The vibrant J/109 class in the Greater Dublin area starts its “One Design” season today with the two day Eastern Championship at the Royal Irish Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire. The class as a One-Design then goes through a busy summer including the Howth Wave Regatta at the beginning of June, eventually completing its programme with the Irish Nationals – again at Howth Yacht Club - on October 6th & 7th.
Between these three pillar events – and indeed before this weekend in the earlier part of the sailing years, and after the Nationals in October – this versatile boat finds a multiplicity of uses as a One Design, as the backbone of Dublin Bay SC Class 1, as an IRC-rated boat sailing under a number of handicap figures, as an ECHO-rated boat if needs be, and as an offshore racer with a proven and continuing record of success. In addition, if you’re so inclined, she can also be a comfortable performance cruiser which is a delight to sail. W M Nixon puts a fresh perspective on a very special boat.
When the hyper-competitive J/109 class puts to sea today from Dun Laoghaire Harbour to start their Eastern Championship with participation in the Dublin Bay SC Coastal Race, they’ll be heirs to a special and continuing tradition of one-design keelboat sailing which goes back 120 years. For it was in 1898 that the legendary Fife-designed Dublin Bay 25 ODs first raced.
With their jackyard topsail-setting gaff rig and sporting no less than three headsails, they may have been of a very different appearance to the straightforard sloop-rigged J/109s. But in terms of boat size and purpose, they were broadly similar, and so too were the Bermudan-rigged Dublin Bay 24s which succeeded the old and by now well-worn 25s in 1938.
However, as the order for the DB 24s had been placed with the builders in Scotland just as World War II of 1939-45 broke out, it was 1947 before the class were racing in full trim in Dublin Bay. But my word, once they were active, what superb service they gave in their long class racing careers from 1947 to 2004.
And in a sense, they were more genuinely representative of what the J/109s does now, as they were well capable of fast cruising, As for offshore racing, despite a ferocious RORC rating which penalised their elegantly long overhangs, one of them - Stephen O’Mara’s Zephyra sailed by Arthur Odbert - was overall winner of the very stormy RORC Irish Sea Race of 1963, a real slugfest of more than 200 miles.
Although the DB 24s kept going as a One-Design class through the turn of the Century, there’d been an attempt to replace them in the 1960s with an early similarly-sized totally glassfibre boat, the van de Stadt-designed Excalibur 36. But she proved too utterly and completely plastic for Dublin Bay tastes, and it wasn’t until the elegant yet practical J/Boat range first made its debut in America with the J/24 around 1976 – built by the Johnstone brothers in classic American can-do style in the family garage – that there were real hopes that something might in time appear with the special cachet of the DB 25 and the DB 24.
In the meantime, the Sigma 33 was fine for Dun Laoghaire in its day, but there were too many racing boats bigger and faster then it out on the bay for it to really capture the imagination, even if it upholds the finest Dublin Bay One Design traditions. Yet while the Sigma 33 was very firmly established in premier position for a long period, it took a couple of false starts before the J/109 of 2004 origins began to fulfill its true role as Dublin Bay’s premier One Design class, a position it now occupies with considerable style and a ferocious level of competitiveness.
So much so, in fact, that leading Cork sailor and former Olympian Mark Mansfield of UK Sailmakers was recently moved to comment that the level of top sailing in Dublin Bay J/109 and Class 1 racing could favourably withstand comparison with the higher echelons of sailing anywhere, a viewpoint which is reinforced by the fact that another top Cork sailor-cum-sailmaker, Maurice “The Prof” O’Connell of North Sails, is so deeply involved that North Sails are sponsoring the J/109 Eastern Championship in Dublin Bay this weekend, and the Nationals at Howth in October.
Competition at this level is reminiscent of the 1930s when the world’s hottest racing was in the International Six Metre class in both the Solent and on Long Island Sound, when it was said at both venues that the likely winner of the next race would be the boat with the newest headsail…
Certainly this weekend’s racing is expected to see the likes of Andrew Craig in Chimaera, the Goodbody family in White Mischief, and Andrew Algeo in Joggerknot vying for the honours, but unexpectedly there’s a significant absentee – current Irish champion Storm has stayed on in Scotland after collecting some serous silverware at the Kip Regatta over the early May Bank Holiday Weekend.
Originally the hyper-keen Kelly family of Rush had hoped to bring their immaculately-maintained boat home for the Eastern Championship before returning to Scotland to defend the Scottish Series title which made them the Afloat.ie “Sailors of the Month” for May 2017. But logistics are against them as this year’s month of May has only four weekends, so as Storm is going so well in Scottish waters that they’ve decided to keep her there until they return directly from the Scottish Series of May 24th to 27th to be in top form for the Wave Regatta at their home port of Howth from June 1st to 3rd, an event to which the J/109s are firmly committed.
In fact, the level of commitment of the Kelly family themselves is mighty impressive, and it gives us some insight into what goes on behind the scenes through the winter in order to maintain a boat to top racing standard. The Kellys are based in and around Rush in the heart of Fingal, and that very agricultural area is well-blessed in its availability of sheds big enough to accommodate a J/109 through the winter. Thus although she’s a 2008 boat, Storm is as good as new, and Ronan Kelly was telling me that though it took a while to get into the winter maintenance rhythm going this time round, the month of February 2018 became one of exceptional productivity in the shed. So as you observe Storm swanning along in elegant style on a summer’s day, think instead for a moment of a dark and very wintry February night up in the North County, and the voluntary hard work on Storm kept going by camaradarie and commitment.
Yet in talking to Ronan Kelly and any other dedicated J/109 sailor, the underlying impression is the sheer joy they have in finding a boat which so perfectly fits their needs for the best of sailing in their area. For sure there are others who will tell you that if you move up even a little in size and newness in the comprehensive J/Boat range, you might be impressed by the increase in comfort. But then you have to reminder that even modest size increases mean an exponential increase in cost.
Yet while a competitive J/109 may seem a costly proposition to sailors of more modest means – you could, for instance, buy a nice little second-hand cruiser for the price of a suit of black J/109 racing sails – a keen syndicate owner who is involved in one of the mid-fleet boats put it crisply into perspective by commenting:
“It’s not cheap, but it’s excellent value. And there’s currently no racing in Dublin Bay comparable with the J/109s, whether they’re doing one of their One Design championships, or whether they’re giving themselves the opportunity to race as part of Class I in Dublin Bay SC’s programme, which guarantees wonderful racing on Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons”.
They may be intense competitors afloat, but the J/09s’ shared enthusiasm blossoms into friendship and conviviality ashore, and with this year’s fleet pushing through the fifteen mark, we’re talking of quite a gathering of like-minded people, as the rules for the class in Ireland permit an all-up weight of 650 kilos for the crew in addition to the owner, which can mean an on-deck complement of seven to eight, and sometimes nine. However, as a reflection of the class’s family-oriented ethos, under the International Rules you’re allowed to carry an additional “lightweight person” not weighing more than 60 kilos (132 lbs), so while there may be modifications for dedicated national or other championship events, there’s a very human face to the regulations.
That said, in browsing through them I came across Rule 6.3 which will be of interest to those concerned about J/109s careering around the bay with their retractable bowsprits extended like the lances of knights of yore at a jousting tournament, for Rule 6.3 clearly states: “The bowsprit shall be retracted when not in the process of setting, flying or taking down the spinnaker. When approaching the weather mark without the spinnaker set, the bowsprit shall not be extended until the bow of the boat passes the mark. The penalty for failure to comply with this rule shall be one 360 degree turn taken before the finish of the race.”
Serious stuff perhaps, but while the J/109s are indeed serious in their competition, they look forward to their après sailing with all the enthusiasm of their top class. This weekend’s programme is both user-friendly in terms of time use and event design, and with sponsorship from the Porter House of Dingle Gin fame, plus North Sails and UK Sails and Kraken Rum, there’s every chance of quite a party in the Royal Irish YC tonight.
But they have to be serious in the sociability control area, for tomorrow morning with three races scheduled they’re going to have the addition experience of being video-coached by Prof O’Connell of North Sails, and as was discovered when he came to Howth recently with RIB and camera, he takes no prisoners when making his comments…..
With the success of Storm, Howth is seeing extra J/109 interest, and today’s fleet with include the peninsula port’s J/109 Indian (Colm Buckley & Simon Knowles), acquired last year from the ready pool of used J/109s available in the Solent area, while the busy fleet in the Irish Sea may have suffered the loss of Nigel Ingrams’ Just Jay in the destruction of Holyhead Marina in Storm Emma on March 1st, but he has leapt onto another horse with the acquisition of sister-ship Jetstream from Pwllheli.
However, the final word on the special attraction of the J/109 for sailing in the Dublin area deserves to be left with current class captain Andrew Craig, whose Chimaera will be one of the favourites for this weekend’s championship:
“The attraction is the diversity. Every so often we come together as a One-Design class as is seen this weekend, yet even this associates us fully in another classic with the Dublin Bay SC Saturday coastal race, as does the Wave Regatta with the Lambay Race at Howth. Only the Nationals are a total stand-alone event. At other times, everyone has their other interests which can be successfully incorporated into each boat’s preferred seasonal programme. Everything from the Nationals to the Beaufort Cup in Volvo Cork Week (won in 2016 by John Maybury’s J/109 Joker II skippered by Commandant Barry Byrne), to the Round Ireland or the Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Races or Calves Week or the Scottish Series, or cruising to West Cork and Kerry or the Lambay Race back on the East Coast– you’ll find our J/109s are doing these things as a class or on their own initiative. It makes for extremely interesting sailing sport with a wonderful diversity of people. And most of it is all happening very conveniently just down the road.”