Topaz tops J Class in Saint-Tropez as Svea swings the season
written by James Boyd, International Maxi Association
Saturday’s conclusion of Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez brought the 2018 season to a close for the magnificent J Class yachts.
The fourth and final regatta of the J Class season was a two horse race between the 1933 Charles Nicholson-designed Velsheda, one of the three original surviving Js, and Topaz, launched new in 2015 to a previously unbuilt 1935 Frank C Paine design. At Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez, the two Js were competing in the Modern IRC A fleet, against 21 of the world’s top contemporary Supermaxi, Maxi and Mini Maxi yachts.
After the first day of racing was cancelled due to Mistral conditions, the day two was held in ultra-light winds, enjoyed by neither of the J crews. “We had a super light day which was bad and we got swallowed in a hole,” recounted Topaz helmsman Peter Holmberg when they finished 19th to Velsheda’s 15th.
Velsheda was set on to the back foot when she was black flagged at the start of the next day’s race. Topaz also claimed Friday’s race between the Js, but Velsheda balanced the scorelines on the last day. As Velsheda’s tactician Tom Dodson put it: “We just decided to keep on doing what we normally do and hope it would come right.” And it did. On the final Saturday, racing in 10-14 knots, Velsheda finished fourth in IRC A, the top result of the Js all week, the 85-year-old lady impressively showing a clean pair of heels to most of the modern carbon fibre maxi fleet.
Despite being nerve-wracking, sailing in a large fleet ranging in size from a Baltic 130 to 60 footers, being part of the Cote d’Azur’s magnificent annual nautical spectacle was enjoyed by all. “Voiles de Saint-Tropez is an interesting, exciting, wild, wonderful festival of sailing with everything mixed in one bag,” recounted Holmberg. “It is very challenging for a J boat to get off the start line among 22 other IRC race boats, but our target was always Velsheda and trying to beat them. We had great racing.”
Dodson agreed: “It is always tricky in Saint-Tropez - they do things a little bit differently. But we had a choice of just racing with Topaz or getting in there and mixing it up. Ronald [de Waal, owner of Velsheda] likes a bit of action so he said ‘let’s have a go in the IRC modern fleet’. We were regretting it half way through, but the last day made up for it.”
At the regatta’s conclusion, Topaz prevailed, finishing ninth overall to Velsheda’s 13th in IRC A.
However, across the four events of the 2018 J Class season, it was Saint-Tropez absentee Svea that prevailed to win the Kohler Cup. This trophy, first awarded to the J Class in 2017, is named after Terry Kohler, former owner of North Sails, who had died the previous year.
In 2017 the Kohler Cup was won by Lionheart. This year it was claimed by the latest addition to the J Class fleet, Svea, a ‘Super J’, launched last year to a previously unbuilt 1937 design from Swede Tore Holm. Svea’s near perfect scoreline from March’s St Barth’s Bucket, followed by her winning September’s Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup in Porto Cervo the more slender margin of just one point, left her in a near unbeatable position in the accumulated points across the J Class season on which the Kohler Cup is scored.
“It is exciting that we won,” said Svea’s tactician Charlie Ogletree. “I am proud to say we have a great team and our owner-driver Tom Siebel steers every race, start to finish. To be part of that and to watch his success is really cool, especially when you are going up against the likes of Peter Holmberg and Ken Read [on Topaz] and Ronald [de Waal], who has been driving Velsheda for 20 years. I am very proud of that.” This was despite Siebel joking that being on the helm of Svea is like “driving the Titanic with a teaspoon.”
Ogletree continued: “We are still a new team and we made a bunch of changes to the boat over the winter and we are constantly looking to get better. To beat the benchmark team in the class [Velsheda] for us is a big accomplishment. I’m sure it will all be different next year because they will come back hard.”
Velsheda finished second overall. “Although there’s only been three Js racing this season, there hasn’t been any shortage of tussles between us and Svea and us and Topaz,” observed Tom Dodson of their season. “Every regatta has come down to the last race, which has been great. This year we have sailed in more general fleets, but we have enjoyed mixing it up.”
In third was Topaz, still very much on the learning curve with their campaign. As Peter Holmberg explained: “Our boat has not been optimised as much as the others have for racing. We came with the family wagon and took some scalps. To win against Velsheda and Svea has been wonderful, great for us. Our owner is as pleased as punch and excited for next year. Now we get to perhaps step up the racing program.”
The J Class is affiliated to the International Maxi Association, the official body that oversees maxi yacht racing globally. The J Class schedule for 2019 will be announced in due course.