The J Class musters the strongest racing fleet since the heady days of its landmark 2017 season as four yachts, Lionheart, Topaz, Svea and Velsheda are set to compete at the Superyacht Challenge Antigua.
But while it may be a welcome return to class racing at the high octane, cut and thrust competition which characterised the memorable season which encompassed regattas in Bermuda and a World Championship in Rhode Island, the J Class teams assembled in Antigua are anticipating an initial 'back to basics' steady approach for this first of two, back-to-back Caribbean regattas.
It is two years since the previously dominant world champions Lionheart raced in a J Class regatta, one and a half years for the newest J Class in the fleet Svea, and both have changes in key crew positions. Topaz's 2019 season was curtailed by a technical problem. Only Velsheda, the fleet's sole original 1933 built Charles Nicholson design, has continued to race and cruise year in year out.
This 10th Superyacht Challenge Antigua represents the first step on the pathway to next year's two showcase regattas in New Zealand during the America's Cup season. These are the pinnacle regattas which all the crews on the race docks in Antigua are talking about, aiming to reach their peak in terms of optimising their yachts and maximising their team performance on what remains probably the most physically demanding class of big yachts in the world. Rainbow and Hanuman are also in Antigua in cruising mode.
Pablo Ararte, who has been three years with the boat and shares the tactician/strategists roles this season with Kelvin Harrap on world champions Lionheart, reveals, "Our problem is we stopped and others have been sailing. With these two events for us this is a training week and Saint Barths Bucket is the real objective. Here we carry on the same plans and processes and to minimise the changes. We are doing fine. The boat and the sails are the same as in 2017 and our objective is New Zealand. Leading up to Bermuda and the worlds we had very good preparation and tried to always keep the same crew and so this will be our biggest challenge as a crew yet, getting ready for New Zealand next season. It all starts here. In some respects it is like starting from scratch. There are people still in the same jobs but, after all, this is a J Class and that means coordinating 35 people and two years away from it is a lot of time."
The fleet will compete on its own race area to the west of Cades Reef under the management of Principal Race Officer Stuart Childerley. He has promised to add some variety to a diet of up to eight windward-leeward races, possibly supplementing the 60 minute circuits with additional upwind or downwind legs to make best use of some of the passage out and back from the race course area, probably including one downwind start.
This will be the first regatta for the updated J Class rule. Teams are starting with an open mind regarding what will remain a work in progress, the rule certain to benefit progressively from performance data input from each race.
Ken Read notes, "Nobody really knows much about the new rule and how to set their boats up, whether to go heavy or light, lot of sail area or little. Nobody really knows so these two regattas will be good to suss it out. It will take some time to sort out for all the boats."
The Topaz crew are delighted to be back on the water and are looking to underline their steady improvements accrued since 2017. America's Cup winner Peter Holmberg leads the crew as skipper-helm with Nacho Postigo and Wouter Verbraak sharing strategy/navigator roles in the afterguard.
"We are so excited to go racing." Says Topaz's boat captain Rom Loopik, "When you have not been doing much for a while it is not easy to get straight back into it. The owners are super happy. The objective is to win, of course it is. But with four boats racing again that is not going to be easy. Hopefully the tactical side of it will be good. We have been out on the race course doing our homework, how far to go this way and that way and where the coral heads."
Velsheda's longtime tactician Tom Dodson considers the race area will offer plenty to challenge afterguards, owners and crews:
"We used to do a lot here in Antigua, but mostly reaching races and against mainly against Ranger so racing down off the south of the Island will be interesting. There is a fair bit of convergence and so you will have to pick a side. You can't sail up the middle. We have a fair idea what to do but can't possibly say." Dodson confirms,
"This is the only racing we do together this season so we have to make the most of it." He adds, " We are taking it seriously with the top team we will have in New Zealand on board here, so we will just keep chipping away with the crew work, keeping improving, moding the boat. We never stop learning and we have spent a couple of days tuning this new rigging, getting the mast bend matching the mainsail. Now we need to click back into 'fleet racing' mode, and so programming our strategy and tactics. Ronald gets a lot of satisfaction from this and is well clicked in with the trimmers and is learning faster than any of us even if he has been doing this a long time."
Racing starts Thursday at 1100 hrs local time with two races each day.