The J Yachts

By John Hanks III

The J yachts came about, believe it or not, because yachtsmen of the late 1920s felt that

the yachts sailing for the America’s Cup had gotten too big and were becoming too

unstable. The prevalent “skimming dish” designs were considered suitable for light to

moderate wind speeds only. As a consequence the J Class was adopted to sail in the

America’s Cup races in the 1930s and beyond.

The J yachts were designed to the American Universal Rule. This rule embodies a

formula that considers, among other things, the waterline length, sail area, and,

displacement to reach a specified answer. This allows the designers to change the hull

shape and sail area within certain restrictions. The boats had to have a waterline length of

76 to 87 feet and were allowed to displace over 160 tons. The resulting yachts were huge

by today’s standards, with the largest having and overall length of over 135 feet and

masts that towered over 150 feet above the deck. (see photo #1)

The development of the Js produced a class of yachts that were large, powerful, and fast.

They had long overhangs, massive rigs, and flowing lines. In short, they were great and

elegant sailing machines, generating a mystique that has carried through to the present

day. I ask you-who can look at a J on the water and not get goose bumps?

Ten yachts were built to the J Class specifications between 1930 and 1937, six in

America and four in Britain. In addition, six other large yachts sailing at the time had

their sail plans altered to convert them to the J Class (Vanitie and Resolute in America;

and White Heather II, Britannia, Astra, and Candida in Britain).While technically

considered Js, these converted yachts did not compete in any of the America’s Cup trials

or the final races, but rather sailed in local and regional regattas with the America’s Cup


The Js employed the latest in metallurgy and yacht design, and were responsible for

several innovations. All but one of the American boats were built of steel above the

waterlines and Tobin bronze below, while the British boats were mostly built of steel.

Bronze was used for the underwater portion of the hull on the American boats after tank

testing showed that polished bronze had 10% less surface drag in the water than painted

steel. Typically the American yachtsmen wanted every advantage that they could get, and

they could afford the additional cost of the bronze hull. The lone all steel American yacht

was Ranger, built in 1937 at the depth of the Depression, when money was tight even for

the wealthiest yachtsmen.

The American J Enterprise was the first big yacht to use an aluminum mast. Her original

mast was spruce and weighed some 5,000 lb., while the aluminum one weighed a mere

4,000 lb. That 1,000 lb. savings greatly improved her performance. Another innovation in

Enterprise’s rig was the “Park Avenue” boom. This was triangular in cross section with

the top of the boom flat and the apex of the triangle pointed down at the deck. The boom

was wide enough (about 4 ft. maximum) so that the foot of the main sail could be shaped

using a series of tracks that ran across the boom. This allowed the crew to control the

shape of the sail at the foot, improving the drive in the bottom third of the sail. Other

yachts accomplished the same thing with flexible aluminum booms which had a strut and

rigging system, which allowed the crew to bend the boom to achieve the desired sail


Other improvements in yachts design occurred during the life of the Js. In 1930

Wheetamoe used just two jibs instead of the traditional triple head rig popular at the time.

The genoa jib was also greatly improved on the Js, increasing in size and progressing

toward the shape that we see today. The spinnakers also evolved during the 1930s,

culminating in the 18,000 sq. ft. monster used on Ranger in 1937. Remember that the J

sails were made of cotton rather than the synthetic fabrics that we have today, so the

typical 5,000 sq. ft. mainsail weighed about 2,000 pounds. It is no wonder that the Js

required a crew of about 35 professional sailors.

Tank testing also became much more important during the J era. It had been used

previously by designers but had been viewed with some skepticism. All of the J design

work used tank testing to some extent but in 1937 the designers of Ranger used the

testing results to select the final design. The design team stated, without the test tank

results, they would otherwise not have selected the final design for Ranger because the

design was sufficiently different from what they accustomed to seeing. In the end, Ranger

proved to be so fast that she was almost unbeatable.

The Js that competed in the 1930 America’s Cup defender trials were Weetamoe

(designed by Clinton Crane), Enterprise (designed by W. Starling Burgess), Yankee

(designed by Frank C. Paine, and Whirlwind (designed by L Francis Herreshoff). The

yacht selected to defend the Cup would sail against the British challenger, Shamrock V,

(designed by Charles Nicholson). The defender trials quickly demonstrated that

Enterprise and Yankee were the faster yachts. In fact the two were so closely matched

that the final selection was not possible until the very last race had been completed, with

Enterprise edging out Yankee by a very slim margin.

The America’s Cup races were sailed in September 1930, with Shamrock V challenging

Enterprise for the “Old Mug”. Unfortunately for Sir Thomas Lipton, his fifth challenge

for the Cup, was no more successful than his previous four. Shamrock V was beaten in

four straight races in the best of seven series by the American yacht Enterprise.

In 1934 the British again challenged for the America’s Cup. This time, T. O. M. Sopwith,

the famous WW I aircraft manufacturer, had Charles Nicholson design a new J,

Endeavour, and sailed across the Atlantic to challenge for the Cup. The American

syndicate, headed by Harold Vanderbilt had W. Starling Burgess design a new J,

Rainbow, for the 1934 Cup series. The defender series, that year, was more of a tune-up

session than a serious defender trial since neither of the older yachts – Yankee and

Weetamoe – were a serious challenge to Rainbow.

September 1934 saw the two magnificent Js, Endeavour and Rainbow, come together off

Newport to sail for the America’s Cup. This time the Americans were in for a little

surprise, the British had built a truly fast boat. Endeavour won the first two races and

appeared to be on the way to winning the Cup for England. In the third race, however

Rainbow came back to win and carried her momentum through the next three races to

retain the Cup for America. This was probably the first time that a faster yacht had lost to

a slower but better sailed competitor.

The 1937 America’s Cup challenge again produced two new Js, the American yacht

Ranger, designed by W. Starling Burgess and Olin J. Stephens, and the British challenger

Endeavour II, designed by Charles Nicholson. The defender trials pitted Ranger against

Rainbow and Yankee and demonstrated that Ranger was by far the superior yacht. She

easily defeated the other two by wide margins for the right to defend the Cup.

In late July and early August Ranger met Endeavour II for the best of seven series. Again

Ranger demonstrated her superior speed by defeating Endeavour II in four straight races.

Ranger won the first two by margins of almost 20 minutes each, and it is rumored that

Harold Vanderbilt slowed Ranger down in the last two races to keep the finishes closer.

Sadly, this was the last time that the magnificent Js would sail for the America’s Cup.

Most of the Js only sailed for one season. Enterprise and Whirlwind were laid up after the

1930 America’s Cup series, never to be sailed again. Yankee sailed for several more

years and even sailed crossed the Atlantic in the summer of 1935, to participate in the

Royal Yacht Squadron’s summer cruise in England. All of the remaining American Js

were laid up following the 1937 America’s Cup series, never to sail again. Weetamoe

was broken up in May 1938. Ranger, the greatest J ever built, sailed only four months.

She was launched in May 1937 and laid up in August of the same year. She survived until

WW II began, at which time she was broken up, with her materials contributing to the

war effort.

By the time the next Cup races were scheduled in 1940, war in Europe had broken out

and priorities had shifted from friendly yacht racing to a life and death struggle for

survival. All of the remaining American Js were broken up to feed the U.S. industrial war

needs. In England, however, only Endeavour II did not outlive the war. Endeavour and

Shamrock V both survived, as well as a third J, Velshida. All three of these original Js

have been restored and are sailing today.

When the America’s Cup racing resumed in 1958, time and progress had passed the Js

by. They were too big and too expensive to build and race, so a smaller class of less

costly yachts was designated to be sailed in the America’s Cup competitions. The 12

Meter era was born and the Js faded into history.

As a footnote, the three remaining Js have created so much interest in the last ten years or

so that new Js have been built. Replicas of Rainbow, Ranger and Endeavour II have been

built as well as several designs that were designed for the America’s Cup but never built.

Lionheart, and Chevyo were built from two of the five designs in the series that were

tested for Ranger and Seva was the intended Swedish design to challenge in 1940. All of

the original and the new Js sail together at various events around the world throughout

the year. All of them were built to meet current safety standards for charter and are

available for charter if you are so inclined. The modern J web site is .

Although most of the original Js have passed on into history, they will continue to live on

in the form of R/C models. Appropriately enough, the models are as large and impressive

as the full size yachts are in real life. That is what makes the J Class so unique in the


Photo #1 – Ranger under sail in 1937. Photo by Morris Rosenfeld

Photo #1 – Ranger under sail in 1937. Photo by Morris Rosenfeld