Islander on board at Newport’s J Class Regatta
For many people, sailboat racing is not much of a spectator sport. Even die-hard racers will acknowledge that there is more in participation than watching. But people in Jamestown who were astute enough to cast their eyes out on Narragansett Bay last week were rewarded with the spectacle of two of the most impressive yachts ever built engaging in a series of duals over the course of several afternoons.
The J Class Association Regatta was coordinated by Sail Newport and pitted Velsheda, constructed in the 1930s but sailing in these waters for the first time, against Ranger, constructed in 2003 based on the plans for its legendary namesake. The majestic 200-ton boats are approximately 130 feet long.
Jamestown resident Steve Frary, a friend of the Herreshoff Museum in Bristol, sailed on Ranger for the June 16 race.
“The Herreshoff Museum had a charity gala a couple of weeks ago,” Frary said. “Part of that was an auction. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to sail on a J Boat. The bidding was spirited and I went home with the prize.”
Frary, who grew up in Barrington, is the owner of a 28-foot Herreshoff-Stuart knockabout, a replica daysailer built by Eddy and Duff, which is moored in the waters off Jamestown. “We race on Tuesday nights with the Jamestown Yacht Club,” he said.
Given the sheer size of the yachts and the enormous load on their huge sails and masts, J Class yachts are difficult to sail and can be dangerous. Frary was happy to put himself in the hands of the experienced sailors on board. “It was a very professional crew,” he said. “Many of the crew were from the Alinghi entry in the America’s Cup. The boat was extremely well managed and well run. I never felt concerned, but I felt in awe of the scale; very respectful.”
Ranger had a crew of about 30 professionals for the race, and several guests like Frary who mostly “stayed out of the way.” America’s Cup veterans Brad Butterworth and Josh Belsky were among the well-known professionals who were part of the Ranger crew.
According to Frary, the crew of Ranger was keenly aware of the competition. “They were very serious, very focused on the race,” he said. “It was a no nonsense event.”
Frary’s greatest thrill came when Ranger rounded Gould Island to head north toward the Newport Bridge. “The J Class Association generously offered to put my wife Tricia and my kids Elizabeth and Nathaniel on Rum Runner,” he said. “I got a chance to say hello up close and personal as we raced by on Ranger. My kids were waving wildly. I think it must have been a real thrill for my kids.” Rum Runner was a spectator boat.
The J Class Regatta validated Frary’s decision to move to Jamestown two years ago. “The event on Ranger was exactly why you want to live here,” he said. “Not even getting a ride on it, but just getting the opportunity to see it.”
The regatta schedule called for one race per day between June 15 and June 19, but inclement weather on June 17 forced postponement and resulted in two races being held the following day.
Although it was expected that the newer, larger Ranger would prevail – and it did – the racing was competitive and resulted in several close finishes.
Earle Williams, skipper and helmsman on Ranger, was extremely satisfied with the outcome and the event in general. “It’s been a fantastically run regatta,” he said. “I was really actually surprised by the interest in the J field, but they’re wonderful boats. [Newport] is Ranger’s hometown, going back to the 1930s, so that’s fantastic.”
“The racing was extremely well organized,” Williams added. “At the end it was another great J regatta, and it’s a thrill to be here.”
Tom Dodson was the tactician on Velsheda. “We weren’t very competitive on the starts,” he said. “That’s our story for the week. We need to work on that for the future.”
Despite his overall disappointment in Velsheda’s performance, Dodson was high on the regatta. “We’re very keen to come back here and sail again,” he said. “The people here have been great to us. We sail all over the world and this is the best I’d say. The area is perfect for these boats. You’ve got a great history here.”
The steel-hulled Velsheda was built by Camper & Nicholson in 1933 for Woolworth’s owner, W.L. Stephenson. It won a number of races, but by 1937 she had become derelict. She was rescued and retrofitted in 1984 and resumed racing.
The original Ranger successfully defended the America’s Cup against Endeavour II in 1937. Her successorisaJClass-approved replica rebuild, and was constructed in Denmark according to the original plan lines with an eye toward recreating the look of the legendary J Class yachts.
From Newport, Ranger and Velsheda head to New York City for another series of match races before returning to this area to compete in the Newport Bucket Regatta in August.