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Sparkman & Stephens: The return of the J Class

Sparkman & Stephens Poised to Resurrect the Majestic J Class Racers S&S analyzes plans and model-test data for seven hulls.

(May 3, 2007) Like the creators of the fictional Jurassic Park who used DNA to reconstitute dinosaurs, the renowned yacht design firm Sparkman & Stephens is poised to reconstitute the majestic J Class racers that stalked the America's Cup courses off Newport in the 1930s.

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Riding a recent surge of interest in the class, S&S is reanalyzing the plans and model-test data - the DNA of the J Class as it were - it used in the development of 1937 America's Cup winner Ranger. The renewed interest in these sublimely beautiful, supremely powerful racing yachts, coupled with new regulations established by the J Class Association, has turned what was historically cherished intellectual property into new opportunities for interested clients.

“We’ve been contacted by several serious yachtsmen about building J Class yachts for racing, cruising and charter,” says S&S President Greg Matzat. “We believe momentum is building toward creation of more of these magnificent vessels.”

Anyone lucky enough to be on the Solent between mainland England and the Isle of Wight in August 2001, witnessed a sight unparalleled in the annals of yachting: the three surviving J Class yachts - Endeavour, Shamrock V and Velsheda - engaged in a series of races celebrating the America’s Cup Jubilee.

The Jubilee brought together what many believe was the most impressive fleet of classic and modern yachts and yachting luminaries the sport has ever seen. But for all the historical horsepower on display that week, nothing stirred the hearts and minds of sailors like the sight of the mighty J’s dicing in the choppy waters off Cowes. One could only imagine what a fleet of seven or eight J’s with all their power and grace might look like converging on a weather mark or flying downwind for the gun with thousands of square feet of sail filling the horizon. Today, S&S is poised to make that dream a reality.

In 2000, the owners of the existing J Class yachts formed an association to promote, protect, and develop the interests of the group. In 2003, a yachtsman named John Williams launched a version of Ranger. She was the first to be built to the new rules that govern the class. In a more recent indicator of rising interest in the class, Netscape founder James Clark announced he has commissioned Royal Huisman Shipyard in the Netherlands to build a replica of Endeavour II, the British yacht that lost to Ranger in the 1937 Cup.

The J Class was based on the Universal Rule, which was popular among large yacht sailors in the first third of the 20th century. The Universal Rule took into account length, sail area and displacement. The J Class had a maximum rating of 76 feet under the Universal Rule and a maximum allowable waterline length of 87.08 feet. The J Class existed for just a short time, 1930 to 1937, and only 10 J Class yachts were built, with Endeavour, Shamrock V, and Velsheda the only originals to survive terminal neglect or the scrap yard.

As part of its ongoing efforts to promote the class, the J Class Association announced not long ago that it will allow newly constructed J Class yachts to be members and race, provided they use original pre-1939 lines plans. The association also will allow aluminum hull construction and will race under a handicap system.

During the 1930s, it was found that the longest-waterline boats were the fastest. Both Ranger and Endeavour II were built to the maximum waterline length of 87 feet. In addition to the 10 J boats built, there are pre-1939 lines for eight additional hulls, all of which have 87-foot waterlines. Of the eight, Sparkman & Stephens owns the designs to seven, thanks largely to the model-testing program the firm undertook with Starling Burgess during the development of Ranger.

The models were given Sparkman & Stephens design numbers 77-A through 77-F, and 77CE. While the models all had 87-foot waterlines, they had different beams, displacements, longitudinal centers of buoyancy, prismatic coefficients, and wetted areas. These so called Ranger models also offer new J boat owners more internal volume with their long waterlines than the existing J boats Endeavour, Shamrock V and Velsheda, providing more accommodations for cruising and charters.

As with modern America’s Cup yachts, the J Class designs were optimized for venue-specific sailing conditions. The final lines for Ranger were derived from model 77-C which was believed to be the best suited for racing in Newport where summer winds are light and seas relatively small. Ranger’s lines were modified though from the model lines, most noticeably in the bow. The model 77-C did not have the ”hooked bow” found on Ranger.

The other lines in the S&S model series performed better in different wind and sea conditions. S&S has digitized all of the model lines and has been making new performance studies and comparisons using modern velocity prediction computer programs and comparing these results to the original model test results.

According to Matzat, S&S’s studies show that all of the models lines will provide fast boats, but the differences offer potential customers the ability to select the lines that best meet their performance and other requirements. “Basically, all the boats we’ve analyzed probably could have beat Endeavour II as Ranger did,” says Matzat.

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