As the perennially popular Saint Barth's Bucket superyacht regatta returns from the 18-20 March, bringing 30 boats to the tiny French island in the Caribbean, the J Class fleet resumes for the first time since 2019, naturally taking centre stage with two key yachts coming back to top level competition for the first time since 2017.
Ranger has an enthusiastic new American owner for whom the Bucket will be their first major regatta, sailing with a hand-picked team that is rich in America's Cup experience under helm Ed Baird, tactician John Kostecki, navigator Jules Salter and strategist Jordi Calafat. Jim and Kirsty Clark's well sailed Hanuman - which won the hotly contested 2017 Bucket regatta from a record fleet of six J Class yachts - are also stepping back into the ring after a spell cruising Hanuman.
Both these 'returnees' will face a stiff challenge from the benchmark programme of recent years, the original, beautifully prepared Velsheda which has continued to race wherever safe and possible while the class activity ebbed slightly in recent years.
It is widely expected that this Saint Barth's Bucket fleet of three beautiful J's will herald an upturn in class racing activity this season. It seems likely that four J Class Yachts will race at the Palma Superyacht Cup in June and four or five at the Rolex Maxi Yacht Cup in Porto Cervo, Sardinia in September.
The three J Class yachts will contest two windward-leeward races on their own on Thursday 17 March before they join the 30 strong fleet of Superyachts to take on a diet of three days of round the island or 25-mile buoy races. The exact choice and composition of the courses is to be decided according to the wind conditions, with particular consideration being given to the very brisk tradewinds and big choppy seas which seem to have prevailed for recent weeks at the preliminary warm up Caribbean regattas.
Given the likely brisk conditions and the lack of recent fleet racing experience, safety is of paramount importance and a cautious step into the 2022 season is likely. The most polished and accomplished team Velsheda was the last J Class to race at the most recent Saint Barth's Bucket in 2019, while three J Class yachts raced in 2018 when the class was won by Svea, which it is hoped will return later this season. Velsheda and Topaz raced against each other during a foreshortened two event 2021 season racing in mixed fleet handicap fleets. Saint Barth's is scored throughout for the Js under the J Class own handicap rule.
The Saint Barth's Bucket Race Director Peter Craig enthused, "Across the whole island it means a lot to have the Bucket back. This island does quite well from tourism but regardless it adds another dimension, it is a focal point. They are tickled to have us back."
Of the winds expected he reports, "This year will be challenging in terms of conditions. We have seen three straight weeks of marginal top end conditions, 25-knots with big sea states. But we are hoping it abates a bit. We should be good to get the windward leeward races in, under the lee of the island on Thursday."
The new Ranger team have put in a couple of good, solid days of practice and have a rich array of talent keen to do well.
"If you never did any other sailing again after what we did today you would be happy. It was awesome," enthused Simon Fry, trimmer on Ranger. "What a great venue this is. We sailed three laps, looked at some sails and did some pre-start drills as you would normally. We were better than we were yesterday and in turn better than our first day. By Thursday I very much hope will be good enough. But this is a very, very good bunch of guys on the boat."
America's Cup winning Helm Ed Baird is bubbling with youthful enthusiasm for his first ever J Class programme.
"Personally, it is very exciting. I have never been on a J Class yacht before," smiled Baird after training today. "They are amazing machines, and I can't help thinking, how on earth did they do this 100 years ago? They are so big and there are so many things to be coordinated it is amazing."
Asked for his expectations Baird responds, "Honestly, we have no idea. It is such a new project after the time it has taken to refit the boat and then the time over the last two years with no racing. And for a number of us this is the first J Class yacht we have sailed. We are just looking to make sure we can get round the course in reasonable shape. We really do not know at all how we will stack up against the other boats. The boat has been refitted and remeasured and has a different handicap now so we will just have to see."
Baird says of the new owner's hopes, "When we met, he said one of the most important things to him was that these boats represent such a unique period in the course of sailing's history, he feels it is an important to be a steward of that history. He does not talk about wanting to go out and win things. That said we are here to do our best, but what is that? We don't know what that is. We are going to sail the boat hard and try to do well on the race course but we are also very aware that these thing are incredible pieces of our sailing history that just having them out there is so amazing."
Hanuman's skipper/tactician Kenny Read admits they will build up steadily given they have not raced at all for five years.
"I think maybe everyone other than Velsheda has some teething pains going because it is so long since we last raced these boats in anger," said Read. "And so it is up to us all to be smart but to see if we can do something useful here. We have to be smart. Unfortunately, we learned the hard way this last week that the loads on these boats are astronomical and safety is paramount. For sure the trade winds are in but maybe right now somebody turned the fans on a little too much!"
Read is a big fan of the Bucket and can't wait to be back racing Hanuman. Of the event he says, "It is a gift. It is just amazing to be here. The first thing is what an amazing job this island has done. The last time we were here the island was decimated after the hurricane. I think everyone here, owners, sailors, friends have a smile on their face. They are happy to be here, and we don't have to ruin it by going out when it is blowing too hard. At the same time, we are all here to race.
We are all getting used to this new rating system. Nobody knows about each other really. Ranger has been through this big refit, Hanuman has been a cruising boat since 2017 and Velsheda is Velsheda, they are solid as a rock. So, it going to be interesting."
Velsheda have the most experience here and the boat, owner and crew enjoy the stiff conditions expected.
"It is great to be coming back to fleet racing with two new or returning programmes. We have not changed much and are just putting in a few quiet sailing days to be ready for Thursday. We like the Bucket and the racing we do here. It is nice to get some reaching sails out and for our navigator Campbell (Field) to be challenged, we like the mix of races here and the conditions. We like the breeze even if the rating becomes a bit hurtful as it gets windier, so we need to get good starts and get away," concluded Tom Dodson, Velsheda's Kiwi tactician who himself returns to the famous J Class yacht after missing 2021 due to travel restrictions. He will be supported this season by British Olympian and match racer Andy Beadsworth.