With all the excitement about the America's Cup and high speed catamarans with solid wing sails—it's easy to forget the amazing J-boats that were so much part of what the America's Cup was all about in the 1930s. In some ways this is very understandable as the pure wealth thrown into these boats was a shocking contrast to the lives of the poor and hungry majority during the Great Depression. What were these people thinking of, one wonders? However, there's no denying that these wealthy few, built some incredible boats to race in!
As a young man in southern England in the 50s, I lived for 9 sailing months on the banks of the Hamble River and within sight of my trailer home was a long, elegant hull being used as a houseboat (see pic top right). I still remember the small doghouse that led below, as well as the lines of bi-weekly washing hung out between two poles about 10ft tall—a stark contrast indeed, to the sleek lines of the actual boat! I soon learned that this was the old British J-boat Velsheda and that down the river, was another one called Endeavour. Their deep keels were sunk in the river mud and the only sign of a mast was a plywood plug over the hole in the planked deck. You could not easily tell from the exterior, but both these hulls were of steel—beautifully formed to create the gorgeously elegant lines that we see in these photos.
(One can only assume that this beautiful form effectively hid the real material, as during the war all steel went into the defence of Britain—heck, even our home gates, school, church and graveyard railings all went! Based on a decree by the British War Dept, no further permission needed.)
So one wonders, just what happened to these boats? Well, it might be a surprise to many to hear that BOTH these boats are now back sailing! Although the American Js were all scrapped during the war, in the late '70s several groups were formed to raise money in a desperate "Save the Js" effort so the Endeavour was salvaged from the mud in '79 with Velsheda following about 5 years later. A third British 'J' that survived was the wooden Shamrock V and both this 'J' plus Endeavour were bought and nursed back to life through the amazing passion of American writer and real-estate entrepreneur, Elizabeth Meyer**. She had Dutchman Gerard Dykstra research all the old articles and Beken photos of Endeavour, in order to re-rig the boat as close to the original as possible. For a while, Elizabeth had Shamrock V in the Newport Maritime Museum but finally also renovated that boat too, to organize a historic race between her 'two joys' in 1989. Around 1998, Velsheda was finally ready to join them and during this period, Dykstra's design firm and others were kept busy helping other wealthy groups build J-Class replicas in several yards around the globe. All this excitement, led to the formation of the 'J-Class Association' in 2000 and they drew up some rules to try to keep future racing as close as possible. In the not too distant future there could be as many as ten new or rebuilt J-boats on the water, including replicas of past cup winners.
One key rule is that 'any new boat must be built to one of the original designs', though aluminum is now permitted in place of steel—perhaps for longevity as well as performance. While the "1930s design rule" also permits 'copies' being built, it does put a control on just how many different boats will be out there, but the interesting twist is that these new Js can also be built to 'designs originally created' as 1930 Js, but never actually built! So member groups are now researching and dusting off early designs from the likes of Stephens, Paine, Burgess etc. that never expected to see the light-of-day since being shelved some 75 years ago!
So almost unknown to most of us 'ordinary sailors', there's still a hope that we might get a glimpse of 'this past glory', should we happen to be in the right place at the right time. But as huge as these boats are, at roughly 130' overall, 150 tons in weight and setting 10,000 sqft of sail upwind, these will be dwarfed by the latest design from the enterprising Dykstra design group; a 463', 4-masted schooner called Dream Symphony, presently being built in Turkey! How does a laminated wood shell 5" to 8" thick strike you? Clearly, there are toys and TOYS—but that's a whole different story.
** To read more about Elizabeth Meyer, try this:
mjw Feb 2013