no longer at stake, but people who own these yachts are not the types to settle for second place.

“It is a difficult discussion [about originality],” says Dutch designer Andre Hoek, who is involved in several new J Class projects. “But things move on, and we have created an active class, and new boats are being built, so the innovations were successful.”

Meyer, for one, is not amused. “The new builds are lovely spirit-of-tradition boats inspired by Js, but they are not J Class yachts,” she says. “These are the pseudo classics that have modern underbodies. Their hulls are not built to the original lines plans, and because they are full of modern materials, they are not allowed to sail as classics in classic yacht regattas.”

Meyer likens it to a Duesenberg that was altered to go faster. “They’d laugh you off the stage at any Concours d’ Elegance,” she says. “If you want to go faster, get a catamaran, go foiling, but don’t build a pseudo-classic yacht.”

Splitting tacks on philosophy

In the 1980s, Meyer hired Dutch naval architect Gerard Dykstra to restore Endeavour to her original condition. At relaunch in 1989, she was the spitting image of the yacht that slid down the ways at the Camper & Nicholsons yard in Gosport, England, in 1934. But she was not the same boat. She now had an auxiliary engine, aluminum spars, Dacron sails, a cherry interior with a fireplace, four guest cabins, an owner’s suite and modern amenities. That meant more weight, more draft, a longer waterline and less freeboard.

“No alterations were made to the hull shapes or construction materials,” Meyer says, conceding that Endeavour was low on her lines. “If the interiors were removed, [she] would have measured in as a J.” That’s a technical argument, but what’s the worry? She sailed like a charm, killed with her looks and conquered people’s hearts. Game, set, match, right? Yes, but …

In 1996, Dykstra also managed the restoration of Velsheda, which was built in 1933, but with upgrades and alterations that displeased Meyer, such as additional freeboard and an aluminum deck. “I said to them, ‘You must not do this to this boat. You’re going to miss the point entirely.’ But they went forward,” she says.

Although Meyer advocates fidelity to the original, Dykstra, who also initiated a new class association, pursued a pragmatic path, allowing upgrades and enhancements to the designs of the 1930s. Jeroen de Vos, one of the naval architects at Dykstra’s firm, worked on almost all existing J Class yachts and came up with a new rating rule that uses velocity prediction to determine individual handicaps so that all of the boats — old and new — can race each other and be classified together.

“These new Js are incredible upwind. They can hang with modern racers,” he says. “Downwind or on a reach, they are slower because of their displacement.”

Racing, of course, now is a game for hired guns, professionals such as Francesco de Angelis, Ken Read and Brad Butterworth. “You need to sail well and aggressively,” says de Vos. “Missing a beat at the start or going the wrong way means you’re done.”

That replaces the Corinthian spirit that Meyer tried to foster while in charge of the class in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when sailors volunteered for grunt work. Skippers took a trick at the helm for the heck of it. “Gary Jobson, Ted Turner, Buddy Melges, Ted Hood, Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, along with all of the most famous America’s Cup and Whitbread sailors,” Meyer recalls. “And not one person was paid anything. But now that they’re having this kind of billionaire’s strutting and pissing contest, the fun has gone out of it for me.”

She sold Endeavour to Kozlowski for $15 million in 2000; he sold her in 2006 to Cassio Antunes, of Hawaii, for $13 million, according to published reports. In 2011 the yacht was extensively refitted in New Zealand. “Aluminum deck, carbon rudder and carbon winches — she is not a J Class anymore or a classic,” Meyer shudders. “What a waste.”

The renaissance continues

Meyer thought about building two identical J Class yachts from steel for match racing but shelved the idea. She would have used the lines of the last J ever designed, drawn by Swedish designer Tore Holm in 1937. These plans were discovered in 1999 by Dutch yacht historian John Lammerts van Bueren. With Meyer on the sidelines, a different owner commissioned the boat to be built in aluminum, and before the hull was finished, he stepped away.

Although that project is on hold, the launch date for the yet-to-be-named J8 is nigh. It is another aluminum J, and it was built to a previously unrealized design of Frank Paine from 1935. And more projects are in the pipeline: Enterprise, the successful Cup defender of 1930 designed by Starling Burgess, and two more designs by Paine. One, also never built, is J9, and the other is Yankee, which lost the defender trials to Enterprise. Although she never won the Cup, Paine kept improving Yankee as a benchmark. Burgess’ Rainbow defended in 1934 but had performance problems. And in 1937 everything changed. Burgess committed to more displacement and maximum waterline length and came up with Ranger, which annihilated the British challenger Endeavour II. Ranger still is considered the greatest J of all, the result of an evolution helped along by meticulous research and a young fellow named Olin Stephens, who oversaw the tank tests that proved critical for the design.

“You can’t stop development,” muses designer Hoek. “If you want to race superyachts competitively, [racing Js] is the only option. It is attracting high-profile owners. And they are the same now as they were then. They still want to win.” The question is, in a class of classics or in a class on steroids?

Sitting at the aft end of Endeavour’s 60-foot Park Avenue boom two decades ago, my back against the mainsail and feet dangling over the water, I had the perfect vantage point to see why passion for these yachts runs high. They roll size, elegance and power into one magnificent package, yet their sole and original purpose was winning a race. And Meyer deserves credit for initiating a revival, which regardless of politics, reminds us that form can, indeed, follow function in beautiful fashion.

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue.