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
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 www.amyajclass.com .
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