J Class Newport Regatta Brings Yachting History to Life

Thursday, 30 June 2011 17:08

Ranger’s competitive spirit was on full display right from the start of race one. In fact, she locked Velsheda out as the yachts approached the start line. Just off Fort Adams, Ranger steered close to the committee boat, leaving no room for Velsheda between them. Velsheda had no choice but to jibe and come back around to cross the line. The 16-knot northerly winds soon filled her sails and let her show off her red, white, and blue spinnaker. But they weren’t enough for Velsheda to close the distance, and Ranger crossed the finish line one minute and 16 seconds ahead of her.

However, after handicapping, the official time difference was slashed to a mere second. (Ranger is larger, 136 feet vs. 129 feet, so she yields some points. In addition, Ranger had a professional steering much of the time. J Class rules do allow professionals at the helm, adding a penalty of about 36 seconds per hour if they steer more than 80 percent of the race.)

Sixteen-knot southerly winds kicked up the bay and the waters offshore for the second race day, to the great delight of spectators and shutterbugs alike. Unfortunately, Velsheda’s vocal fans were once again disappointed, as Ranger grabbed a lead straight away. Crewmembers from both yachts readily conceded that whichever yacht got off to a better start each day would likely get the win. To be fair, Velsheda did close much of what had been about a four boatlength lead by Ranger. But she caught bad air from Ranger toward the end of the race. She wisely tacked twice to counter the effects and finished 27 seconds behind on corrected time. (No professional penalties this time, however, as Ranger raced under amateur status.)

Ranger’s crew was rarin’ to go for race three, with Velsheda’s crew looking for their first win. Mother Nature happened to have other plans, unfortunately, delaying the preparations with thunder and dramatic downpours. The storms convinced , the race authority, to postpone things to the following day, making it a two-race afternoon. Even if the thunderstorms hadn’t been present, the race still would have been postponed due to winds gusting upwards of 30 knots.

The race course took Ranger up and down Narragansett Bay past Castle Hill, a favorite spot for spectating.

Now, Velsheda and Ranger have each faced tough conditions in prior races, including sustained 27-knot winds in Antigua. While the yachts and their gear stood up to the challenge in the islands, the race cancellation wasn’t entirely with comfort of mind. Picture 10,000 square feet of spinnaker straining off a 175-foot-high mast… you can just hear the groan of the lines, too.

Conditions settled down a bit for the following day. In fact, while the winds were the same as they were on race day two, ocean swells made things more challenging for both crews and spectators. Suffice it to say that a few of the VIP boats barely made it into the bay before some guests turned green.

The media boats, however, bounced around on six-foot-plus waves offshore. There they watched Ranger maintain the five-boatlength lead she established shortly after the start. When Ranger crossed the finish line ahead of Velsheda to take a 3-0 lead, the winner’s trophy was all but officially hers.

All the more reason why some were puzzled by Ranger’s behavior at the start of race four. She pulled the same maneuver as she did in race one, squeezing Velsheda out at the starting line. Bad sportsmanship? No, it’s a standard racing tactic. But it elicited a lot of sympathy for Velsheda as she finished almost three minutes behind.

All was not ultimately lost for Velsheda. She got off to a good start for race five, in light air. Her lead widened within minutes, as Ranger’s spinnaker somehow got caught high up the mast and ripped. The crew quickly lowered the torn sail and raised a new one. But Velsheda’s early lead, plus the light air dying down to barely any motion, ensured Velsheda the win, eliminating a sweep.

What’s next for the two yachts? Word has it that a race is being organized for New York City later this summer. After that, it’s off to the UK. Regardless, extensive media coverage of the Newport event, including both web and TV, has already taken the race to those shores and beyond. As executive director of Sail Newport Brad Read said, “We didn’t just bring J Class sailing to Rhode Island, we brought it to the world.”

Posted: 2011-06-28 08:38:01